Vero Cratzborn writes and directs Into Dad’s Woods (La forêt de mon père), a dramatic glimpse into the fragility of mental health and the repercussions this can have on a family dynamic. The feature plays as part of the UK’s French Film Festival which is running as an online at home event this year (details below). Whilst Into Dad’s Woods provides a sympathetic turn from Ludvine Sagnier, Cratzborn and co-writers Ève Deboise and François Verjans often feel like they only skim the surface of some complex emotional themes.
Unpredictable, forgetful and often volatile father Jimmy (Alban Lenoir) lives with his family on the outskirts of the city in a picturesque woodland setting. Living a somewhat unconventional rural and naturalistic lifestyle, Jimmy’s erratic behaviour sees him interned in a psychiatric hospital – much to the upset of his family, mainly wife Carole (Sagnier) and fifteen year old eccentric daughter Gena (Léonie Souchaud).
Cratzborn‘s drama is a quiet glimpse into the fragility of mental health, beginning by showcasing Jimmy’s slightly off behaviour – turning up at the home of a landowner who promptly reminds him he has been fired, yet this transcends into more troubling, serious moments from throwing a television set out of a window to abandoning his children in the woods. Tense arguments with wife Carole begin to deliver the troubling effects that Jimmy’s volatile behaviour is having on the family unit. Jimmy is ultimately committed – leaving his family, particularly daughter Gena fighting to cope with the aftermath.
Into Dad’s Woods dips into public perception of mental illness – such as Gena being the target of local bullies who share footage of her father’s psychotic break. A romance with schoolmate Nico (Carl Malapa) becomes her escape from the tension of home and the judgement of others – with Nico stepping into diffuse a bullying incident. Yet Gena shows many of the same behaviours as her father: bold and impetuous – and her bond with him prevails – even when Jimmy is living behind the closed doors of a psychiatric facility.
Yet Cratzborn ultimately highlights Gena’s youth and immaturity – upon Jimmy’s release a car ride through the countryside, resulting in Jimmy driving at manic speeds after an incident showcase the shaky nature of the father’s mental health and once again the family’s instability in coping with his up and downs. Jimmy is a disruptive presence and the scrappy, makeshift way in which his family live only showcases the effect that his illness has on them.
Whilst the intricacies of Jimmy’s mental health may not feel massively clear or developed and Gena may not make the most endearing protagonist, there is solace in the performance of Ludvine Sagnier. The actress channels Carole’s exhaustion in a truly sympathetic manner – managing to showcase the light and fire that still burns for her husband within this. There’s ultimately not many sequences for Sagnier to showcase this sense of character development, with Cratzborn opting for Gena’s less engaging narrative.
Into Dad’s Woods has moments of intrigue from Sagnier’s performance to the picturesque rural setting. Whilst capturing a sense of the strains of supporting a partner or family member with mental health challenges, Cratzborn’s film lays some of the groundwork but does not quite delve deep enough for a fully satisfying portrayal.
Into Dad’s Woods plays as part of the French Film Festival UK at Home. The film is available from Tuesday 1 December (from 19:30 – available for 24 hours). For more details check out the FFF website.