Saturday, March 13, 2021

Jean Delannoy | Les amitiés particulières (This Special Friendship)

six encounters on the way to love

Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (screenplay, based on the novel by Roger Peyrefitte), Jean Delannoy (director) Les amitiés particulières (This Special Friendship) / 1964

One of the best movies of the 1960s—a decade of great art house cinema—and one of the greatest of LGBTQ love stories ever made was Jean Delannoy’s 1964 movie, Les amitiés particulières (This Special Friendship). Based on a novel by Roger Peyrefitte, the film was shot almost entirely at the Cloister at Royaumont Abbey outside of Paris, where it’s vaulted ceilings provide the characters held within a sense of overwhelming insignificance. Indeed in the Jesuit school in which the boys of the lower and upper levels are being educated, there seemingly is no escape from the endless prayers, masses, confessions, warnings, and punishments doled out by the Church priests and their Superior (Lucien Nat).

     Despite the relative innocence of these sexually maturing boys, you might almost think, given the constant chaos as perceived the priests, that this was a hot-house of homosexual desires. If it is, however, it represents their own sublimated and sometimes not so hidden sexual attractions.

     Unlike the boarding schools we encounter in works like Maurice, Brideshead Revisited, and if...., for example, these boy’s maturation is expressed in rather innocent relationships such as the early romance between two older boys, Lucien Rouvère (François Leccia) and André Ferron (Gérard Chambre) who meet secretly— often by having their names called up by the teachers at the beginning of classes for nonexistent meetings with other priests—exchange florid love poetry, and mix their blood to represent the bond between them.

     When Georges de Sarre, new to the school, discovers that the friendly boy who sleeps in the bed next to him is having these secret meetings, he pulls a letter from the boy out of a book which Lucien has left behind, delivering it up to the père supérieur which results, soon after, with André being expelled. It’s ironic that Georges begins his school days in this terrifying institution by serving as a snitch; but many of the sermons the students daily hear are devoted to warnings such “beware of your friendships, let your friendships be pure and public,” etc. that for a well-meaning neophyte as Georges, convinces him that behavior such as Lucien’s is dangerous. Georges, as we shall soon see, moreover is not a rebel, but an astute intellectual who later is awarded for his achievements. And strangely, his reporting of his friend’s seemingly aberrant behavior seems to temporarily have a good effect.

     Obviously, the relationship was more a physical one than one consisting of deep spiritual or emotional connections, with, we can speculate, the young men kissing and embracing without truly having fallen in love. For when Lucien hears that Georges and he have been selected to accompany the priest in the following day’s mass, he welcomes it as opportunity to change his ways. As he, almost absurdly assures Georges, as of 10:35 (checking his watch) he has converted. And throughout the rest of the film, although he and Georges become close friends, we never again hear of Lucien involved in student romances.

     But, as I mentioned above, Georges’ acts become ironic when only a few days later, spotting a younger boy, the brother of a student in his class, bearing a lamb down the aisle during the Easter ceremony he almost immediately is attracted, unable to control his visual excitement.

     Soon after, he encounters the engaging youth, Alexandre Motier (Didier Haudepin), once again on the train to school, where Alexandre is now enrolled. Almost from that moment on, Christian Matras’ camera cannot take its eye off of  the photogenic youth except when it focuses on Georges’ radiant adoration of the youth’s beauty. In the train, when the boy momentarily is sent out of the   coach in which he is sitting with other boys playing a guessing game, and sticks his head momentarily out of the window during which a cinder flies into his eyes, Georges attends to Alexandre as if he were a romantic suitor. With his clean handkerchief he quickly is drawn into the eyes of complete innocence, removing the cinder, at the same moment falling desperately in love. For his part, Alexandre is equally taken with the elder’s attentions, as the two make an unspoken bond that quickly develops into an intensely secret relationship that is far deeper and transgressive than Lucien’s and André’s had been.

     Neither of them can keep their eyes off of each other in mass, and when it comes time to take communion, Georges elbows his way ahead of Lucien so that he might kneel at the alter next to Alexandre and follow him, after receiving the wafer, back to his pew. Evidently for these two young lovers, not even the communion rail is sacred.

     Within moments in cinema time the two are covertly exchanging love letters consisting as in Lucien’s and Andre’s exchanges again mostly of purloined lines from classic poetry or, in Alexandre’s case, simple heartfelt statements (“If your words were caresses, my looks are kisses.”) When Lucien tells Georges of the existence of a derelict potting shed, the young lovers soon begin meeting there, having provided false excuses such as a sprained ankle or assigned errands in order to escape the always watchful eyes of the Jesuit priests.

