If nothing else, Flesh of My Flesh exposes the perilously thin line between the mysteriously elliptical and the merely undercooked. Denis Dercourt’s new film is a would-be character study of Anna (Anna Juliana Jaenner), a disturbed Austrian woman living in France who seems to spend most of her days either nannying, caring for her daughter, or cruising around for single men and bringing them back to her place for sex. In the case of one of the men, Pierre (François Smesny), she goes even further, killing him, dismembering him, and doing strange things with his blood.
One of the sources of potential intrigue in Flesh of My Flesh comes from the steady accumulation of details that, one assumes, will reveal the motives, however twisted, for this sudden descent into brutal violence. Anna herself divulges details about her past on a couple of occasions: She tells Pierre that she’s from Austria and has a daughter—and later, she tells another man, a university student (Mathieu Charriére), that she came to France in order to care for her daughter, afflicted with a sickness that she keeps vague. But her past isn’t the only mysterious thing about her. At one point, she goes to a library and borrows a collection of Grimm fairy tales, and the story she reads to her daughter speaks of a father in a famine-ridden town unable to provide for his children anymore and his wife deciding to bring her and the children out into the woods to starve to death.
Some viewers might connect this last moment to an earlier one in the film in which Anna seduces Pierre in the woods before killing him. And then there’s the fact that she seems to feed her daughter one of Pierre’s fingers, and exhibits a strange fascination with improving blood health, which leads her to serve two of her young nanny charges a salad instead of meat for dinner. Details like that, in addition to Dercourt’s clinical detachment and Jaenner’s opaque performance, combine to create the sense of watching a psychological puzzle, with the viewer actively trying to put the pieces together.
If a psychological puzzle is what Dercourt intended, however, then it’s a puzzle whose pieces not only don’t fit, but don’t even seem to have been made with much of an overall picture in mind in the first place. Dercourt’s one-note visual style encapsulates the shallowness of his vision. Much of the film is shot with lenses that deliberately blur the edges of the frame, leaving only certain figures or even body parts in focus; he doesn’t consistently stick with this strategy, but there simply isn’t any discernible reason for those rare moments when he departs from that aesthetic approach and leaves everything in focus. In fact, one looks in vain throughout Flesh of My Flesh as a whole for any governing logic beyond the sense that Dercourt has seemingly tossed out a lot of random hints, wrapping all his half-digested notions of psychosis—empty sexuality, vague hints of cannibalism, maternal anxiety—in an even more monotonously half-assed visual style that’s an insult to the idea of subjective filmmaking. Rarely has an ostensibly momentous twist as the one that arrives at the climax of Flesh of My Flesh inspired such shoulder-shrugging indifference.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—27.