The French actor was director Xavier Legrand’s excellently executed first feature film, Guardianship, was the kind of debut that aspiring filmmakers can only dream of. After premiering in Venice in 2017, where it won the Silver Lion, the film picked up a slew of other awards, culminating in four César Awards in France, including Best Film.
In such cases, there’s always a risk of a sophomoric slump, although that’s not really the term that applies to Legrand’s second film. The successor (The successor), a bleak and tormented psychological thriller that had its world premiere at a competition in San Sebastian. Let’s call it a case of swinging for the fences and hitting a foul ball that lands somewhere far away in the upper echelons, to that extent this ambitious and well-made but deeply flawed film misses the mark.
It comes down to
Too crazy to be true.
Adapted by Legrand and Dominick Parenteau-Lebeuf from Alexandre Postel’s 2015 novel, The Ascendant (a title that can mean both ascendant and precursor), the story takes so many unexpected and sometimes unimaginable turns that you have to have an extremely high level of credulity to accept what is happening. Those afraid of spoilers should stop reading now as it is impossible to discuss The successor without revealing some of the key twists (of which there are at least four or five).
The film opens with a glitzy Parisian fashion show for Maison Orsini, a high-profile luxury brand whose newest artistic director, Ellias (Marc-André Grondin), takes his grand bow. The show is a hit, although Ellias – a brilliant control freak who appears to be modeled in both clothing and attitude on Balenciaga’s current artistic director, Demna Gvasalia – regularly suffers from panic attacks, which can be attributed to the fact that he has been living for a long time estranged from his father, Jean-Jacques, who lives in their native Montreal.
While posing for his first major photo shoot a few days later, Ellias learns that his father 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 matters such as arranging of the funeral and the sale of the house. We never find out why Ellias hasn’t spoken to Jean-Jacques in decades, and we expect the journey to reveal some sort of childhood trauma. Indeed, in its opening scenes, the film plays like an intimate story of a son returning home to face the demons of his past and discovering more about himself and his father in the process.
That’s pretty much what happens in The successor, but not at all in the way you might think. While looking around his father’s modest bungalow in the snow-covered suburbs of Montreal, Ellias comes across something strange: a locked door to the basement. He plans to donate the house to charity and therefore must provide a full inventory of what’s inside, which means going to the basement. Meanwhile, his father’s best and only friend, Dominique (Yves Jacques), shows up on his doorstep, kindly introduces himself and hopes that he and Ellias can organize Jean-Jacques’ funeral together. Maybe his father wasn’t such a bad guy after all?
Wishful thinking. Soon Ellias gets his hands on the key, and what started as a family drama about grief quickly turns into horror movie territory when he descends the basement stairs and discovers another locked door, behind which lies a secret tunnel leading to a secret tunnel. room, where a young woman (Laëtitia Isambert) has been locked up – clearly for a long time.
Ellias panics, which is normal. But what he does next defies reason, at least for most of us. Instead of calling the police and freeing his father’s prisoner, he decides to cover up the incident, presumably to avoid affecting his fashion career. This makes no sense at all: Ellias hated his father. He seethes whenever the old man is mentioned, and he is so estranged from him that no one would ever connect Ellias to such a heinous crime. And yet he decides to keep the whole thing a secret.
Since then, The successor Not only does he jump over the shark, he also jumps back into the water and spins the shark around several times before drowning. More crazy twists happen, some of which involve the sweet and sympathetic Dominique, all motivated by Ellias’s illogical behavior and growing despair, which reaches a melodramatic level in the final act. By then, many viewers will have abandoned the famous designer to the fate for which he seems sadly destined.
It’s pretty clear what Legrand is trying to say here: that the father’s sins, no matter how monstrous, will inevitably be repeated by their descendants, despite all the distance that has grown between them. (The theme of abuse was central GuardianshipThe filmmaker hints at this legacy, as in the way Ellias’s studied Parisian accent slips back into Quebecois the more time he spends at home. Grondin (CRAZY) is good in those scenes, depicting a man who carries the entire weight of his family on his shoulders, and ultimately can’t carry it anymore.
The other performances are also strong, and Legrand once again proves to be a solid actor’s director and a solid technician, who, together with cameraman Nathalie Durand, manages to create a realistic atmosphere that they manage to maintain until the bitter end. How things happen inside The successor is much less of an issue than what happens, as well as why they happen. The film attempts to answer some of those questions by delving into the terrible history of depravity that poor Ellias has inherited and has to confront. But the sheer implausibility of the story will leave many of us asking one final question: WTF?