Not unlike the early trials and tribulations of modern day coming-of-age and coming out dramas, the meetings in the beginning are fraught with problems. At their first meeting Alexandre storms out in a pique of jealously that Georges has dared to mention their friendship to Lucien. The next day Georges resolves the situation by managing to place gift of a bottle of lavender hair oil by the boy’s dinner plate.

     Upon their second potting shed-rendezvous, Alexandre reports the devious methods his confessor priest, Father Lauzon (Louis Seigner), is using to wheedle out information about their relationship. Afraid that he might accidentally expose his hidden thoughts or, more importantly, that Georges might lead him into actions which expose their own secret desires, he almost interviews his elder:

                   alexandre:  Do you know what you ought not to know?

                   georges: Yes, I know.

                      alexandre: Is it interesting?

                      georges: I’m not interested.

Their conversation may relieve Alexandre from the fear of their actualizing their feelings for one another. But the fact that his hair already smells of the lavender provided by Georges and that he presents him with a gift of a lock of his beautiful mane taped to a piece of paper suggests they have already moved somewhat beyond the purity of mere admiration.

      On the other hand, the priests themselves are constantly on the alert for the prurient in even the most innocent of acts. When the bedroom rector, Father Trennes (Michel Bouquet) discovers Lucien and Georges whispering to one another late at night, he challenges them to reveal what they were talking about (it probably concerned Georges’ relationship with Alexandre). The boys claim they were just speaking nonsense to which he aptly replies, “When people talk late at night it is about something serious.” Inviting them into his room, he serves up sherry and cigarettes, explaining that as an archeologist by profession, his job is to decipher the secrets of the past, just as he discerns the secrets of his charges. Insisting that he knows they are lying, he demands that they make confession with him in order to be sinless for the Easter Eucharist. But it is also apparent that he will use any thing they might confess to his advantage, perhaps even hoping to engage them in sexual activities with him in the name of penitence. Fortunately, the boys are able to outwit him through their declaration that they are pure of thought and have nothing, accordingly, to confess

     Meanwhile, in this world of secret loves and betrayals someone has captured one of Alexandre’s epistles, which, when interrogated, he claims represent the words of his father instead of those intended for anyone else. He is sentenced to the punishment of kneeling for long hours every day. Observing the boy in pain, Georges dares to take an unscheduled meeting with the Father Superior to explain that the boy is innocent, since he has suggested to Alexandre that a speech Georges presented was for him, which the boy mistakenly interpreted as a sign of admiration, writing in response innocent words of appreciation.

      Alexandre is freed from penance, but George is punished for daring to meet with the Superior without an invitation. And he is told that he must never again address the younger students. Of course, all eyes are now directed on the two just as the camera has been throughout.

     At their third meeting, Alexandre has determined that the two are now one, that their love is mutual and to represent that they must exchange blood. They do so in a ceremony the boy titles “United Forever,” drawing them even closer together beyond the spiritual into aspects of the flesh as they each closely watch the other cutting the knife across their arms, sucking the blood from small wounds, and gently touching each other’s open cut.

      Trennes again warns Georges of what he has observed their constant shared gazes throughout dinner hours and even witnessed the kisses that Alexandre blows toward the elder as they dine. He claims that Alexandre has now asked him to become his confessor, and that if Georges will not admit to the relationship he will discover the truth through his torturous questioning of the boy.

      Terrified of what he may discover and observing the fact that immediately after speaking with Georges Trennes invites another dormitory boy to his room, Georges slips out of bed with a note he pushes under the Father Superior’s door. The Superior, rushing to Trennes’ room discovers the priest and the boy in the room together with spirits and cigarettes lying upon the table.

        The next morning Trennes has been relieved of his position, suggesting to Georges: “I think you know why I’m leaving the place.” Georges admits that he does, and surprisingly Trennes thanks him for honesty while apprising him not to fear retaliation. Instead he asks Georges to pray for him, obviously realizing that he himself was ready to bring “what he ought not to know” into reality.

       On the fourth secret meeting, this time, appropriately during a rainstorm, Alexandre discovers the door to the potting shed barred. But Georges has already found a nearby comfy spot in a shed filled with hay. Here, for the first time, they actually lay down beside one another, leaning toward, at least visually, actual physical contact. George takes out cigarettes and lights them, the standard symbolic cinematic invitation to sex. And within moments the boys are tousling with one another  as they blow smoke into each other’s faces. At one moment Georges is on the verge of hovering over the boy’s supine body but at that very moment Father Lauzon enters, shocked by his discovery, sending one by one the boys off, Lauzon whispering to Georges as he leaves, “Don’t come back here next year.”

