After the devastating loss of his mother, 24 year old Vincent has made his peace with the less than perfect relationship he has with his father, choosing to divert his energy into drinking, tattoos and screaming his throat raw as the front man for a hardcore rock band. It’s only when a new, younger woman comes into his father’s life that the resentment and tensions begin to resurface, made all the more complicated by the connection that she and Vincent share. With a gnarly facade of punk rock and body art, first time director Morgan Simon digs deeper than the sweat and ink, delivering a tightly scripted familial drama with a strong focus on its delicately layered characters.
Winding down from a gig with his band, Seven Day Diary, Vincent (Kévin Azaïs) adds to his extensive collection of tattoos with a portrait of his mother on the side of his neck. When his friend, band-mate and artist wipes away the last of the blood and ink, Vincent admires the piece, commenting that his mother would have loved it. Then it’s time for the next one. The artist scoffs, and admits that he thought the second idea was a joke, before settling in to etch a matching portrait of Vincent’s dad on the other side of his neck.
This opening set of sequences, in which we see Vincent firstly screaming his soul out to a crowd of adoring fans, and then as a canvas being printed with portraits of parents whom he clearly holds in high regard, presents the protagonist as he would like to be seen – infallible, invincible and above all else, individual. As soon as he returns home and is shut alone with his father, however, it becomes clear that this is a film about everything that lies beneath that pretence. From his first words – a sarcastic, mirthless “well done” as Vincent spills a pan of water – Hervé (Nathan Willcocks) shows himself to be withdrawn and distant, more interested in pursuing his relationship with new flame, Julia (Monia Chokri), than consoling his clearly still grieving son.
Azaïs offers a heartbreaking look at a boy who wants nothing more than the affection and approval of his father.
As the nucleus around which the entire narrative revolves, the dysfunctional relationship between Hervé and Vincent, as well as the fallout from their tragic loss, is given plenty of room to expand and evolve, driven by the tangible energy wrought from its two male leads. As Vincent, Azaïs perfectly presents the masquerade of manliness that is almost a second skin for a twenty-something male trying desperately to avoid the pain that lies just below his surface. On stage he is confident, fierce and feral, with angst-ridden lyrics like “fuck you, I’m done with you” acting as the only outlet for his inner torment. Elsewhere, when the cracks in his mask begin to show through, Azaïs offers a heartbreaking look at a boy who wants nothing more than the affection and approval of his father, and whose wounds only deepen as he is spurned time and again.
Opposite the emotionally dexterous and readily expressive Vincent, it would be easy to confuse Willcocks’ Hervé for a stone wall, so little does he show his true feelings. Instead he blocks and deflects, covering insecurity with poor attempts at comedy and over-exaggerated examples of masculinity. Across the film Hervé clashes with his son emotionally, ideologically and, once the battle for Julia’s affections begin, sexually. With each contest, Willcocks bring a tense desperation to the role, barely concealed by a guise of confidence that is even shakier than Vincent’s, embodying a man who feels himself slowly fading, and is becoming ever more threatened by his rapidly burgeoning son.
With so much depth and character exploration allowed to the men, it is even more of a shame that Julia is reduced to a one-dimensional character with little personality and even less agency. Acting almost completely in reaction to the guys around her, she serves the narrative in a number of ways – as the catalyst for the bubbling tensions between father and son, as well as a pseudo Freudian object for Vincent’s misguided affections – but fails to have any true motivations of her own. Despite the limitations of her character, Chokri does a surprisingly good job of making her feel like a real person, from the realistic awkwardness upon meeting her boyfriend’s son for the first time, to the subtle wit in one of the film’s biggest laughs.
The idea of tattooing […] is representative of the tendency of the men to paint over their true feelings.
Amidst all of the family politics and generational conflict, the focus on tattoos and multiple sequences showing Vincent’s band performing may seem like window dressing, used to infuse the story with a little edge. While this is certainly true of the protagonist – nothing shows young angst better than tattoos and rock music – the themes of the film are cleverly reflected in these facets, giving it a deeper connection to the overall plot. The expression of feeling is a serious problem for the main trio; Vincent in particular struggles to admit to even himself that what he needs more than anything is the love of a parent, both of whom he seems to have lost when his mum died. As such, the angry, emotional lyrics of the Seven Day Diary songs give him a safe place where he can finally feel everything he tries so hard to ignore offstage.
Furthermore, the idea of tattooing, the covering of skin with colourful, more attractive ink, is here representative of the tendency of the men to paint over their true feelings with a facade that they deem to be stronger, more masculine, and of course the inherent implication that tattooed skin tears just as easily. This thin presentation of manliness, which is perpetrated by men across the world, is not only the thing that forces such a rift between father and son, it is ironically the thing that they have most in common. Whenever they try to engage with each other – be it a deceptively heart-warming water fight while washing Hervé’s van, or a heavily symbolic philosophical debate over killing animals to study their anatomy – things always go south because they are tragically too similar, with Hervé becoming overly condescending to infantilize the son who is threatening his alpha status, and Vincent lashing out in anger to kid himself that he isn’t breaking apart inside from his father’s derision.
By keeping the plot relatively simple, Simon has allowed plenty of space for his actors to really dig into their characters and deliver deeply affecting performances. While the emotional impact of the third act is undoubtedly diminished due to Julia not being fully explored as a character, the oedipal clash as father and son both pine for her makes for enough meaty drama that the overall quality still holds up. Much like a tattoo, A TASTE OF INK is a film that may sting occasionally, but the end result is something truly beautiful.
A TASTE OF INK screens at Cambridge Film Festival at 15:10 on Friday 20th October at the Arts Picturehouse, and at 18:30 on Sunday the 22nd at Downing College. Click here to buy tickets.