André Téchiné’s films are literate, big-hearted, humane, thoughtful and a little dull. Téchiné seems to want to be as inclusive as possible, to be scrupulously fair to every character, no matter how minor, and give a sense of social context to each person. He never resorts to the shorthand of caricature, and there’s never anything flip about the films. Accordingly, his movies are full of detours and unexpected digressions, as if the director wants to take in as much of the world as possible, and be rigorously honest while doing so.
All very admirable, but this means the movies tend to lose focus and never pick up much narrative momentum (and in the case of 1998’s Alice et Martin, sometimes peter out entirely on the long march to the finish line). You don’t exactly come out of them with your head buzzing. For a while it looks like Wild Reeds could be a classic, the director drawing on memories of his own youth for the story of four teens’ crossed signals (sexual and political) in 1962 Provence. Without resorting to banal postcard views, Téchiné and his DP Jeanne Lapoirie create a village backdrop that is absolutely idyllic, as if the entire movie was shot on the most spectacular day in June.
But the longer the movie goes on, the more the director’s inherent generosity succumbs to a streak of sentimentality a kilometer wide. Given that this is the boonies in 1962, Serge (Stephané Rideau), the teenage son of working-class Italian immigrants, who is also a boarding school dropout, is awfully sanguine about discovering that his best friend Francois (Gael Morel) is gay and pining to have a sexual relationship with him. But that’s nothing compared to the absurd sentimentality of the Communist girl (Elodie Bouchez) giving up her virginity on a riverbank to an unrepentant right-wing colonialist, five minutes after she’d been too shy to step out in a one-piece bathing suit. The idea seems to be that these two polar opposites are inexorably drawn to each other, you see. Only at the movies.
The most interesting character here is in fact the most abrasive, Henri (Frederic Gorny), the embittered 21-year-old refugee from French Algeria forced to give up a life of privilege. He makes no apologies about being not just a colonialist but a racist as well. His scenes provide grit and tension notably lacking elsewhere in the script. But he’s the fourth lead, not the center of the film; that honor goes to Francois, the sensitive, literate cinephile just coming to terms with his homosexuality.
So often in movies that are coming-of-age stories, the main protagonist is a sensitive, self-conscious stand-in for the filmmaker, and is almost invariably a budding writer or artist. As such the lead is often somewhat passive, even if conflicted, whereas the more dramatically interesting characters who are less likely to win the liberal-humanist seal of approval are relegated to supporting roles. The navel gazing and failure of imagination drive me crazy sometimes. (Of course, it’s not just screenwriters but film critics who are more likely to identify with mopey characters like Francois than Henri, or Serge, for that matter.)
The last shot of Wild Reeds is so graceful that I find myself willing to overlook the film’s more dubious moments: a long pan across the countryside — so lush and green you want to book a flight to Provence right now — that eventually comes to rest on our three leads in the distance, walking away from the camera as they cross a bridge and head into “the Sixties,” where who knows what fates await their adult selves. Téchiné saved his most sublime moment for the close of the film.