Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 24, 2012 3:11 pm 
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Téchiné, a bit off form

Unforgivable is adapted from a novel by Philppe Dijan (whose 37°2 le matin was the basis for Beineix's Betty Blue). In this new source Téchiné finds favorite themes: family tensions, amorous transgressions, personal doubts. He assembles an interesting cast including André Dussollier, Carole Bouquet, Adriana Asti. They deliver fresh, energetic performances, and are joined by young hopefuls like Mélanie Thierry and Mauro Conte, who also show how good Téchiné is with actors. The underlying theme from the novel by Dijan, something about a writer who gets blocked when he's in love, along with other implausible plot elements, doesn't go down nearly as well as the performances. This is recognizably personal work. But Unforgivable doesn't sing and excite us like the great Téchiné films of the Eighties and Nineties. The themes don't cohere and the action seems artificial.

What's wrong to begin with, is Venice, the setting, which requires people who alternately speak French and Italian, but don't seem particularly wedded to the locale. Though it's nice that this Téchiné Venice stays away from tourist traps and is not a cliché, it's a pity that it is not also in some way more atmospheric, mysterious, magical, or even ugly. And no amount of motorboats or instructions on tailing somebody along the canals can change that.

Venice may have a lot of real estate agents, but a French one, called Judith (Carole Bouquet), is a stretch. Likewise her being approached by a French mystery story writer, Francis (André Dussollier) who has come to write a book. This was not the setting of the novel (which was the Basque coast), and feels like Woody Allen coming to a new location to liven up his filmmaking routine. Dussollier takes a house out on Sant'Erasmo island, on condition that Judith moves in with him. That's even more of a stretch; the suggestion gives her a nosebleed. But a year and a half later they are married and living there together. Only it turns out Francis is happy now, and when he's happy he can't write. So: writer's block. Francis' daughter Alice (Thierry), an aspiring actress who's married with a child, comes to visit, and then disappears. Francis engages a semi-retired female detective, Anna Maria (Asti), an old flame of Judith's, it seems, who goes off to Paris, to trail Alice. She turns out to be perfectly happy, if irresponsible, having an affair with a shady young Venetian, Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), the son of an impoverished countess (Sandra Toffolatti). Alvise is a small time drug dealer, as, it turns out, is Anna Maria's son Jérémie (Mauro Conte; his father was French, you see), but Alvise is an "aristo," which Jérémie definitely isn't.

Francis now becomes suspicious that Judith is having an affair and hires Jérémie, just back from jail on drug charges, to follow her. Jérémie doesn't want to and isn't trained to but can't say no because he needs the money. Judith is soon onto Jérémie. They connect and have a brief affair. But Jérémie is also depressive, and, for obscure reasons (homosexual panic?), a gay basher. Despite the moment on the grass with Judith, he does not want sex with men or women, and even dislikes touching people. Francis for a while becomes involved with Jérémie and helps, even saves him. This might be the most important moment of the film, but it happens and is over a little too quickly.

The blocked Francis is always spying on and examining things, looking through binoculars, a magnifying glass, taking photos of everything, like a tourist; he says it helps him in his writing (what writing?). He's trying to get to the bottom of something, evidently, but there's no there there. And there's something pretty nasty that happens with a dog. Anna Maria, an alcoholic and chain smoker, returns to Venice, diagnosed in Paris as terminally ill.

Working with screenwriter Mehdi Ben Attia, who collaborated on Far, Téchiné has modified the novel's first-person narration to present events from multiple viewpoints as in The Witnesses and Changing Times. This definitely makes the film more Téchiné-like, but the tangled strands don't cohere as they might. This could be for several reasons: the corny writer-in-love-and-unable-to-write theme; Francis' inexplicable jealousy; the fact that the two young Italian men Jérémie and Alvise, are shadowy as well as shady figures whose torments or delights never seem to matter. It's hard to think of any really crucial moment, and the pivotal relationship between Francis and Judith, which is arbitrarily set up and keeps being interrupted, lacks emotional resonance. The turning point is the novel Francis writes when his writing block lifts. Due to his jealousy he and Judith have been estranged, but when the book is done, Francis goes to her and she seems welcoming. This is not an emotional shift that feels convincing.

It's nice that this film has at the center a romance of older people. Judith is well into her fifties and Francis well into his sixties. But his sudden, offhand proposal and later marriage and subsequent jealousy and estrangement, followed by reunion after a book's done, all seem like literary gimmicks. The plot line of Unforgivable doesn't, finally, convince.

And in this context Carole Bouquet and André Dussollier, consummate pros though they may be, turn out to be a chilly combination. One longs for Catherine Deneuve, or the great cast Téćhiné assembled for The Witnesses, or Magimel or Binoche, or Amalric, or Auteuil, or the young hotties in Wild Reeds, Élodie Bouchez, Gaël Morel, Stéphane Rideau -- all those wonderful characters, interesting actors, people we could care about.

At his best Téchiné has woven complex plots whose interrelations one deeply pondered and wanted to understand, as in Wild Reeds or Les Voleurs, or explored an individual story that seemed to matter, as in I Don't Kiss, or followed multiple stories that are part of the same important historical moment, as in The Witnesses. Here it is difficult to see what the different story lines have to do with each other or why they matter. There's a Téchiné feel, but not a Téchiné importance. And the reason all this ultimately disappoints so much is that Téchiné has, in the past, made films that really did matter. But this can't be totally dismissed because Téchiné's misfires provide worthwhile commentary on his successes.

André Téchiné's Inpardonnables debuted at Cannes and opened in Paris August 17, 2011, receiving not very enthusiastic reviews (Allociné 2.6). Critics saw the film as long, repetitious, and running breathlessly along too many narrative paths (I'm paraphrasing Cahiers). It has been picked up for US distribution by Strand Releasing. The film is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema March 1-11, 2012 (a joint enterprise of UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center), slated for the following screenings:

*Wed., March 7, 2012, 6:30pm – IFC; *Fri., March 9, 8:45pm – WRT
*In person: Carole Bouquet

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