Being 17: A sentimental education with full-on contact
by Bénédicte Prot
- BERLIN 2016: André Téchiné’s new film, the screenplay for which he wrote with Céline Sciamma, is a physical, sensual and enjoyable film on the blossoming of desire between two high-school students
Yesterday audiences at the Berlin Film Festival discovered the new film by André Téchiné, Being 17 [+see also:
Q&A: André Téchiné
interview: Kacey Motten Klein
film profile], which was co-written with Céline Sciamma, and you could feel from the atmosphere in the room that the audience liked it, smiling at the awkwardness of two boys who learn over the course of the film (which follows their last year at school, from autumn through to summer) to get to know one another and to love (themselves and one another), bursting out laughing at the wisecracks of the character of Marianne, the doctor mother, played by Sandrine Kiberlain with the bubbliness and good nature she’s known for, and speechlessly admiring the powerful backdrop against which the story takes place. The “green lime trees on the promenade” from Rimbaud’s poem are here replaced with mountain scenery, covered in immaculate snow or caressed by the sun according to the season, and little niches, forests and hazy lakes of which only the indigenous explorers know the exact location, but similarly to the poem from which the film borrows its title, desire, conscious or otherwise, is born in a look.
He really is quite handsome, is Thomas (Corentin Fila), an adopted boy of mixed race with almond-shaped eyes and an athletic build who travels 1 ½ hours everyday to get to school and takes care of his mother and the animals on the family farm, but always eats lunch on his own, his tupperware box resting on his knees, after carefully washing his hands. It’s Marianne who initially points him out to Damien (sensitively and intelligently played by Swiss Shooting Star of the year Kacey Mottet Klein), but her dear old son has noticed something too, and can’t stop staring at his classmate in silence, with an air of defiance and fascinated curiosity which Thomas returns with shy glances, a glimmer of animosity in his eyes, whilst around them, it’s as if their other classmates don’t exist. It’s these looks, at times furtive, at times lingering, that cause the first “episodes of fighting” between the two young boys, without them really knowing why. When Marianne, the third side of the triangle being drawn before our eyes, decides to take Thomas in until the end of the school year, these looks, increasingly complex as they are tinted with the hesitant involvement in a shared secret, carry on fuelling, whilst bringing new dimensions to, the physical tension between the two boys that is the driving force of the film, filling it with a sense of desire that is indefinable but so powerful and irresistible that the viewer, like Marianne, is carried away by it.
The sly sensuality that characterises Téchiné’s filmography together with Sciamma’s sensitivity makes Being 17 a subtle portrayal brimming with the vitality of this mad age when you don’t know what you’re doing yet learn more in a few short months that you do in your entire life. As in just 9 months, looking beyond this new disruptive excitement that blooms between Damien and Thomas, a lot of things happen, and happen to them, as a result of the adults’ behaviour as well as their own: Thomas’ mother miraculously falls pregnant, which makes him more tense as a result of his desire to protect her and his anxiety at the thought of his family having a “real child” of their own, Damien must cope with the absence of his soldier father, both boys must revise for their baccalaureate exams and think about their futures and dreams, and both must choose between timidly resisting the temptation to give up on themselves to take care of others and their need to take care of themselves. Each significant event in the story is like a new threshold in the education, sentimental and otherwise, of our young heroes, who nonetheless build more confidence and become more calm in love. And this is the feeling that this beautiful film leaves us with.
(Translated from French)