‘A Family’ Review: French Writer Christine Angot Makes Directorial Debut With a Bruisingly Personal Doc About Incest

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French writer Christine Angot has written many books, but Incest (1999) is arguably the one she is most famous for. Variously defined by Angot and others as a novel but also a work of autobiographical non-fiction (some call it “autofiction”), it features a protagonist also named Christine who, just like Angot, has a daughter named Leonore, an ex-husband named Claude, and a biological father who started raping Christine on weekends and holidays when she was 13 years old. The tome, quite experimental in places, triggered a contentious reception in the French literary world and was not translated into English until 2017, but it’s seen as a hugely influential contribution to the discourse all over the world about sexual trauma, especially in childhood, and especially where incest is involved.

Now in her 60s, Angot has directed her first documentary film, A Family (Une Famille), although this isn’t her first foray into cinema. Two scripts by her, Let the Sunshine In and Both Sides of the Blade, were made into features by Claire Denis, the latter film representing an adaptation of Angot’s novel Un tournant de la vie.

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Made with artistic collaboration, per the end credits, from storied cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors), A Family returns to the foundational trauma addressed in Incest and in a sense brings the story up to date. One couldn’t exactly say it brings closure. But by the end, we observe Angot and her daughter Leonore processing how much what Angot’s father did reverberated throughout Angot’s life thereafter. Leonore apologizes in an empathic sense for what her mother went through, and there is a feeling that a page is slowly turning or even a chapter finishing.

Judging by the interactions seen earlier in the film, that moment of peace has been hard won and not easily achieved. In the opening minutes, we meet Angot at a prominent book fair near Strasbourg to sign copies of her books. It’s the same town where her father, now deceased, used to live, and a woman who had met him once but knew the woman he married and Christine’s half-siblings approaches Angot to say they’re good people, implicitly berating her for what she wrote about them.

But Angot remembers what happened when she was 13, and as she describes the hotel where the abuse first took place, the film runs footage of Christine with Leonore as a baby, being fed, toddling on a lawn, playing with her father, Angot’s ex, Claude. Clearly, Angot has a lot of home movies, shot on VHS, from Leonore’s early years and, throughout, she interweaves this sweet, anodyne footage mostly shot by Claude with scenes where she confronts various key figures from her life.

The first is her stepmother Elizabeth Weber, whom Angot and her film crew effectlvely doorstep, insisting that she lets them in to have it out. Reluctantly, Elizabeth complies, and the two women have a very heated but ultimately rational conversation about the past. An elegant older woman with a severely color-coordinated house full of paintings and haute bourgeois tchotchkes, Elizabeth politely insists that she does not recognize the portrait Angot paints in her writings of her father as the same man to whom she was married. She doesn’t ever deny what Christine accuses him of; she just insists that it’s hard for her to reconcile it all.

That’s not really good enough for Angot though. Clearly extremely agitated by the situation, she bridles at just about everything Elizabeth says, from the maladroit “I pity you” to her even describing what went on between father and daughter as a “relationship.” No, they did not have a relationship, she responds, it was rape, or rather a series of rapes that kept happening, even when she was an adult.

Elsewhere, Claude and Angot’s mother, who had Christine out of wedlock and fought to get her father to recognize his child in a legal sense, are both similarly upbraided for misspeaking about Christine’s trauma in subtle ways, or for not being sympathetic in the right way. Despite the fact that she’s credited as the director, Angot doesn’t always do herself any favors here. She often comes across as very prickly and emotionally raw-skinned, understandably so of course, but this constant policing of how others should speak starts to seem unhealthy rather than healing or corrective.

Other viewers may beg to differ, of course, but like Angot’s writing, the film as a whole has a magic mirror quality, like so many abuse stories; everyone sees something slightly different reflected in the surface, depending on their own experience.

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