“I never know how each film will end. When I’m filming, I shoot each scene as if it were a short film. It’s only when I edit that I worry about the narrative. My objective is to tell a story, but that’s the final thing I do.”
Writer-director André Téchiné said that sometime in the mid-Nineties, but I’d enjoy thinking he was moved to these remarks by his 2011 film Unforgivable (Impardonnables). Unforgivable tells a story—lots of stories, really—but in ways that would frustrate a student of plot points, “motivations,” and orthodox screenplay architecture. And yet it flows along intoxicatingly.
Veteran crime novelist (André Dussolier) seeks quiet accommodations in Venice to write his next book. Instead of the tidy urban apartment with view he had in mind, the gorgeous real-estate agent (Carole Bouquet) shows him a house on the rustic island of Sant’Erasmo. He’ll take it, as long as she agrees to cohabit. She doesn’t reply, but cut to somewhat later and it’s apparent they made a deal.
But no, let’s not cut to that “somewhat later.” Instead, savor how the realtor, Judith by name, takes novelist Francis to the island. They’re in a small motorboat, on choppy waters, when the engine conks. The lady apologizes for running out of gas; Francis, a wizened fellow, cracks a joke about that being an old trick. Besides (1) reversing the classic parameters of the joke and (2) reasserting the joker’s already-apparent randiness, the joke (3) teases against gender roles and anticipates shufflings of sexual possibilities to be explored as the film unreels. Meanwhile, there they are, bobbing in a suddenly powerless boat on a restless sea with a very big and very loud cruiseship massing over them. The situation, the image and activity on screen, is at once comical, surreal, absurd, and potentially perilous. Then Judith produces oars and in scarcely more time than it takes to type this, they row to shore and safety, no big whoop.
Such a description can’t begin to convey what a splendid scene that is, let alone how typical it is of the pleasures the movie strews like petals. Téchiné just can’t run out of ways to be calmly thrilled with the abundance of cinema. Moving the camera, not moving the camera. Setting a figure in the frame, say seated in a motorboat, and holding on figure and frame while the world curves on a trajectory of its own as the boat travels. Watching someone amble along a seawall against limpid water and painterly cloud. Finding new ways to be surprised at what you may encounter around a corner. A lot of Unforgivable is accompanied by a murmur of rushing music, evocative of old action melodramas; yet often as not there’s nothing in the vicinity to be melodramatic about. It’s as if the music were an invitation to rapport: audience and movie swept up in a kind of conspiratorial shellshock, taking pleasure in one another.
If that initial harbor crossing is a vignette unto itself, rest assured that there are plenty more, defining or suggesting the cross-plots and cross-purposes, accidental or abandoned relationships, and wealth of ambivalence, suspicion, and potential for violence the cast of characters gets up to. Francis, it’s pretty clear, has long been a compulsive player. Judith has a history of arousing passion in breasts of both genders, and Bouquet, her classic form and profile cutting through the narrative like the figurehead of a ship, is ideally cast to validate an ex-lover’s observation that she herself remains unmoved by those passions. (Bouquet was first seen 36 years ago as one of two actresses sharing “the Dietrich role” in Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire.) In the circumstances, it’s understandable that Francis experiences writer’s block for a good deal of his time on Sant’Erasmo.
He nurtures a growing conviction that his wife (for the cohabitation has led to marriage) must be having an affair. And he’s concerned about the whereabouts of his grown daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry), who in effect just swims out of view and out of the story one day early in the film—to drown? or to desert her husband and daughter to scamper around Europe with a shady young fellow, who once upon a time may or may not have bedded Judith, ships-passing-in-the-night fashion. Which is to say nothing of Judith’s former lesbian lover (Adriana Asti), the retired private eye whom Francis coaxes out of retirement to track Alice—or the PI’s son (Mauro Conte), the encyclopedically troubled, newly-ex convict whom Francis commissions to follow Judith!
All of which makes Unforgivable sound like a parody, intentional or otherwise, of a by-the-numbers Eurotrash sexual rondelay. See it and decide for yourself. What I loved about it was that, however convoluted the possible patterns of eroticism, Téchiné’s movie is focused on the perplexing, sometimes self-defeating patterns of human nature, and realized through that rarest of cinematic special effects, the mysteries of character observed whole in time and space.