Friday, May 8, 2009

Hypersexed Teens in French Arthouse Flick

À Nos Amours
Criterion Collection // 1983 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Co-winner of the César (the French Oscar) for Best Picture of 1983. That's no guarantee of excellence.

A Bit of Plot…
Adolescent Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire, Monsieur Hire) deploys sex like a mousetrap to lure men and teenage boys to her bed or any other convenient, reasonably comfortable location. Her reckless promiscuity gradually takes shape as a statement of rebellion against an overbearing and vitriolic family, and especially her father (played by director Maurice Pialat). While Suzanne’s parents confront the harsh realities of an unraveling marriage, the teenage girl struggles with the meaning of relationships and the fundamental human desire to connect with other people. The sex is great, but the thought of real, emotional intimacy terrifies the young woman.

As her father tells her, Suzanne doesn’t understand that loving and the desire to be loved cannot exist independent of each other in a healthy individual. But Suzanne cannot comprehend the difference. “Everyone’s like that,” she tells her father. Suzanne does not realize that her father’s misery over a failed marriage has as much to do with his confused feelings about his nubile teenage daughter as the frustration of dealing with a miserable bitch of a wife.

A non-ending, not unlike life itself, heightens the vague sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction that permeates the film.

Historical Context and Significance
At this point casual observers might conclude À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) borders on that lowest form of human abasement — pornography posing as an art film. And based on my initial reaction to the picture, I’m not certain the critics wouldn’t be right, even though there is virtually no sex depicted in the film. Sex is either implied or the topic of post-coitus conversation, which in some ways is more uncomfortable to endure, hearing it from the mouth of an adolescent.

The thematic content kept gnawing at my mind. As the father of three young daughters, I found it heartbreaking to watch the young woman in this film make repeated and profound mistakes in her life choices, chief among them a voracious promiscuity with a succession of unworthy men.

So I watched it again. On second viewing, I began to perceive the complexity of this character study and started to appreciate the depth of personality that each actor brings to the film. This is not to say À Nos Amours is a great film. It is not. Although the acting is uniformly superior, the film is talky and static, perhaps even too overbearing to make an effective statement. But in its detached exploration of relationships and emotional politics, the picture delivers challenging, provocative cinema to the receptive mind. It just took two viewings for me to receive it.

The fact is, this film will frighten any sane adult trying to raise children. It is challenging enough to bring up kids in a social environment that assaults their senses with a relentless message that sex confers identity or a sense of belonging, and that casual couplings are not only natural but are inevitable (and even desirable) as a byproduct of the journey to adulthood. À Nos Amours, in part, depicts the consequences of those mixed social messages on adolescents. More troubling, the film illustrates how even the most dedicated parents, with the best intentions, can still mess up their children. That alone makes À Nos Amours worth watching as a cautionary tale against the dangers of complacency, the horrors of adolescence, and the vital importance of self-awareness.

Pialat, who was a painter before turning his mind toward film, also wrote and directed Van Gogh, which is composed like the tortured artist’s impressionistic paintings. This is an interesting stylistic departure from À Nos Amours in which Pialat goes for understated realism: handheld cameras, lingering shots, minimal montage. While Pialat will probably be best remembered for À Nos Amours, his portrait of the final days in the life of Van Gogh remains an absorbing film experience that illustrates the director’s versatility. Van Gogh would also make an interesting double feature with Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas as the one-eared artist. Pialat died in 2003.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Criterion delivers a superb print with crisp Dolby 2.0 audio and a wealth of extras spread across the two-disc set. Video and audio meet Criterion’s customarily high standard, although the stereo soundtrack, while clean, lacks sonic dispersion across the front stage.

A 2003 interview with star Bonnaire is perhaps the most revealing feature as the now-grown woman talks about her reaction to playing a hypersexual teenager. An archival interview with the director on the set offers insight into Pialat’s intent with the material, but the recent interview with filmmaker and writer Catherine Breillat is more illuminating. Her comments on Pialat’s film are filtered through Breillat’s own ideas on sexuality, female empowerment and familial dysfunction — all key themes of À Nos Amours. Breillat is an unapologetic feminist and real firebrand who has written or directed numerous films. As an actress, she played a supporting role in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. She also wrote the story and received co-screenwriting credit on Pialat’s film Police.

A 1999 documentary on À Nos Amours, archival audition footage and a sharp-looking 38-page booklet of essays and production stills round out the extra content for this two-disc set. This is a handsome package.

The Contrarian View
For the utterly prurient curiosity seeker with bare bosoms on the mind, Bonnaire was a very beautiful young woman who graces the screen often with her nude body. She was barely 16 years old when the picture was made. But chances are, the raincoat crowd won’t pony up $40 to see a naked teenager in an obscure French arthouse film. Perhaps they should. This is the cinematic equivalent of a free lunch before the preacher’s sermon.

À Nos Amours
is an unflinchingly honest tale of a girl’s sexual awakening as she struggles with boredom, confusion, and trauma on the cusp of adulthood. It is startling, sobering, and often painful to watch.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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