“Come upstairs?” That’s how the sexually abusive relationship between an unemployed father (Jacques Bonnaffé) and his daughter, Céline (Lou-Lélia Demerliac), is initiated night after night—not as a demand, but as an embarrassed request on the man’s part. This, of course, doesn’t make his actions any less reprehensible, or the half-shadowed shot of him and Céline having sex in the upstairs hallway of their house any less disturbing. But the tone of their relationship, set up right at the start of My Name Is Hmmm…, does imply a certain path for the film, one that will offer a controversial look at an already provocative topic. To begin, the debut feature from fashion designer and film producer Agnès B. takes as its subject an abusive father who’s never completely vilified—one who we watch crying in his living room, castigating himself for the pain he causes his daughter. Céline, meanwhile, is shown defying her father more than once, refusing his requests and warning him, “Don’t you touch my little sister.”
These initial scenes are tightly focused, but My Name Is Hmmm… soon shifts gears and transforms into a road movie, at which point it also loses its direction. The abuse that Céline suffers leads her to run away from home while on an overnight school trip to the French coast. She does so by hiding in the back of a truck whose driver, Peter (Douglas Gordon), is mourning the death of his wife and children. The cause of their demise is never explained, but it’s that loss that causes Peter not to hand Céline in to the authorities when he discovers her in his truck, instead taking her with him on the road. Or that’s what the audience must assume. His character is so nebulous, the source and full scope of his suffering so maddeningly cryptic, that the motivations for the reckless decisions Peter makes are never entirely clear or credible.
Agnès B. shifts between a variety of film formats, from what seems like grainy 16mm to a crisper digital look. In some moments, she also edits in still images or hand-drawn sketches. My Name Is Hmmm… is largely shot in color, but one scene early on plays out entirely in black and white. The final effect of these variations, however, never coalesces into anything more than playful experimentation. Similarly, the various side characters introduced later in the film feel digressive—distractions from the fact that the central relationship between Peter and Céline remains frustratingly underdeveloped. The film is never too on the nose about the contrast between Peter and Céline’s father, to whom the story returns sporadically throughout, nor is it quick to judge its characters, regardless of their faults. Both of these might have been admirable qualities if this predilection toward ambiguity didn’t so often seem to indicate a scarcity of insight rather than nuance. The feeling here was perhaps intended to be impressionistic and elusive, but the result is instead rambling and unfocused.