While working my way through a backlog of screeners, I came across two French films that are now available in DVD and worth tracking down.
Starting with André Téchiné’s 2004 “Les Temps qui changent” (Changing Times), I would urge you to disregard the cover photo of co-stars Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu that suggests nothing more than a saccharine October-October romance. Although the main story line does involve their relationship, there is much more going on, not the least of which is a perceptive look at the ethnic, cultural and psychological contradictions in contemporary Morocco between “West” and “East”.
In an odd way, Téchiné’s film is very much a post-9/11 work even though the “war on terror” takes place mainly in the background. Typically, the scenes put the characters’ personal difficulties in the foreground, while some reminder of global conflict is taking place in periphery of the scene. With a film whose main characters are involved with electronic communications in one form or another, it is no coincidence that background information comes in the form of a news report on the invasion of Iraq, etc. We are constantly reminded of a “year of living dangerously” even though the characters themselves spend more time in the sack than on the battlefield.
Antoine Lavau (Depardieu) has lined up a job as a construction supervisor in Tangier in order to get close to Cécile (Deneuve), a woman he had an intense relationship with in his twenties and who he still is in love with. He is heading up a crash project to build the headquarters for a television network that will compete with al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, Cécile is the host of a Tangier radio program that appeals to a mixed French and Arab audience. She is married to Nathan (Gilbert Melki), a Moroccan doctor many years her junior.
Around the same time that Antoine arrives in Tangier, Cécile is visited by her son Sami (from a previous marriage to another Moroccan), his Moroccan girl-friend Nadia (Lubna Azabal), and her 9 year old son Said (Jabir Elomri), who live together in Paris. Nadia is addicted to various kinds of pain-killers and sits around in a haze in Nathan’s house. Meanwhile Sami immediately looks up his old Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (Nadem Rachati). When they reunite, Bilal tells Sami that “You’re half Moroccan, half French, half man, half woman. It must be difficult knowing who you are.” This obviously gets to the heart of the movie.
Nadia has a twin sister named Aicha (also played by Azabal), who has very little use for her. Aicha is an observant, scarf-wearing Muslim who works at the local McDonalds–another aspect of the film’s globalized North Africa.
Since André Téchiné is gay himself, that probably explains the authenticity of the relationship between Bilal and Sami. André Téchiné’s best known film is “Wild Reeds”, another love story that uses global politics as a backdrop. The opening scene is of a wedding that takes place in 1962, near the end of the war in Algeria. The groom was a French soldier serving in Algeria, who confesses to a former teacher in the CP that the marriage was only means to get a leave. He begs the teacher to hide him so he won’t have to return to the fighting.
I can vouch for “Changing Times” and “Wild Reeds” and imagine that Téchiné ‘s other films are worth seeing as well.
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The 2005 “La Moustache” is directed by Emmanuel Carrère and is based on his novel of the same name. It is an unsettling film about an architect who undergoes an identity crisis of Kafkaesque proportions. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a cockroach. When Marc Thiriez (Vincent Lindon) shaves off a moustache that he has worn his entire adult life, his wife and friends insist that he has never worn a moustache. So even though he is the same person, his identity has changed as much as Gregor Samsa’s.
At first he shrugs this off as an elaborate practical joke, but soon grows weary of their stubborn refusal to fess up. Starting with an initial mixture of bemused annoyance, he soon assumes a growing obsession and anger. At one point he rummages through a garbage can in the alley below his fashionable apartment building and retrieves the shaved moustache hairs as proof to his wife. Her reaction is one of alarm, as she begins to worry about the sanity of her husband.
Eventually, as he becomes more and more obsessed, his wife and friends arrange to have him committed to a mental hospital. As he overhears their conversation from the staircase overlooking the living room about the necessity of hospitalizing him (she only worries whether a straitjacket will be necessary), he throws on some clothing and dashes past them into the rainy night.
From there he books a flight to Hong Kong, where he makes a concerted effort to prove to himself and to others that he is who he is, moustache and all. While this all sounds like a Monty Python sketch in some ways, it is much more than that. It really addresses who we are as human beings and how other people know us as individuals. It is a deeply ambiguous film that defies conventional expectations. Look for it in all the usual venues.