19 July 2012

Téchiné’s ‘Impardonnables’

Carole Bouquet and André Dussollier as Judith and Francis.

When André Téchiné’s latest film, Impardonnables (the U.S. title is Unforgivable) was accorded only two screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival last spring, and when both sold out, I comforted myself with the assurance that the picture would receive a commercial release in the United States, and probably soon. Yet when I arrived at the IFC Center on Tuesday, barely two and a half weeks since it opened there, I found it reduced to three screenings per day in the smallest auditorium in the theater. How was it possible that a new film from one of France’s most gifted auteur directors, greeted with a glowing preview by Terrence Rafferty and a rave review in the Times, should be struggling this way?

Granted, while Téchiné’s stars, André Dussolier and Carole Bouquet, are two of the most dependable actors in France, they’re not marquee names over here. Bouquet is best remembered for her first film, Luis Buñuel’s Cet objet obscur du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire), made 35 years ago. Even Téchiné is something of a connoisseur’s specialty, and Impardonnables doesn’t hold the commercial appeal of his Les temps qui changent (2004), a droll relationship comedy about long-lost lovers starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, or the topicality of Les Témoins (Witnesses, from 2007), a drama about the impact of AIDS in a close-knit community over a period of several years.

Uneasy relationships between generations:
Francis and Jérémie (Mario Conte).

Yet I was pleased overall with Impardonnables. While never quite attaining the richness and complexity of Téchiné’s masterwork, Les Roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds, 1994), it’s a vast improvement over its immediate predecessor, La Fille du R.E.R. (The Girl on the Train, 2009), and it valiantly upholds most of Téchiné’s strengths and virtues — above all, a novelistic approach to storytelling and a profound compassion for his characters. In Impardonnables, it’s not the people themselves but the acts they commit that are — or that at first seem to be — unforgivable.

And so we meet Francis (Dussollier), a successful author with writer’s block, who comes to Venice in search of inspiration. Instead, he finds Judith (Bouquet), a real-estate agent. When she shows him a house on a small island, he flirts with her, saying he’ll rent it if she’ll agree to marry him. She’s flabbergasted, of course, and replies, “You know nothing about me.”

Judith is an expert in fakery,
but she doesn’t always recognize it when she sees it.
Seen here with Andrea Pergolesi, Bouquet is phenomenally well preserved.

That question — whether we know another person, whether we can know her — proves crucial as Judith and Francis do indeed marry and move in together. His writer’s block persisting, a bored and jealous Francis instigates a real-life narrative and watches it as it unfolds. When Judith discovers what he’s been up to, she says drily, “The more I know you, the less I understand you.”

Around this core drama rotate side stories and several of Téchiné’s preferred themes, notably including random acts of startling violence and, more importantly, the sexually tense, sometimes exploitative relationships between generations. Here the young person in question is Jérémie (Mauro Conte), an ex-con and the son of Judith’s former girlfriend, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), who just happens to be a detective: both prove useful to Francis in his schemes, and he takes advantage of them even as he sincerely wants to help them.

Adriana Asti as Anna Maria, with Dussollier.

But Jérémie and Anna Maria can’t even help each other, and in any Téchiné movie, family, even when it means well, is seldom any protection from harm. Here, for example, the luscious Mélanie Thierry (remembered from L’autre Dumas and La Princesse de Montpensier) plays Francis’ daughter, Alice, who abandons her teenage daughter (Zoé Duthion) in order to chase after a drug-dealing Italian nobleman (Andrea Pergolesi) — and while she does love the wild boy, Alice is also motivated by a desire to gain her independence from her overly possessive father.

All of the relationships in Impardonnables are a mess, really. In order to cope with mess, Téchiné suggests, we’ve got to forge alliances where we can, go it alone when we must, and strive to forgive that which is unforgivable.

André Téchiné.

It’s curious that, in reflecting on a director who is unquestionably French, I so often think of him in comparison with two thoroughly English authors. Though I daresay Téchiné would prefer that I speak of Flaubert or Maupassant, Les Roseaux sauvages reminds me inevitably of Eliot’s Middlemarch. So, to an extent, does Impardonnables, in the absolute fairness with which the author treats each and every character. Flaws are motivated, and motivations are understood even when not entirely justified. Everyone means well, and everyone is tested morally. It is possible, at any given moment, to identify with any given character in these communities.

The foremost exponent of that approach was, of course, an Englishman named Shakespeare — and at his best, Téchiné is a worthy descendant of the Bard. Francis in Impardonnables is not so far, really, from Prospero and his little island.

That’s why I make a point of seeing each Téchiné film as it’s released, and it’s why I urge you to do so, too. It make take a little work to see Impardonnables, but your effort will be rewarded.

On est tous dans le même bateau — We’re all in the same boat.
Bouquet and Dussollier.

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