Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)

BEING 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)         B-                               
France (114 mi)  2016  d:  André Téchiné

We aren’t serious when we’re seventeen,
—One fine evening, to hell with beer and lemonade,
Noisy café’s with their shining lamps!   
We walk under the green linden trees of the park.    

The lindens smell good in the good June evenings!
At times the air is so scented that we close our eyes,
The wind laden with sounds— the town isn’t far —
Has the smell of grapevines and beer...

—Arthur Rimbaud, Roman (Novel), first stanza, 1870

I learned the truth at seventeen,
That love was meant for beauty queens.
In high school, girls with clear-skin smiles,
Who married young and then retired.

The valentines I never knew.
The Friday night charades of youth,
Were spent on one more beautiful.
At seventeen I learned the truth.

—Janis Ian, At Seventeen, 1975, Janis Ian- At Seventeen (Original) - YouTube (3:57)

Téchiné’s best works from the 80’s and 90’s are dense and psychologically complex films he writes himself, though all of them are collaborations with other writers, most having an intimate chamber drama quality conveying emotions through naturalism and an understated intelligence, usually concise and meticulously crafted.  Here he teams up with co-writer Céline Sciamma, some 36-years younger, literally half his age, the director of her own films Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (2014), known for exploring adolescent youth identity and gender issues, ending up with something of a mixed bag, feeling overly contrived and a bit too emotionally distant from any of the characters.  Both are minimalists who tend to get the most out of their performers, with Sciamma usually working with non-professionals.  Téchiné has dealt with this subject before in what is arguably his best film, Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages) (1994), a completely unpretentious exploration of adolescent curiosities, with a racial dynamic even more provocative as it is set during the Algerian War, so a similar revisit to already familiar territory pales in comparison, as the narrow focus of racial and sexual ambiguity leaves the lives of the two young adolescent protagonists still left largely unexplored, as the story itself feels overly thin, though the use of landscape is surprisingly effective and is perhaps the best quality to the film.  The two leads couldn’t be more different, Damien, played by Kacey Mottet Klein, the extremely affecting young kid in Ursula Meier’s HOME (2008) and 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 Sister (L'enfant d'en haut) , and Thomas, played by newcomer Corentin Fila, who was discovered while working as a Parisian model.  Ostensibly a high school coming-of-age memoir, the story is set in a rural mountainous community in the French Pyrenees, with Damien living a comfortable life with his warmhearted mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a local doctor that makes house visits, and an absent father (Alexis Loret), an army helicopter pilot in an unidentified Doctors Without Borders war zone seen on regular Skype transmissions, while Tom is a biracial, adopted son of a farming couple living high up in the mountains, a treacherous 90-minute journey to school through a combination of arduous hiking and taking buses.  Damien, pale-skinned and awkward, the more sensitive of the two, struggles with self-confidence, yet gets excellent grades and takes self-defense classes from an ex-military family friend Paulo (Jean Corso), while Thomas, introverted and brooding, seems to revel in his isolation, rarely seen talking to anyone, performing daily chores with the farm animals and has ambitions to be a veterinarian, though he’s just scraping by with poor grades.  Both are the last ones picked in school when choosing teams for basketball, suggesting a certain social isolation. 

