Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages)

WILD REEDS (Les Roseaux Sauvages)           A             
aka:  Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge...  (All the Boys and Girls In Their Time) – made for TV (Commissioned by French television as one part of a series of nine films entitled Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, including other directors:  Patricia Mazuy, Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas, Olivier Dahan, Emilie Deleuze, Claire Denis, Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, and Cédric Kahn.  Released theatrically, however, before it was shown on TV)  France  (110 mi)  1994  d:  André Téchiné   

Still Téchiné’s best film, as it exhibits the best of what he has to offer, a beautifully interwoven narrative that he co-wrote with a novelistic dimension, well acted, bitingly honest and extremely personal, feeling autobiographical, filled with meticulous details and sublime pastoral locations, made especially significant given the historical context.  Téchiné makes among the best written and best edited films around, always delving into the fragility of human relationships, usually with nothing superfluous anywhere to be found, with strict adherence to near mathematical rhythm and pacing.  In several moments, there is near hysterical use of camera movement in this film, representing the whirlwind emotional flux of the young teenage characters.  Among the best coming of age stories in cinema, along with Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), and Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (L’eau Froide) (1994), also made as part of this French television commission, this is the only one of the group that deals head on with the excrutiatingly lonely and painful experience of discovering you’re gay, where it seems that the rest of the world exists without you, where one character stares at himself in front of a mirror repeating endlessly to himself “I am a faggot.”  Gaël Morel is François, a smart, kind-hearted kid who can seemingly befriend anyone, but alone, he recoils with insecurities and constant questions about himself.  Élodie Bouchez is Maïté, perhaps a life long friend to François, the daughter of the school instructor, Madame Alvarez (Michèle Moretti), who has been raised as an independent leftist thinker with communist leanings, which in France is pretty common.  The opening sequence shows them mulling through the crowd at a wedding, which we soon discover is a wedding of convenience, as the groom is a soldier about to be shipped off to war in the French colonial struggle in Algeria in 1962, supposedly fighting to retain French sovereignty, which he has little interest in and is desperately pleading with Madame Alvarez to help find him a way to desert the military. 

In school, students are preparing for their futures by studying for their Baccalauréat, or college entrance exams, where one student, Henri (Frédéric Gorny) is singled out for his intelligence, but also his socially detached air of superiority, an Algerian born Frenchman who lost his father to terrorists and detests the Algerian uprising, feeling they should be grateful for what the French have given them, views not shared by Madame Alvarez, her daughter Maïté, or the communist party who are ardently against both the Vietnam and Algerian wars.  This was the social divide of the era, as young men upon reaching age 18 were sent off to war, both in France and the United States, causing heightened anxiety both for themselves and their families, especially when the war effort was not going as easily as expected with so many returned killed or wounded in action.  Téchiné himself would have been 19 at the time, so this is a subject he is intimately familiar with.  Téchiné as the director remains completely nonjudgmental and narrows the focus in this film to the personal relationships between people, which has always been his specialty, targeting shifting adolescent moods and influences, which includes a developing sexual fascination between François and Serge (Stéphane Rideau), the younger brother of the groom, who’s a bit more aggressive and actually initiates the sexual contact, but it turns out he’s more interested in Maïté.  François, however, has the floodgates open and he can’t stop thinking about his attraction to guys afterwards, confessing his newfound feelings to Maïté, who accepts him as he is, but may be a bit jealous he had his initial sexual encounter without her.  The back and forth interests and attractions here are positively riveting, as these kids are simply exploring their feelings, and remain confused, not really understanding them yet.  But the situations they get themselves into are undeniably appealing, oftentimes cruel, sometimes heartbreaking, but always in search of a better understanding about themselves.

There’s a bit of the New Wave exuberance found in Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM (1962), especially the narrative experimentation with continually shifting the focus from individuals to different sets of couples, but also a brilliantly upbeat American soundtrack, from Chubby Checker to Del Shannon or from the Beach Boys to the Platters, but there’s also the near surreal use of Samuel Barber’s elegiac “Adagio for Strings,” used (or mis-used) four years later by Oliver Stone in PLATOON (1998).  More important is the idea that love and understanding for one another takes precedence over individual opinions or social divides, that knowledge somehow helps us better understand not only our place in the world, but each other.  In class they discuss the genius of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who dropped everything for the love of another man (fellow poet Paul Verlaine) while still a teenager, never to write again, or discuss La Fontaine's fable “The Oak and the Reed,” suggesting a sudden wind may uproot the oak, while the reed simply bends with the wind, where the implication is to not be so rigid or closed minded, to bend but not break.  Movies play a part, as François is continually influenced by the impact of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961), describing how a girl is caught between reality and a dream and can’t decide which one to choose, or Jacques Demy’s LOLA (1961), where a woman has to decide between two men, while he himself has a helluva time trying to find a non-existent gay role model, futilely searching out the helpless and hapless local shoe salesman who the whole town knows lives with a gay partner, as if there was a magical explanation that could be provided.  One of the most affecting moments in the entire film takes place between adults, when Madame Alvarez, after experiencing a profound emotional trauma, is introduced to a fellow instructor’s wife, an unforgettable sequence that offers no explanation, no dialogue, yet is a harrowing moment.  After all the acclaim received by Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), especially what is considered such a realistic portrayal of high school, yet this complex film offers so much more, where life is seen as sometimes terrible, often terrifying, yet also at the same time full of promise and hope.  Téchiné surrounds these kid’s lives with a neverending assault to their senses, but never leers or panders, or makes a single misstep, creating a vivid masterpiece of adolescent reflections, completely unpretentious and provocatively real. 

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