Saturday, January 12, 2019
André Téchiné | Impardonnables (Unforgiveable)
life in venice
by Douglas Messerli
André Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia (writers), André Téchiné (director) Impardonnables (Unforgiveable) / 2011
Although André Téchiné's 2011 film, Unforgiveable, was fairly well-received by critics, it still was not seen to be as likeable or coherent as his early films such as Wild Reeds or The Witnesses or even a later film like Being 17; as The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, for example, observed: "Unforgivable isn't one of Mr. Téchiné's greatest achievements, but it's engrossing even when its increasingly populated story falters, tripped up by unpersuasive actions, connections and details."
The wide range of characters who weave in and out of novelist Francis’ (André Dussollier) life—his sudden wife, the real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet), his daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry), who just as suddenly abandons her own daughter, Vicky (Zoé Duthion), the female, heavy drinking detective, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), who previously had a lesbian relationship with Judith, the wealthy spoiled small-time drug dealer, Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), with whom Alice is deeply in love, and Jérémie (Mauro Conte), Anna Maria’s violent, possibly repressed homosexual son, who Francis hires for follow Judith after he suspects her of extramarital affairs—almost all seem to be dropped into this stewpot of a story without any explanation of how they have come together or what their feelings are for one other. You only need to read the almost incomprehensible plot summary on Wikipedia to perceive the utter zaniness of the story, in which the characters shift back and forth in the French and Italian languages, the tale inexplicably taking place on a distant island, Sant' Erasmo, near Venice.
I won’t even try, in this case, to reiterate why the characters are doing what they are and how they arrived into their complex relationships. The movie doesn’t seem to know and certainly does not attempt to explain it. But I think that is the point. These figures might as well be out of the novel Francis is frustratedly trying to write. They are somewhat melodramatic, and, except for Francis, are beautiful imaginations of figures trapped in a world nothing is truly knowable.
A bit like the characters in Gilbert Sorrentino’s epic fiction Mulligan Stew these creations speed up and down the Venice cannels without any real purpose except to attempt to get closer to each other. They are figures of the imagination: the authors’ (the story was based on a fiction by Philippe Djian), our own, and their own—all out of control. All are totally unfit for their assigned professions, perhaps even Francis who seems to be orchestrating their interrelationships.
Even if Judith might be an excellent real-estate agent, she is simply, in her beauty and youth, not appropriate as Francis’ island-bride, temporarily bedding down with the boy is following her; Alice is neither a good daughter nor a capable mother; Alvise is incompetent as a member of the Venice aristocracy, as a petty drug agent, and as a lover; the self-hating beauty Jérémie is as clumsy in his detective duties as Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau; the vodka swigging Anna Maria might be better sitting at a bar and swilling down drinks on a couch.
And yet, somehow Téchiné, along with his impressive cast, turns this nonsense into a fascinating human farce in which you actually care for all of their outcomes. In the end, all the film’s characters have some kind of reconciliation. Francis finishes writing. Anna Maria returns from France after having successfully found Alice. Upon Alvise’s imprisonment, Alice returns to Francis. And Francis finally serves as a kind of father to Jérémie, not only saving him from a suicide attempt but forcibly disciplining him for his inability to love his mother and for his violence for people whose ideas he finds threatening. By film’s end, Francis invites the lovely Judith back into his own Paris world.
Perhaps art is greater life; or, perhaps life triumphs over art. In this beautiful work, we can never certain. Are these all figures of Francis’ imagination or has he, through his writer’s block, been able to finally integrate his life with the ghosts of his present and past?
Los Angeles, January 12, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).