André Téchiné is most likely a name few mainstream American moviegoers are familiar with. I myself was unfamiliar with his work until now, but I am pleased to have been introduced to it. A former critic for the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, Téchiné moved into filmmaking in the late 1960s as a writer and director. He did not have his first taste of real success until the mid 1970s, and his films steadily became financial and critical hits in France. Beginning in the mid 1990s, his movies began to see relatively successful commercial releases in the United States as well, although he has remained under the radar for most of this time. In apparent hopes to remedy this situation, Lions Gate Home Entertainment has dedicated a three-disc box set to Téchiné, releasing four of his most acclaimed films together. The works chosen for this collection easily display the director's continuing style of free-form narratives and observant, slightly detached examinations of relationships and are, in and of themselves, worthwhile films for lovers of French cinema.
Hotel America (Hôtel des Amériques)
In this romantic drama from 1981, Catherine Deneuve stars (in her first of several collaborations with Téchiné) as Hélène, an anesthetist with unresolved emotional issues. One night while out driving alone, confused and somewhat dazed, she nearly hits a pedestrian. The two end up spending the night in a diner so that she can file a report, but Gilles, the pedestrian (Patrick Dewaere), falls in love with her by the next morning. He asks her for a date, and while she accepts, she remains coldly indifferent toward him. They eventually sleep together in his mother's hotel, but this only complicates the relationship. As Hélène starts to warm up to Gilles over time and opens up her personal life, he becomes increasingly temperamental, displaying a possessive and unpredictable personality that threatens to drive them apart just as they are getting closer.
"Hotel America" quickly establishes the free-flowing narrative structure that Téchiné has become known for. Hélène and Gilles' relationship does not follow the conventional path of romantic films, instead carrying the unpredictability of real romantic struggles, with moments that are sometimes sublime, sometimes frightening, and sometimes despairing. It has been said that Téchiné allowed his actors to improvise during shooting, and this lends the scenes spontaneity and a natural sense of awkwardness. Deneuve is quite good in a predominately icy role, but it is the tragic Dewaere (who committed suicide less than a year after the film's release) who is most fascinating to watch. Best known for a series of French comedies co-starring Gérard Depardieu, he pulls off this dramatic role by seemingly channeling his inner demons, fleshing out Gilles' insecurities and unbalanced nature.
Téchiné's observant, emotionally detached approach to storytelling (which features prominently in all of the films in this collection) at times seems counterintuitive in this particular movie. With two lead characters in such emotional turmoil, the film seems like it should be much more involving, but the viewer is kept at a slight distance throughout. As interesting as the central relationship is, there is a coldness to it that can be off-putting, making us care less for the characters. What holds the film together is the solid acting. Deneuve and Dewaere's honesty rings true even if we cannot fully grasp on to their characters. The nuances that they bring to their roles may require multiple viewings to see in their entirety, and the film will likely improve with repeated screenings.
I Don't Kiss (J'embrasse pas)
"I Don't Kiss" (1991) follows Pierre (Manuel Blanc), a disenchanted young man who leaves his home in a rustic French town for the career opportunities in Paris. Hoping to become an actor while earning his keep in a hospital kitchen, Pierre finds the hospital salary too low to make a decent living and the intellectual challenges of acting school beyond his grasp. He lives off of the patronage of an older female acquaintance for a while, but her emotional clinging drives him away. His meeting with a co-worker's gay friend, Romain (Philippe Noiret), introduces him to the world of male prostitution. Romain, a frequent client of male hustlers himself, warns Pierre against this lifestyle, but with no other source of income, Pierre reluctantly delves into it for quick cash. Over time, this experience builds up his confidence, allowing him to afford the luxuries that he desires and helping to develop his social skills.
Although the story centers on Pierre, Téchiné constructs an evocative character study of several lost souls. Everywhere he goes, Pierre encounters people who, like him, seem to be stuck in their current states and long to be somewhere else. First, there is Evelyne (Hélène Vincent), the woman who takes him in and helps him find his first job in Paris. Strapped down with her crippled mother, she seems to harbor some guilt that is never explained in the course of the film. Her relationship to Pierre begins as a maternal one, but it quickly becomes sexual, bringing out in her a passion that the young man is little interested in dealing with. Later, Pierre meets Ingrid (Emmanuelle Béart), a beautiful prostitute whose boyfriend/pimp holds a savage control over her. This control will eventually result in the film's violent and disturbing climax. With all of these characters, there is a looming sense that happiness is not too far away and that it would be attainable were it not for one great obstacle (Evelyne's mother, Ingrid's pimp, Pierre's naiveté).
What Téchiné really succeeds in doing with this film is evoking the isolation that a great city like Paris can hide behind its grand façade. The director's detached approach is entirely appropriate here in order to convey how disconnected the characters are from each other and from the rest of society. Pierre displays a melancholy throughout the film (appropriately, he recites a monologue from "Hamlet" in his acting class) that deepens as he realizes how unprepared he is for life in a large city of great sophistication. He cannot connect emotionally with other people, so it is not surprising that he takes so well to hustling. As he tells Romain in one scene, there are no feelings involved with his johns. The sex is meaningless, unlike his relationship with Evelyne. Prostitution allows him to connect with others only physically and without the emotional baggage of a serious relationship. Téchiné's approach effectively captures this emptiness without distancing us so much from the characters that we cease to relate to them.
My Favorite Season (Ma saison préférée)
In "My Favorite Season" (1993), Téchiné turns his attention to a dysfunctional family that crumbles as the elderly matriarch falls deeper into poor health. After suffering a stroke alone on her farm, Berthe (Marthe Villalonga) is taken in by her daughter Emilie (Catherine Deneuve). While Emilie does everything she can to keep up appearances, Berthe senses that she is a disruption in her daughter and son-in-law's life. In a bid to heal family wounds, Emilie invites her long-estranged brother, Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), to Christmas dinner. When the celebration turns into a bitter feud, Berthe decides to move back into the comfort of her own house. After she suffers a second stroke, however, Emilie and Antoine decide that she must be moved to an assisted living facility where she can be under constant supervision.
