The crisis in “Everything Went Fine” begins in the first moment. Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) sits at a table in her apartment, working. The phone rings. She listens to the caller, whom we don’t hear. She asks, “When? Where?” and then promptly races out the door. Her father has had a stroke, and the caller is her sister Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas), who is waiting at the hospital. The sisters hasten to ICU to check on him. The urgency and crisis leave no room for what you’d call backstory. Instead, we are left to assemble who is who, what is what, and what might be happening. This approach is extremely effective and gives the film, directed by the prolific and versatile François Ozon, a sense of realism, of high stakes but a human-sized situation. Based on the autobiographical book Everything Went Well by the late Emmanuèle Bernheim (a frequent Ozon collaborator), “Everything Went Fine” is an emotional and complex portrait of a family in crisis, the father’s stroke exposing underlying cracks, old pains, new anxieties.
Emmanuèle and Pascale have a close relationship, complete with conversations held via ESP (one glance is an entire conversation, no words necessary), but sparked with resentments dating from childhood. Pascale is raising two children, and Emmanuèle is a novelist, married to Serge (a film curator, busy planning a Luis Buñuel festival). André, their elderly father, played by André Dussollier (a familiar face), now paralyzed on one side, is cantankerous and unpredictable in his illness. Judging from a couple of flashbacks, impressionistically presented in the way fragments of memory operate, he was a volatile, mean, and self-absorbed dad. (“He was a bad father,” says Emmanuèle, “but I love him.”) Their mother, played by Charlotte Rampling, was a sculptor before arthritis and Parkinson’s ruined her hands. She suffered from debilitating depression her whole life and is a peripheral yet important figure, the decades of anguish etched into her face, shadowing her eyes. The sisters are in charge of their father’s recovery.
Things take a turn when André requests that Emmanuèle help him die. Emmanuèle, who got the brunt of his cruel comments growing up, feels an obligation, so she makes inquiries. It’s a dangerous proposition. He would need to be transported to Switzerland for the “right to die with dignity.” Emmanuèle contacts a retired doctor who works at a clinic in Switzerland, and this doctor (played by the great Hanna Schygulla) lays out the options. What started with fairly standard family-illness drama swerves into something entirely different.
Emmanuèle Bernheim died in 2017. She was the child of well-to-do artistic parents, an art collector father, and a sculptress mother (reflected in the film adaptation). A prize-winning novelist, she also wrote multiple screenplays with Ozon—”Under the Sand” (2000), “Swimming Pool” (2003), “5×2” (2004), and “Ricky” (2009). Claire Denis adapted her novel “Friday Night” into a film (2002) starring Valérie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon. Bernheim also wrote for television. Her work is dense and rich, filled with human details, all of which can be seen and felt in the films she wrote. The details in “Everything Went Fine” have the unmistakable ring of reality. These details don’t lead anywhere earth-shattering—like the salmon sandwich with a bite out of it, like Emmanuèle’s contact lenses, like the Buñuel festival—but feel very real, the things you notice when life gets intense when everything shifts. There’s a certain kind of clarity that comes. Things show up in juxtaposition, almost like life itself becomes a literary conceit. These elements don’t scream “Symbols!” but feel, instead, like the texture of life as it is lived.
Life, however, does go on, simultaneous with the crisis. Andre’s grandson gives a music recital. Emmanuèle visits a friend and swims in the freezing ocean, feeling guilty for taking time away from her father. There are visits to the mother, who is almost unreachable in her silent endurance. There are also random bursts of laughter when things get absurd. The small prickly interactions between the sisters are part of life, nothing ruinous or final. This is how families are. Andre is very difficult, and the flashbacks are painful. (“Stupid girl,” he says to child Emmanuèle when she gets confused reading a road map. Or, “I see you’re stuffing your face again” as Emmanuèle innocently eats a piece of bread.) Ozon and Bernheim allow the dad to be complex. Childhood memories can be painful, but illnesses can provide perspective. You rally around. This is a very sensitive and soft film, delicately observed, and easy in its presentation.
André’s wish to die is just a small part of the tapestry of life. Nobody is giving a self-consciously “great” performance; nobody reaches for the brass ring. This set is a believable family. Marceau is fully alive onscreen, fluctuating between trouble-shooting her dad’s right to die, haunted by ambivalence, and dealing with preparations (setting up his will, etc.) When she needs to weep, she hides in a bathroom stall. Grief, fear, and anger emanate from Dussollier’s face, and his tenderness is as surprising as it is frustrating. Maybe his children could have used that tenderness when they were small. But hindsight is not 20/20. André lived a privileged life, but there are complexities, all revealing themselves slowly over the film, adding shadings to the character People are not just one thing. Rampling is so lost in silent agony that she’s breathtaking in her first appearance. It’s like her soul has sunken into a hole. In one flashback, she is seen working in her studio, explaining to Emmanuèle her artistic process, and it’s heartbreaking to consider what will come next for her. Rampling is one of our greatest actresses.
It is so good to see Hanna Schygulla. She’s in the film briefly, but she casts a long shadow. Her energy is almost beatific, and the smile on her face comes from deep in her heart. She’s a guide, a soother, and a healer. She tells Emmanuèle a story about when the wife of one of her clients put on a red dress one day. This story, and the simple way Schygulla told it, brought me to tears. Having elderly parents, watching them transform, the roles reversing, and dealing with mortality—theirs and yours—is something no one can prepare for. It’s funny, the things that end up mattering, the things that “stick” when life moves out with the tide.
A sandwich with a bite out of it.
A swim in icy cold water.
The tender way a difficult father says, “… My daughter …”
A red dress.
Now playing in theaters.