For some inexplicable reason, Thomas trips Damien in class and starts bullying him, exerting an annoying physical presence that continually keeps the two at odds.  Part of what Téchiné seems to be getting at is the inconsistency of youth, doing things without a reason, often acting on impulse without understanding what’s behind it.  Despite the loathing behind the standoffish behavior of Damien and Thomas, who seem to publicly despise one another, Téchiné constantly places them in each other’s path.  Under normal circumstances, you’d think these two would go to great lengths to avoid seeing each other.  The kicker here is that Thomas’s mother, Christine (Mama Prassinos), visited by Marianne for a rising fever, but is discovered to be pregnant.  With a history of miscarriages, her health is paramount, recommending that she be moved for an extended duration to a hospital in town.  Under the circumstances, clueless to the antagonizing dynamic of the two kids, she also recommends that Thomas come live in her home to be closer to the school and hospital.  What seems like a potential train wreck in the making does play out unexpectedly, as the two constantly get into physical altercations, with Damien usually getting the worst of it, where violence disguises the underlying desires, but they always underplay what happened as being purely accidental, with each seeming to find their way through the other, as Thomas’s grades improve while Damien finds himself irrefutably attracted, but hasn’t a clue how to express it.  Even as they spend more time with each other, they also regularly ignore the other, alternately aggressive and hesitant, so when they do happen to find themselves alone, especially in the great outdoors, strange things happen, with Damien openly confessing, “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you.”  Here is where the cinematography by Julien Hirsch is so impressive, as their awkward handling of erupting sexual desires becomes so incomprehensible to both of them they are literally muted by the enormity of the mountainous landscape, especially the overwhelming power of a blinding snowstorm or a thick mountain fog, or another scene where Thomas strips naked and jumps into a frozen lake, where they are mere players in a larger natural world that surrounds them.  Without ever actually playing out in gay themes, these guys are still exploring what it means, which is all part of the coming-out process, as first the confusion needs to be internalized and sorted out, where it becomes a highly personalized yet individual journey. 

Another aspect of the film is racial fetishization, which at least in France has colonial roots to Algeria and other colonized African countries, and is so brilliantly explored by Claire Denis in Chocolat (1988), No Fear, No Die (S’en Fout la Mort) (1990), and Beau Travail (1999).  While this underlying aspect of their relationship is apparent throughout, it’s never actually acknowledged in the script, but remains a subliminal affectation that remains hidden under the surface, including a dream sequence that becomes an erotic fantasy for Marianne with Thomas making love to her.  As Téchiné so brilliantly addressed this in Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages), it’s disappointing that twenty years later he no longer feels a need to explore it openly, as instead the film delves into class commentary, where Damien is a privileged, middle-class white kid who has all the advantages while Thomas works in the stables, develops a closeness to animals and the natural world, where his working class vantage point is decisively different, including his ability to openly acknowledge his desires.  As it is, he’s already worried about his place in his own family, thinking a biological child may relegate him to second class status, while Damien is an only child with a nurturing mother, so has less to lose by being more open about his feelings.  The film actually spends more time with Damien, is seen through his point of view, becoming his personal journey, though Thomas is easily the more interesting of the two, remaining rugged, durable, and mostly silent.  Perhaps it’s his aloofness, or the unattainable mystery of his blackness, where even he is unaware of his physical presence, though it’s not by accident that he is viewed as a force of nature, seen milking the cows in the morning, brushing cattle, and pitching hay.  For whatever reason, this is a film where dialogue matters the least, as words are often used to betray their real intent, where it’s more about the in-between spaces, the pauses, the lingering glances, where it would be easy, for the viewer as well as the characters onscreen, to misidentify the actual intent behind so many silences.  While the film meanders towards the end, among the more excessive moments, something only the French would include, are the shared studies of Plato, discussing the difference between need and desire, where the less intellectual, but more emotionally grounded Thomas uses Plato in a dig against Damien’s advances, “Need is part of nature…desire is not of natural origin. It is superfluous.”  The openness of the explored sexual desires would make a film like this off limits in America, yet much of it is expressed with poetic restraint, such as a shared moment of both hiding from a rainstorm in a cave, both lit in silhouette as they pass a cigarette back and forth.  But it also candidly explores physical love, where they do get into bed together, but not before Thomas refers to a previously interrupted kiss, “You couldn’t even see I was scared.”  The film is not so much about being gay as discovering one’s initial contradictory inclinations, which only adds to the already existing anxiety and confusion of being a teenager, where relating to others is not a strong point, terrified of becoming an adult, yet this is the undiscovered territory that Téchiné wants to explore, this on-again, off-again flirtation, where it’s more about the fluctuating chemistry between two people at a certain moment in time.   

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