This decision draws Emilie and Antoine closer together for the first time in years. It also brings out a clinging and possessive side to Antoine. It is clear from the beginning that he is slightly jealous of his brother-in-law, and his affection for his sister only grows when she separates from her husband. In almost childish fashion, Antoine wants to set up house with her in a luxurious apartment. Emilie is somewhat baffled by his proposal, as she is still trying to cope with her mother's poor health and with her declining relationships with her own grown children, Anne (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter) and Lucien (Anthony Prada). They, in turn, have sparked up their own unusual triangular relationship with Rhadija (Carmen Chaplin), their parents' secretary.
Téchiné deftly handles the twisted and constantly shifting relationships between family members in this film. Once again, the unconventional narrative structure allows the characters to behave naturally and not as mainstream films would have them behave. The relationships progress realistically and in surprising ways. The film is reasonably paced, but its unpredictability gives it great energy. There are times when the story veers into places we never expected it to go, yet it never loses its credibility.
The cast is in uniformly fine form, led by excellent performances from Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil. They provide rich characterizations and constantly reveal new layers as the movie goes along. Marthe Villalonga is also impressive. She gives a deeply touching performance without being sentimental. In fact, one of Téchiné and the cast's greatest accomplishments with this film is that they are able to draw audience sympathy for these characters without resorting to either sentimentality or melodrama. The film captures the joys and pains of real family life, never romanticizing them, and always presenting them with great perception and truthfulness.
Wild Reeds (Les roseaux sauvages)
Set in southwestern France in the early 1960s during the Algerian War, "Wild Reeds" (1994) is a coming-of-age story about four high school students at the brink of adulthood. Serge (Stéphane Rideau) is the son of poor Italian sharecroppers, a mediocre student struggling to get by. His brother is fighting for the French in the war but plans to desert. To earn better grades, Serge makes a deal with François (Gaël Morel) to exchange homework assignments, each doing what he does best for the other. François is a sensitive, physically weak boy who finds himself attracted to Serge after the two engage in a little boarding school experimentation. His sexual confusion causes trouble in his relationship with Maïté (Élodie Bouchez), his French teacher's daughter and a staunch Communist. She soon becomes the object of desire for 21-year-old Henri (Frédéric Gorny), a French-Algerian who supports Algeria's freedom from France and is thus an outsider.
In what may arguably be the best film in this collection, Téchiné examines the emotional changes of his young protagonists with sensitivity and understanding. The film evokes a historically significant time in French history, and the impact that the Algerian War has on the teenagers and their surroundings is not glossed over. The political elements undoubtedly resonate more with French viewers than Americans, but the intimate relationships are certainly universal. Most endearing is François' discovery of his homosexuality. It is not treated with the shock or heavy-handedness that an American filmmaker might have given it, but rather with delicate understanding. For François and the others, it is just another new and exciting part of growing up.
Like the other films in this set, "Wild Reeds" is a serious contemplation of modern relationships. While it is ostensibly about teenagers at the peak of their sexual adventurousness, it is not superficial or nostalgic. The young characters speak and behave maturely and quite solemnly most of the time, as should be expected of them in their social and political environment. Their moments of playfulness come as relief. The four young stars give complex performances, perfectly capturing their characters' pleasures and frustrations. As they struggle to make sense of the world around them, the protagonists discover more about themselves and each other. What exactly they learn and how they choose to apply it remains largely ambiguous, as Téchiné leaves all of these films generally open-ended. He leaves viewers with the sense that the story does not end with the closing credits, but that only one chapter of a much longer and ongoing story has been told.
The latest in Lions Gate's ongoing series of box sets dedicated to acclaimed directors and actors, The Andre Téchiné Boxset contains all four films on three discs. "Hotel America" and "I Don't Kiss" share Disc 1, "My Favorite Season" occupies Disc 2, and Disc 3 contains "Wild Reeds." "Hotel America" was previously featured in Lions Gate's Catherine Deneuve Collection as well. It appears that "I Don't Kiss" is making its Region 1 DVD debut.
All of the films are presented in anamorphic widescreen transfers, "Wild Reeds" in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the rest in 2.35:1. To be honest, none of the transfers here look stellar. All feature some grain or possibly digital noise throughout. Some digital artifacting is frequently visible, including some edge enhancement. Colors are occasionally strong, but the overall images appear a little older than they actually are. All of the films are a bit soft, and some of the night scenes appear quite muddy. That is not to say, however, that these transfers look terrible. They are serviceable, at least, and the sumptuous cinematography on all four films still shines through.
Audio for each film is delivered in French monaural. Dialogue drives these movies, so the mono tracks are just fine. Voices are clear and audible, and there appears to be no distortion or hiss. All four films feature excellent scores as well, and the music is delivered clearly. "Wild Reeds" utilizes some well-known 60s hits by the Beach Boys and other groups, and the songs sound just fine. Each film is accompanied by optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
There are no supplements in this collection, but considering how affordable the set is for the number of films, it sort of evens out. While a short featurette would have been appreciated to at least provide an overview of Téchiné's career, the films speak for themselves well enough to justify this collection.
From the four films presented in this collection, it can easily be gathered that André Téchiné is an artist with a significant understanding of human relationships. His observant nature and delicate touch allow audiences to connect with his stories without being manipulated by formulaic or contrived ideas. His films are quiet, thoughtful, and beautifully naturalistic. These are strong works of contemporary French cinema, and this box set is another winner from Lions Gate.