It goes without saying, but this being a review it shall be said anyway, that identity is core to who we are as people.
Take it away, or even one or some of its constituent building blocks that have been assembled over a lifetime and you can be handed, quite unwillingly, an existential crisis of Freudian proportions.
While things don’t get that dire in Just to be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un Doute), which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year, they come pretty close with forty-something Erwan (Damiens) discovering, on the cusp of his own daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) giving birth, that his fisherman dad (Guy Marchand) is not his biological father.
Unsettling in a multitude of ways but more so given that Erwan is about to become a grandfather, raising understandable questions about who he will be once this major life change takes place.
Complicating things still further is that Juliette is not inclined in the slightest to find out the identity of her child’s father, her pregnancy the result of a one night stand at a party; or perhaps she does know and simply doesn’t want him to be a part of the child-rearing.
Either way, the stage is set quite beautifully by writer-director Carine Tardieu (The Dandelions) for a battle of wills between equally strong-willed father and daughter, both of whom have quite set ideas on what should happen next.
Or at least Erwan, a bomb disposal expert who returned home to France and a business recovering leftover World War Two munitions from Normandy soil to raise his daughter when his wife died of lung cancer, thought he did.
But the news from doctor about his muddled paternity casts everything into a new light including a budding romance with Anna (Cecile de France), a doctor, who may or may not be his sister, given she is the daughter of Joseph (Andre Wilms), a kindly old man who a private detective (Brigitte Rouan) has said is his real biological dad.
Got all that?
Well, you might but poor old Erwan struggles balance to balance everything, torn between loyalty and love for the dad who raised him, curiosity and growing affection for the man who helped bring him into this world, increasing attraction for Anna and the travails of being there for his obstinate daughter.
It’s a quite a farcical cocktail, and while Tardieu doesn’t ramp things up to full manic absurdity, a blessing given the underlying seriousness of the subject material, she does have some fun with the complicated nature of the familial connections.
There is one scene in particular when beautifully illustrates her nuanced, altogether balanced approach to the story.
After a slightly rocky start to their first date, when Erwan knows she could be his sister but fiercely independent Anna remains blissfully unaware, they end up on the beach when Erwan humourously, thanks to the aid of a blown up condom, demonstrates how to defuse a bomb.
It’s a delightful moment of bonding for the two that comes a-cropper when Erwan, his possibility sibling relationship with Anna looming over his budding romance, can’t handle the idea of kissing his new love, quite understandably, and storms off, rather awkwardly it must be said.
Its emblematic of Tardieu’s approach that this scene is neither played for outright laughs or fraught drama, falling somewhere perfectly in the middle, very much mirroring the way life events resist easy categorisation or clean cut emotional divisions.
You suspect, of course, that true love will run its course, and Joseph may not be the father and Anna the sister but any actual evidence is left very late and judiciously into the final act, leaving plenty of time for audience hope to spring eternal and the characters to stew in their ever-escalating existential stew.
While neither dramatically in your face or laugh-out-loud hilarious, despite a trailer than suggests more of the latter than the former, Just to be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un Doute) is a delight, a deftly-executed romp, and at times that is exactly what it is through the minefield of personal and familial identity.
In so doing it raises some salient questions – what is better? Being raised by biological or adoptive parents? Is there really a difference? And if you discover as late in Erwan does that the two factors are at play, which becomes the ascendant relationship? Is there even one?
In all honesty, the film doesn’t settle on an answer although it becomes readily apparent that, like most things in life, there’s no real straightforward answer.
Just to be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un Doute) never tries to come up with any obvious outcomes, letting the characters fumbling but well-intentioned and earnest attempts to figure out how to navigate the new familial lay of the land, do all the talking.
It’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into this wholly enjoyable film and that Tardieu has realised early on that, like all good comedies, there must be a lot of substance to given the entire undertaking some emotional resonance.
A blisteringly intense examination of family relations, love and identity this is not; instead Just to be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un Doute) is a lighthearted but meaningful and poignant look at the way everything we know can change in an instant and how dealing with all the upheaval can alter the trajectory of our lives in ways that initially are wholly dislocating but which ultimately can be a blessing in disguise.