Les Parents by Christophe Herman, 2009
Last Thursday, Toronto’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, Inside Out, opened for its 20th Anniversary run. My own short documentary, Doing It On the Ice, played at the festival last year. A film about a gay curling league here in Toronto, it was well-received and a very exciting platform for my first-ever public screening. My friend’s experimental short is playing at the festival this Wednesday, so we thought we would take advantage of the festival and see something on the weekend. We settled on Les Parents, a feature documentary by Christophe Herman.
Les Parents focuses on couple Alain and Richard who reside in a small village in France. Instead of going to a standard nursing home, senior citizens can opt to live with Alain and Richard, who run a sort of alternative, hostel-type environment in their home. The couple takes care of the residents 24/7, washing their hair, making them meals, and taking them for walks. The home is comfortable and peaceful, and the warmth the two men show towards their patrons is obvious. When Alain’s AIDS-related complications begin to rise, the couple must choose whether to continue with their business or focus more on Alain’s illness.
The distance Herman uses for the first three quarters or so of the film works well for the subject matter. We are slowly immersed into the special world these two men have created for their tenants. Herman asks no questions, yet observes the men as they take care and interact with the two, featured women living in the hostel. As one of the women has Alzheimer’s Disease, the struggles the couple faces daily become apparent. Simply trying to calm the woman down as she cries for her parents to come to her birthday and states that her father has just returned from World War I, becomes a heartbreaking routine the viewer must also endure. But the beautiful moments peppered around the hardships, the men singing with the ladies and joking with them, creates a nice balance. As the three quarter mark comes around, though, this balance is somewhat lost.
At this point we are suddenly introduced to Alain’s illness. Before, nothing was mentioned. And the details of the illness aren’t clear as no one in the film exactly states that Alain has AIDS (we had to learn this from the festival’s program). But we soon realize that the couple’s home and business may be sold so Alain and Richard can end their days together in a more gay-friendly climate, and one more suited to the complications that may arise with Alain. I think the film could have worked better if Alain’s illness was gradually revealed throughout the documentary. The sudden shift of focus felt very jarring and both themes could have been better juxtaposed.
Herman also chooses to use impromptu interviews with the couple here, shifting from its observational tone. Using these interviews, we do get direct insight from Alain and Richard on how they feel about the business, Alain being sick and the intolerance they face in the village, but stylistically it just does not flow well. More time spent on moments where the couple discusses their relationship with each other and speak about the alternative nursing home they run would have added a less-forced type of emotional and informational reveal without compromising the rest of the film’s aesthetic.
Les Parents is a beautiful film with an emotional heart that just feels rushed by the conclusion (an unwelcome, sudden ending does not help any). Possibly money was a factor as to why more time wasn’t spent wrapping the story up properly, or the director wanted to leave us to our own devices. Either way, I believe the film deserved one last bit of attention – one last look for a very interesting story’s sake.
3 out of 5