Monday 22 May 2017

Cannes 2017 - Nos Années Folles by André Téchiné

French director André Téchiné was given a tribute at this year's Cannes Film Festival, as part of their 70th birthday celebrations. Most of the legendary actresses he has worked with were present, probably one of the biggest concentration of French acting legends outside the French Film Awards: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Kiberlain, Juliette Binoche... and many more (but no Adjani!), all of them sat on the same row, one of those Cannes moments that makes you want to pinch yourself to check you are not dreaming. The festival also presented the director's new film, Nos Années Folles.

Nos Années Folles is based on a true story, one whose premise is so unlikely that it proves yet again that life is stranger than fiction: World War One deserter Paul (Pierre Deladonchamps, seen in Stranger By The Lake (2013)) goes into hiding in the basement of the house occupied by his wife Louise (Céline Sallette) and her mum rather than face the front once more. Seeing her husband grow restless at his lack of freedom, Louise devises an unlikely plan, dressing up Paul as a woman to allow him to leave the house, an arrangement he is reluctant to accept at first, only to fully embrace it for years to come, even when the war is over and the threat of imprisonment is long gone, having become a celebrity in the process.

André Téchiné was at the top of this game between from the 70's to the 90's, with such classics as Les Soeurs Brontë (1979), Les Innocents (1985), Les Roseaux Sauvages (1994)... However he seems to have lost the favours or even the acknowledgement of world cinema outside France, his particular blend of cinema probably coming across as unfashionable in the film festival circuit these days (even Cannes has either invited him out of competition or at Director's Fortnight for the last decade or so).

The film is split in two distinctive, very different acts. The first act suffers from a "quality TV" syndrome, being a period drama that is accurately (if plainly) represented, the sort that both French and British people never seem to get bored of. Every costume is perfectly made, actors use their best period delivery, and the frankly bizarre wartime nostalgia that has creeped up in both sides of the channel is fully satisfied.

In the second act however, Nos Années Folles becomes something else entirely, both from a narrative and artistic point of view. We are asked to accept that Paul, having not even been willing to even contemplate the rather unexpected plan Louise has come up with at first, because of his particular bland of French machism, all of the sudden and in the space of one night, not just change his mind but completely goes along with it, finally free to come out thanks to his new appearance, and becomes a prostitute for many years.

There is no explanations of this psychological evolution or epiphany as we follow him on nightly outings in the Bois de Boulogne where all sorts of creatures of the night and their admirers for some stylised romps, filmed with a beautifully subdued lyricism and visual flair.

The chronology is also fractured as through a narrative device, the life of Paul is being played out through regular inserts on the stage of a cabaret, with the great Michel Fau (seen in Marguerite) as the MC, only for the audience to understand that this episode of Paul's life actually took place, as he tried to capitalise on his infamous story among audience of the times and bring it on stage, ironically with limited success, considering how he fooled so many hiding behind a made up character.

It is refreshing that André Téchiné is unwilling to judge and explain his character, the downside being that Paul lacks of depth, eliciting not so much mystery but just confusion. Pierre Deladonchamps is actually more convincing as a butterfly than he is as a chrysalid. His macho husband persona feels very generic, however he blooms as his female alter ego, even if he does look a bit like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs at times (I half expected him to say "I'd do me" in the scenes where he gazes at himself in the mirror).

Nos Années Folles is intermittently successful but even a minor work by André Téchiné is worth seeing for the unique way he depicts the boundaries of human behaviours.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Official Selection, Out of Competition.

Star rating: 

Nos Années Folles. France 2017. Directed by André Téchiné. Starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Céline Sallette...

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