      During the next few days, both Georges and Alexandre, who still someone manage to meet up during a music lesson with a blind priest, both await their punishments, presuming that at least Georges and possibly Alexandre also will be expelled. Alexandre, however, continues to imagine a perfect ending, the two of them joining up over their summer break and eventually becoming a couple forever just as their blood has now made them one. For him the magic word is now

     Yet, when Lauzon finally does approach Georges he assures him that he will not be expelled as long as he meets his demands that the two can never again speak to one another, and they can no longer remain friends. Once more Georges attempts to convince the priest that any wrongdoing was his, that what have first drawn him to the boy were changed upon actually meeting him: “My evil thoughts left me when I met Alexandre.”

      There is one thing, however, that the priest also demands in order to “save” the still rebellious boy’s soul: Georges must return the letters Alexandre has written, making it clear that there is no longer a possibility of a relationship.

       Georges breaks into tears, pleading with the pretender who claims to care deeply for the boy, knowing that if he were to do that it would represent his compete betrayal of the innocent Alexandre. Lauzon demands that in order to save the boy he must be made to understand that the “past is dead.”

       Georges has no choice if he is to prevent the boy’s expulsion and familial embarrassment. After Georges is awarded the prize for his studies, he leaves the packet of letters on Lauzon’s desk and hurries off with his parents who have attended the event.

        Shown the packet and told that Georges have left without saying goodbye, Alexandre is in shock, now forced to travel home by train with “well-meaning” priest overseeing his and his colleagues trip.

        Finally, at one point Alexandre rises and walks into the corridor just as he did that day he first me Georges. Before the open window he tears up the letters Georges and written and has still refused to hand over to the priest, throwing them to the wind.

       The camera shifts to a position outside the train, as we watch the corridor door handle move to a downward position. When Lauzon realizes that the boy is missing, he stops the train.

        Like Anna Karenina, Alexandre has allowed a train to resolve his love-lorn sufferings.

        Several days later Lauzon visits the Marquise de Sarre’s mansion in order to speak with Georges. The young man is in tears and both share their disbelief that Alexandre has died. But when Lauzon speaks of the event as an accident, Georges now interrupts him to assert “It was not accident.” While Lauzon says he hopes Georges is mistaken, Georges argues “I prefer the truth.”

But even more importantly he finally admits “I cannot accept his death. It was not his purity I loved.”

         Claiming to also have loved him in trying to save his soul, Lauzon hands Georges a candid picture that he had taken of Alexandre in which the beautiful boy lays asleep sitting in a banquet.

         In return, Georges gives Lauzon a letter, now his last letter, he had written to Alexandre hoping to deliver it in person during their summer vacation:

                      I’ll deliver this letter myself. The thought delights me. I’ll

                      see your street, watch out for you. Trust me as I trust you.

                      I may have had other friends, but you’re my only friend now.

                      We have had joy enough to fill volumes and volumes.

                      Our friendship is in my hands now, after being in yours.

                      I’ll keep it as you have. And our friendship’s name is love.*

       At the beginning of this film, the director presents us a written apologia, of sorts, an assertion that the tragedy that happens in this work is itself something of the past, without the possibility of being repeated.

                       This film takes place in an already distant time. The story

                       it tells could not happen today. Discipline is no longer as

                       severe in colleges, and the educational methods are very

                       different. But what will never change, what remains eternal

                       are the emotions which test the threshold of adolescence. 

If anyone is naive enough to believe the first three sentences he will surely be unable to comprehend the final one. For we well know—and there have been hundreds of films, books, essays, and journalistic pieces attesting to the fact—that wherever young adolescents of the same sex fall in love there are dozens of others immediately surrounding them with admonitions, lectures, condolences, and hate. This film, with its controversial subject of pre-teen and teenage love, I would argue, could not possibly be released today, and if it were it would be heavily censored, even given the fact that no sexual activity is portrayed. Perhaps only a few directors such as the Danish director Lasse Nielsen, particularly in his 1978 work You Are Not Alone, have even dared cautiously tiptoe into this pedophilic territory, and that work was highly controversial.

      And only the French would tolerated the adaptation of Peyrefitte’s work, particularly given the fact that during the shooting of This Special Friendship the 57 year old author met a 12-year-old playing a choir boy in the film, Alain-Phillippe Malagnac d’Argens de Villèle, with whom he fell in love, developing a rocky relationship with the boy that he would chronicle in the novels Notre amour (1967) and L'enfant de cœur (1978). Malagnac later died in a fire in 2000 at the age of 49, shortly after Peyrefitte’s death that same year, possibly from suicide since the novels describe them as having made a suicide pact, with the intention of the one committing suicide upon the other’s death.

*Many of the incidents in this work remind me of Oscar Wilde’s trial, where poems he had sent to young men were interpreted to be lurid expressions of his love for them. And the last line of Georges letter reminds me of Wilde’s observations about “the love which has no name,” although obviously here Georges is openly naming it by speaking of their “special” friendship.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).

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