Gay Pride: Wild Reeds, French Filmmaker Andre Techine’s Most Personal Film

Following the family melodrama Ma Saison Preferee, which opened last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Andre Techine, arguably France’s most accomplished filmmaker, is back in top form with Wild Reeds, a poignantly touching portraiture of the coming-of-age/coming of a quartet of teenagers.

Wild Reeds
Les roseaux sauvages.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The project was first conceived as part of TV series about adolescence titled, “Tous les garçons et les filles de leurs âges, entitled Le chêne et le roseau (“The Oak and the Reed”), which made up the first half of the movie Wild Reeds. But after completing the script with his collaborators, Téchiné decided to make it a theatrical release standing on its own plentiful merits.

The Movie world premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.  Based on his own life story, it is his biggest personal success in France and his critically acclaimed movie. (See below)

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Putting his famed penchant for smooth storytelling and elegant visual style at the service of a more personal–even autobiographical–work, Techine has made his most emotional films.

Evocation of universal themes about adolescence and sexual politics, peppered with Gallic charm and popular American songs, should make this film, which could be described as a French “American Graffiti,” seductive to offshore audiences, particularly fans of French cinema and gay viewers.

Of Similar Interest

Techine’s Being 17 (sort of companion piece to Wild Reed.

Photo: Being 17

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Set in 1962, at the end of the Algerian war, the tale centers on the inner turmoil of a trio of youngsters at a boarding school. Francois (Gael Morel), a sensitive boy (clearly the helmer’s alter- ego), is beginning to explore his sexuality when he finds himself attracted to Serge (Stephane Rideau), his uneducated, working class but more masculine classmate.

A sexual incident between them in the dorm one night confuses Francois, though it’s clear to Serge that it was just a one-time occurrence, a release of unbearable sexual tension. In fact, Serge is attracted to Maite (Elodie Bouchez), the pretty daughter of Madame Alvarez (Michele Moretti), their severe, demanding teacher.

Into this stable, rather calm world arrives Henri (Frederic Gorny), a militant French-Algerian boy whose radical politics disquiets the school and throws it into turbulence. Wild Reed is wonderfully precise in chronicling how political ideas (Catholic Left, Marxism, OAS) created bitterly opposing camps over the issue of Algiers’ independence and hence tore the country apart.

Wild Reeds is one of few films dealing with the politically sensitive subjects of the Algerian War, joining such films as The Little Soldier (1963), Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès (1972), and La Question (1977).

The film’s first scene, a wedding of Serge’s brother, establishes that he, like many of his compatriots, would do anything to avoid going back to war. His death serves as dramatic impetus that precipitates various personal-political crises.

Serge’s brother Pierre dies while serving in the army in Algeria, and Maïté’s mother suffers a nervous breakdown, having previously refused to help Pierre desert.

An Algerian-born French exile, Henri (Frédéric Gorny), enrolls in the boys’ boarding school and aggravates their conflicts, adding a political conflict. Obsessed with events in Algeria, he supports the OAS, which opposes Algerian independence and defends the rights of French settlers there.

Mrs. Alvarez, who feels guilty for not helping Serge’s brother, sinks into a severe depression that sends her to the hospital.

Henri treats François without sympathy and bluntly tells him to own up to his homosexuality. His political stance provokes Serge’s hatred. Henri finally engages Maïté, his political opposite, and they yield to their mutual attraction.

Structured as a series of interlocking vignettes, Wild Reeds contains moments that are at once painful and droll. In one touching scene, Francois stands in front of a mirror, repeating over and over again, as if to convince himself, “I am a faggot.”

In another poignant scene, Francois storms into the town’s shoestore, whose owner is known to be homosexual, and shocks the bewildered man with a direct question about his lifestyle.

Neither nostalgic nor elegiac, Techine’s look at the past is through the prism of the present, which explains why some of the characters’ values might seem at times anachronistic. For example, when Francois confides in Maite (who’s in love with him) that he’s gay, she says she doesn’t care what people like sexually, an attitude which is somehow too liberal to have prevailed I rural France in the early 1960s.

Each member of the quartet develops in the course of the film, shifting from stubborn positions to more flexible understading of their circumstances.  This is explained in a French class by the reading of “The Oak and the Reed,” one of Aesop’s Fables.

Nonetheless, Techine is excellent at exploring “tiny” personal flashes that assume larger meaning when placed against the broader historical context. In the film’s last and most important sequence, a picnic by the river, all four characters are forced to come to terms with their inner crises and emerging identities. In a masterly stroke, with a restlessly swirling camera, helmer skillfully captures that crucial moment that announces dramatically the end of innocence and the beginning of adulthood.

Techine is one of few French directors to explore life in the provinces, and here Jeane Lapoirie’s luminous lensing seizes the specific flavor of France’s Southwest. Like American Graffiti, the energetic soundtrack uses popular hits from the era, including the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Anne.”

In its lyrical mood, perceptive scrutiny of life’s rites of passage, and fresh naturalistic acting, Wild Reed bears resemblance to Louis Malle’s great childhood films, most notably Murmur of the Heart.

I saw the film, which served as closing night of the Cannes Fest sidebar, Certain Regard, on May 22, 1994, and posted my enthusiastic review three hours later.

Critical Status:

Wild Reeds is the only film to have won Best Foreign Language Picture from all major US critics groups, N.Y., L.A. and NSFC (National Society of Film Critics).

Cast

Élodie Bouchez as Maïté Alvarez
Gaël Morel as François Forestier
Stéphane Rideau as Serge Bartolo
Frédéric Gorny as Henri Mariani
Michèle Moretti as Madame Alvarez
Jacques Nolot as Monsieur Morelli
Eric Kreikenmayer as Pierre Bartolo, the Groom
Nathalie Vignes as Irène, the Bride
Michel Ruhl as Monsieur Cassagne
Fatia Maite as Aicha Morelli
Production[edit source]

 

Credits:
Directed byAndré Téchiné

Produced by Georges Benayoun and Alain Sarde

Written by Olivier Massart Gilles Taurand, Téchiné

Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Edited by Martine Giordano

Release date: June 1, 1994
Running time: 110 minutes