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HomeentertainmentMovie News‘The Successor’ Review: A Dark and Distressing Psychological Thriller With Too Much...

‘The Successor’ Review: A Dark and Distressing Psychological Thriller With Too Much Faulty Logic

French actor turned director Xavier Legrand’s superbly performed first feature, Custody, was the kind of debut that budding filmmakers can only dream about. After premiering in Venice in 2017, where it won the Silver Lion, it went on to scoop up a slew of other prizes that culminated with four César Awards in France, including best picture.

In such instances, there’s always a risk of a sophomore slump, though that’s not really the term to apply to Legrand’s second movie, The Successor (Le Successeur), a bleak and tormented psychological thriller that made its world premiere in competition at San Sebastian. Let’s call it a case of swinging for the fences and hitting a foul ball that lands somewhere far off in the upper tiers, so much does this ambitious and well-made but extremely flawed film miss its mark.

The Successsor

The Bottom Line Too crazy to be true.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection)
Cast: Marc-André Grondin, Yves Jacques, Louis Champagne, Anne-Elisabeth Bossé, Blandine Bury, Laëtitia Isambert
Director: Xavier Legrand
Screenwriters: Xavier Legrand, Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf; based on the novel L’Ascendant by Alexandre Postel
1 hour 52 minutes

Adapted by Legrand and Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf from Alexandre Postel’s 2015 novel, L’Ascendant (a title that can mean both ascending and forebearer), the story takes so many unexpected and sometimes inconceivable turns that you need to have an awfully high credulity level to accept what happens. Those afraid of spoilers should stop reading now, because it’s impossible to discuss The Successor without revealing a few of its major twists (of which there are at least four or five).

The film kicks off with a glitzy Paris fashion show for the Maison Orsini, a high-profile luxury brand whose latest artistic director, Ellias (Marc-André Grondin), is making his big bow. The show is a hit, although Ellias — a brilliant control freak who, both in dress and attitude, seems to be modeled on Balenciaga’s current artistic director, Demna Gvasalia — suffers from regular panic attacks, which could be attributed to the fact that he’s been long estranged from his father, Jean-Jacques, who lives back in their native Montreal.

While posing a few days later for his first major photo shoot, Ellias learns that his dad has died of a heart attack, prompting him to take a week off so he can go back to Canada and deal with all the administrative stuff, such as arranging the funeral and selling the house. We never learn why, exactly, Ellias hasn’t spoken to Jean-Jacques in decades, and we expect to uncover some kind of childhood trauma during the trip. Indeed, in its opening scenes, the film plays like an intimate tale of a son returning home to face the demons of his past, discovering more about himself, and his father, in the process.

That’s sort of what happens in The Successor, but not at all in the way you might think. While looking around his dad’s modest bungalow in the snow-covered Montreal suburbs, Ellias comes across something odd: a locked door to the basement. He plans to give the house to a charity, and therefore needs to provide a full inventory of what’s in it, which means he has to get down to that basement. Meanwhile, his father’s best and only friend, Dominique (Yves Jacques), shows up on the doorstep, kindly introducing himself and hoping that he and Ellias can organize Jean-Jacques’ funeral together. Perhaps his dad wasn’t such a bad guy after all?

Wishful thinking. Soon enough, Ellias gets his hand on the key, and what started off as a family drama about mourning quickly veers into horror film territory when he heads down the basement stairs and discovers another locked door, behind which lies a secret tunnel leading to a secret room, where a young woman (Laëtitia Isambert) has been sequestered — clearly for a very long time.

Ellias freaks out, which is normal. But what he does next defies reason, at least for most of us. Rather than calling the cops and freeing his dad’s prisoner, he decides to cover up the incident, assumedly to prevent his fashion career from being tarnished. This makes no sense whatsoever: Ellias loathed his father. He seethes whenever the old man is mentioned, and he’s so estranged from him that nobody would ever connect Ellias to such a heinous crime. And yet he decides to keep the whole thing under wraps.

From then on, The Successor doesn’t merely jump the shark — it jumps back in the water and rides the shark around several times before drowning. More crazy twists happen, some of them involving the sweet and sympathetic Dominique, all of them prompted by Ellias’ illogical behavior and growing desperation, which reaches melodramatic levels in the final act. By that point, many a viewer will have abandoned the famous designer to the fate he seems miserably destined for.

It’s fairly clear what Legrand is trying to say here: that the sins of the father, however monstrous, will inevitably be repeated by their offspring despite all the distance that’s been put between them. (The theme of abuse was at the heart of Custody, which oscillated between drama and horror movie tropes as well.) The filmmaker hints at this legacy, such as in how Ellias’ studied Parisian accent slips back into Quebecois as he spends more time back home. Grondin (C.R.A.Z.Y.) is good in those scenes, portraying a man bearing all the weight of his family on his shoulders, and finally not being able to shoulder it.

The other performances are strong as well, and Legrand once again proves himself to be a solid director of actors and a sturdy technician, working with cinematographer Nathalie Durand to create a realistic ambience that they manage to sustain until the bitter end. How things happen in The Successor is much less of a problem than what happens, and also why they happen. The film attempts to address some of those questions, delving into the terrible history of depravity that poor Ellias has inherited and must face up to. But the sheer unlikelihood of the story will leave many of us asking one final question: WTF?

Full credits

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection)
Production companies: KG Productions, Metafilms, Stenola Productions
Cast: Marc-André Grondin, Yves Jacques, Louis Champagne, Anne-Elisabeth Bossé, Blandine Bury, Laëtitia Isambert
Director: Xavier Legrand
Screenwriters: Xavier Legrand, Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf, based on the novel “L’Ascendant” by Alexandre Postel
Producers: Alexandre Gavras, Sylvain Corbeil, Anton Iffland Stettner, Eva Kuperman
Cinematographer: Nathalie Durand
Production designer: Sylvain Lemaitre
Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos
Composer: SebastiAn
Sales: MK2
In French, English
1 hour 52 minutes

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