André Téchiné's Changing Times
Set in Tangiers and starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, André Téchiné’s latest film, Changing Times (Les temps qui changent) is less intense and less autobiographical than the films that earned him an international reputation. Interwoven strands of subplots are never tied down, and much is left unresolved. This is nothing new for Téchiné, who shares with the French existentialists the bleak vision that there is no resolution in this life or the life hereafter. But even without resolution, his earlier films, such as Strayed (Les égarés, 2003) and My Favorite Season (Ma saison préférée, 1993), left his audience deeply moved, troubled, and haunted by what the filmmaker revealed. In Changing Times, Téchiné treats the miracle of love almost wistfully and sentimentally. One leaves the theater asking oneself, does he really mean it?
Téchiné, like his eminent predecessors of the nouvelle vague (Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol), began as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma and then found his way into filmmaking. And like them he is an auteur: he sees his projects as works of art rather than products for mass consumption. His early efforts were reworkings of genre films; in 1981, with Hotel of the Americas (Hôtel des Amériques), he started, as he once explained, creating films about life. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he began to make films about his own life—I Don’t Kiss (J’embrasse pas, 1991) and Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages, 1994).
I Don’t Kiss tells the story of Pierre, a young man who leaves his countryside home for Paris to become an actor and ends up supporting himself as a male prostitute. Along the way Pierre has a relationship with a benevolent older man, Romain, who offers to help him. Those who know Téchiné describe I Don’t Kiss as film à clef about his relationship with the literary critic Roland Barthes, who was his mentor and lover. (Barthes actually plays the role of Thackeray in Les soeurs Brontë [The Brontë Sisters, 1979], one of Téchiné’s early genre films). Téchiné’s next film, Wild Reeds, is a coming-of-age story in which a boarding-school teenager, François, discovers he is gay. He looks in the mirror and keeps repeating, “Je suis un pede.” I am a queer.
But it would be a mistake to think that Téchiné’s use of autobiographical gay characters means he works only within that identity as a filmmaker. Homosexuality certainly represents one of his points of view, but more broadly, this may help him to identify with the outsider. We can see evidence for this in one of the side plots of Changing Times. Sami (Malik Zidi) comes home to Morocco from Paris with his drug-addicted Moroccan girlfriend Nadia (Lubna Azabal) and her young son. Like a child who brings home a stray dog, Sami has taken these two under his wing. No sexual sparks fly between Sami and Nadia, and they have separate reasons for coming back to Morocco. Nadia wants to see her twin sister (also played by Azabal), who is a devout Muslim forced by circumstance to work at McDonald’s—yes, even in Tangiers. Sami wants to reconnect with his former gay lover Bilal (Nadem Rachati), a Moroccan who now works as a caretaker of an absent owner’s estate. The sexual chemistry in the encounter between these two young men is the only such chemistry in the film. And when Sami awakens next to his lover in the middle of the night and goes outside to urinate, we share his terror and vulnerability as he is set upon by the estate’s guard dogs.
Sami is, I think, Téchiné’s alter ego. When he tries to convince Bilal to come back to Paris with him, Bilal refuses, saying, “You are too indecisive. But I guess that is normal. You are half Moroccan, half French, half man, half woman. It must be difficult knowing who you are.” This sounds like the account of an artist who makes films about life and the human condition, who preserves a protean state of creative empathy in which he knows not who he is so that he can better comprehend who the rest of us are. His best films are about the power of eros and the contingencies of circumstance that propel outcasts—the Algerian in France, the criminal, the juvenile delinquent, and the prostitute—into the lives of the bourgeoisie.
Téchiné’s collaboration with Catherine Deneuve has been central to his project since 1981. Deneuve describes Téchiné as a “more feminine” director, who allows her room to act and to create her characters. And Téchiné is intrigued by Deneuve’s “reserve,” a composure that remained untouched by all the more masculine directors who had tried to objectify and consume her mysterious sexuality. Most notorious was Buñuel, who had her engage in the gamut of sado-masochistic eroticism in Belle de jour (1967). Before him the young Roman Polanski had cast her as a virgin so disgusted by sex that she was driven to murder (Repulsion, 1965). And before either of them was Roger Vadim, who gave up the sex goddess Brigitte Bardot for the 17-year-old Deneuve and gave her a son and a leading role in his lurid version of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine (La vice et la vertu, 1963). Her reserve and beauty survived all these degradations; she had become known as the “ice queen” of French film, with a limited range as an actress, but Téchiné allowed her to prove that she could do much more.
In their first collaboration, Hotel of the Americas, she plays a physician-anesthesiologist who is popping pills and mourning her lost lover, a promising architect accidentally drowned at sea. The film asks whether the ne’er-do-well she nearly runs down in the streets of Biarritz can awaken something in her. In My Favorite Season Deneuve plays a strong successful woman with no sexual interest in her husband but a frustrated incestuous attachment to her brother that has ruined both their emotional lives.
The Deneuve character for whom eros is a thing of the past recurs in Changing Times (her fifth collaboration with Téchiné), in which she plays Cécile, Sami’s mother. Cécile is a French woman married to a much younger Moroccan doctor who has learned to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere. She works at a Tangiers radio station as the host of a song-request program. It is an unexciting career, and she has become a woman of routines. She is chronically annoyed by her husband’s shrinking medical practice and put off by the unexpected visit of her son. Husband and wife exist in an uneasy truce, and they are in denial about their only son’s homosexuality. Love and even affection are entirely absent. Into this unhappy family comes Cécile’s one-time lover Antoine (Gérard Depardieu). Thirty years earlier, Cécile and Antoine had an affair in France that Antoine has never forgotten. He is still in love and determined to rekindle the flame; Cécile thinks he must be mad.
In years past, Depardieu was the male sex symbol of French film. Pauline Kael wrote, “Depardieu redeems physical coarseness: he’s both earth and spirit.” He was all of that, but for some reason he almost always seems out of place, as though his physical presence never quite suits his character, be it Cyrano, Colonel Chabert, Rodin, Danton, or even Martin Guerre. Depardieu’s “earth and spirit” overwhelms his characters. In Changing Times, too, he seems out of place, this time as a corporate executive, the well-organized, strong-arm type who can get delayed projects back on schedule. Depardieu also has difficulty convincing the audience that his character’s 30-year-old love has continued unabated. This is not a story about going back to your one great love and rekindling the flame. Antoine’s flame has never gone out. He is a kind of Don Quixote who believes in the dream that love is forever, but who exists in a world that knows better.
Cécile is unmoved by his overtures. His daily bouquets of roses are dumped in the wastebasket and his messages go unread. Cécile is not even curious. Finally a friend convinces her that one night in a hotel together will be enough to douse the flames. So Téchiné invites his audience to watch their rendezvous. In Cécile we see the patient victim, in Antoine the desperate performer. It is anything but erotic. And the outcome is lost in the tangle of Téchiné’s plot, which is told in a circle. The film begins with Antoine being buried in a mudslide at a construction site, and only when that scene is repeated after the night in the hotel do we understand that this is the real sequence of events. At the end of the film, Antoine is in a coma in the hospital with Cécile at his bedside. Has she been touched by the miracle of love? Téchiné descends to the level of soap opera when Antoine awakens many days later and his eyes meet Cécile’s for a poignant moment. Is it comedy? Is it serious? Does Téchiné expect us to believe it? Perhaps the great auteur is an artist who no longer cares about the truth of the matter. In this film, at least, what he allows us to see are our own illusions.