Wild Reed: Techine’s Most Personal Film, Winner of All US Critics Groups

(Les Roseaux Sauvages)

Cannes Film Festival, May 22, 1994–Following the family melodrama Ma Saison Preferee, which opened last year’s Cannes Festival, Andre Techine, arguably France’s most accomplished filmmaker, is back in top form with Wild Reed, a poignantly touching coming-of-age saga.

Putting his famed penchant for smooth and elegant visual style at the service of a more personal work, Techine has made one of his best and 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.

Set in 1962, at the end of the Algerian war, 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.

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. Indeed, his death serves as dramatic impetus that precipitates various personal-political crises. For instance, Mrs. Alvarez, who feels guilty for not helping Serge’s brother, sinks into a severe depression that sends her to the hospital.

Structured as a series of interlocking vignettes, Wild Reed 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, he storms into the town’s shoestore, whose owner is known to be gay, 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 seem 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 for the early l960s.

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.

End note:

Wild Reed 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).