Thursday, November 3, 2016
André Téchiné | Les Roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds)
blowing in the wind
by Douglas Messerli
Olivier Massart, Gilles Taurand, André Téchiné (writers), André Téchiné (director) Les Roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds) / 1994
Yes, this is another young gay coming-out movie. But it is far too much more to describe it as that. The young boarding-school boy, François Forestier (Gaël Morel) of André Téchiné’s film, is certainly ready to discover his sexuality, given his close, non-sexual, relationship with his teacher’s beautiful daughter, Maïte Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez), but he is not only a shy boy, but an obedient farmer’s son, determined to become the best in his class, but also—as his teacher herself confirms—is not only over-eager but too self-confident, particularly when it comes to his abilities in French literature. His math skills are a bit more dubious, as his even more removed classmate, Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau) perceives, who is willing to exchange math answers in return for help in literary essays.
But these gymnasium exchanges have, actually, little to do with the problems these youths are facing. The film begins, seemingly in loving generic devotion, with a new wedding between Serge’s older brother, Pierre to a young bride, Irène, which in any other film might be portrayed as an absolutely joyful event. But here, we quickly learn, Pierre, a solider momentarily on leave from the French-Algerian war—a former student of Maïte’s mother, Madame Alvarez (Michèle Moretti)—has married his bride only to find a way to escape from the war, and is seeking, through her, a Communist member, a route to hide out for a period of time. She morally refuses him: he is and his family members are, after all, former Algerian residents who oppose Algerian independence. The Communists might have tried to intervene for French men opposed to the war, but he is a member of the Algerian rightest group, and intervention in his case is a sticky situation.
Director Téchiné says nothing of this, presuming his French audience will comprehend the political situation, but American audiences need to know how difficult the French political situation was, when many French who had lived wealthy lives in Algeria such as Serge and other politically opposed figures were now suddenly ousted from their somewhat privileged worlds.
As the young boys, both outsiders, François and Serge, crawl into each other’s beds, finding temporary comfort in each other’s bodies, things become even more complex, as François, suddenly confronting that he is, indeed, a “faggot”—a scene beautifully realized as he shouts the word out over and over again into a mirror until it finally becomes a declaration of true identity—realizes that his new would-be lover is far more attracted to his virginal female friend, and later, after he shifts rooms, perceives that Henri (Frédéric Gorny), a bi-sexual older student, is just as attracted to his woman friend, is quite devastated by the situations he must confront.
The death in war of Pierre sends Maïte’s mother into a psychological breakdown: she has, after all, been directly responsible for his death by refusing to help him. And, Maïte, now left alone, is even more confused about her possible relationships with men in general.
Yes, Téchiné shows us, youth is a very difficult period, particularly in relationship to sexual identity. But here, we also have deep political alliances that confuse everyone. Both Serge and Henri accuse the good-Catholic-farm boy François of being a coward, and they are right; he cannot comprehend either of their own deep emotional involvements with the political situations of the day. His immersion into their lives is simply sexual. But that, of course, is just as confusing and troubling, revealed so terribly with his visit to a local shoe-salesman—known as a gay man in the local community of Toulouse—who, when François asks him for advice, cannot even remember his feelings as a youth. Youth, it is clear, regarding both sex and politics, cannot rely on the older generation, can offer no significant answers, only simplistic mantras; even the sympathetic Monsieur Morelli (Jacques Nolot) will not truly answer Henri’s questions about the failures of the Algerian revolution, even after the French have retreated.
The wonder of Téchiné’s film is that it offers no easy solutions. It is for the young “reeds,” who in their adolescent tenacity, will survive into the future and come to terms with reality, as opposed to the old oaks of Aesops’s fable retold by La Fontaine.
Los Angeles, November 3, 2016