Téchiné's Gay Family Albums
By Armond White
French filmmaker André Téchiné doesn’t go in for either the quirky blended tribes of TV sitcoms or the fashionable dysfunction favored by so many American indie directors. By its title alone, Unforgivable opens up viewers to a wider, deeper embrace of human foibles and gender relations. It’s the latest, maybe best, new film to view the reality of gayness with the same unapologetic acceptance and understanding that are the hallmarks of the all-time greatest European art movies. Unforgivable should make Téchiné a familiar name for film-loving gays. (The film opens June 29 in New York and Los Angeles.)
Téchiné’s new cinematic family features a bi-sexual realtor Judith (Carole Bouquet) who marries a macho novelist Francis (André Dussolier) but maintains a close friendship with her former lover Anna Maria (Adriana Asti). Judith consoles Francis about his wild daughter Alice (Melanie Thierry) and briefly dallies with Anna Maria’s gay-bait son (Mauro Conte). The barriers crossed express the desperate need for attention, affection and acknowledgment that many contemporary gay filmmakers typically confuse with trendy “transgressive” assertions of political identity. Téchiné stays family-oriented in the most basic, deepest sense. He uses his characters’ sexually-related personality conflicts to portray their complex social relations. Seeing family as a reflection of society, Téchiné’s multi-character films create a richer picture of the world as a place where gayness is normal.
Since his 1975 breakthrough film French Provincial, Téchiné has been a noted figure in France for his constant, favorable representation of multicultural tumult. His films contrast urban and provincial experiences, the exchange of immigrant and colonial cultures, the impact of the past on the present. These are standard French art-movie subjects (no wonder Téchiné has received six Best Director Caesar nominations) but Téchiné enlivens those classic themes by focusing on the volatility of sexual desire. In Téchiné’s movies, women and men display complimentary yearnings that are explicitly homosexual or heterosexual but then more than simply gay or lesbian.
Téchiné’s biggest American splash came with the 1995 Wild Reeds, a roundelay about adolescents in a small French town during the 1960s Algerian war where François (Gael Morel) discovers that his affection for Maite (Elodie Bouchez) differs from the intensity of his passion for schoolmate Serge (Stefan Rideau). This French Impressionist proto-Dawson’s Creek swept the Caesar awards and helped launch Morel’s own career directing the gay features (Full Speed, Three Dancing Slaves, After Him). But Wild Reeds--perhaps the quintessential Téchiné film--feels like the greatest gay-themed coming-of-age movie ever made precisely due to the director’s signature acceptance of human variety. It is a different, more compassionate perspective than what is routinely deemed politically correct “diversity.” The uniqueness of Téchiné’s point-of-view lies in his sensitivity to characters who seem divergent on the surface but whose perplexities and cravings are common. That’s what gives his briskly moving films their tension and emotional pull, such as Unforgivable’s brisk narrative told to the surging rhythms of its setting in Venice.
Unforgivable conducts an extraordinary dance among its extended family of young and middle-aged people whose sense of sexual freedom and individuality are counterpoints to each other. This elevates the concept of Family not as homogeneous but a very modern recognition that family relations (like society) contain distinctions and paradoxes--personal differences to be understood, irksome though they may be, as similar to each character’s private needs. It is an artistic and sociological advance. The beauty of Unforgivable’s comes from Julien Hirsch’s vibrant seascapes and deep shadows as well as its ultimately Olympian view of how emotionally alike the men are to women, the gays are to the lesbians, the straights are to gays. When they perturb each other, it’s not a matter of petulant social rebellion; Téchiné goes profoundly to the roots of psychological unease that is partly caused by imposed social values but primarily due of individual desires that characters like Judith, Francis, Anna Maria, Alice and Jeremie have not fully understood within themselves. It may be the ultimate gay--and human--confession.
That complexity continues to be the great insight of all Téchiné films, many of them titled as if giving a moral lesson like the La Fontaine fables he sometimes references: Wild Reeds about the flexibility of individual identity; Thieves about the romantic and genetic obligations that prescribe one’s independence; The Witnesses about initial and lasting personal responses to the AIDS crisis; The Innocents about France’s everlasting attachment to its colonized subjects; and his two overt family dramas--My Favorite Season starring Téchiné’s frequent muse Catherine Deneuve and The Bronte Sisters where Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert and Marie-France Pisier created an All-Star mythification of the legendary complexities of family ties that are artistic and spiritual.
In 1992’s I Don’t Kiss, Téchiné filmed the modern myth of the gay male hustler in the story of new-to-Paris country boy Pierre (Manuel Blanc) who leaves his family behind to becomes the protégé of a middle-aged intellectual (Philippe Noiret). Téchiné used autobiographical elements from his own early mentoring by Roland Barthes as well as the personal story of co-writer Jacques Nolot (who later directed the daring, gay-themed Porn Theater and Before I Forget). The defiance implied by I Don’t Kiss reveals the core of Téchiné’s remarkable insight into personal motivation; it comes from the persistent rejection of familial conventions that is familiar to most gays as Pierre escapes his own nuclear family to find a non-traditional one in the big city. Pierre’s flinty isolation anticipates Judith and the two wayward young adults in Unforgivable, who all react against cloying family relations as a defense of their own vulnerabilities.
This primal response distinguishes I Don’t Kiss as a portrait of gay self-recognition (not merely self-flattery). It leads to the singular moment in Wild Reeds where teenage François confronts his mirror reflection with the accusatory repetition, “I’m a faggot! I’m a faggot! I’m a faggot!” It parallels when the androgynous Pierre attempts to become an actor and asks an older female lover “What does ‘The thousand shocks that flesh is heir to?’ mean?” Such movements towards self-realization qualify Téchiné’s films as major modern cinema.
In an era of narcissistic, patronizing gay indie films, Téchiné connects to a different tradition--one that recalls the honest, revelatory humanism of James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and the great European filmmakers who singularly embraced gay sensibility--Jean Cocteau, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder; a tradition carried forth by Martineau and Ducastel, François Ozon, Pedro Almodovar. Yet, there is no one else whose films bring gay experience into the great human and high-art tradition as much as André Téchiné.