The French Kissers
Details: (MA15+), 85 mins, France,
Synopsis: A teenage French school student, Herve, and his heavy metal fanatic best friend struggle to make sense of adolescence as they have to deal with the opposite sex, uncooperative parents and rebellious hormones. The struggle to get through the day without a public gaffe only gets trickier for Herve when he finds himself with an actual girlfriend, Aurore.
The French Kissers is the debut feature film from French comic book artist Riad Sattouf. Adolescence has previously been the subject of his multi-paneled endeavours and that carries over to this movie, a surprise hit in his homeland. Sattouf, who co-wrote the screen play with Marc Syrigas, has a vivid feel for the teenage experience. The 31-year-old views it as a time when terror and delight are cruelly intertwined; disaster waits on the cusp of triumph and vice versa.
The movie has a brisk, jumpy feel. It’s lived out in the minute, just as a teenager does. Very bad, or very good, things can happen, but there’s always the sense that you can start anew the next day. The various students, studying at a school in Rennes, can be bitterly and casually cruel one minute, full of naïve hope the next, and in knowing this Sattouf allows the audience to laugh at their actions but never feel a distance; the camaraderie of the universal classroom underpins the storyline.
The film’s unlikely fulcrum is Herve (Vincent Lacoste), a hopeful 15-year-old who lives with his divorced mother and has found the perfect male wingman in Camel (Anthony Sanigo), an equal horny heavy metal guitarist whose lustful obsessions and prodigious mullet set Herve off in a half decent light by comparison. The pair, per Point Break, are “young, dumb and full of cum”.
The film has a frank, but never knowing, attitude to sex. The pair are serial masturbators and you suspect that if a female would actually deign to sleep with them they’d expire from rampant self-doubt. The young women in The French Kissers are but a few degrees more mature, allowing them to be either cruel or instructive. Herve becomes a monumentally ineffective boyfriend to Aurore (Alice Tremoliere), but she’s painted as neither an experienced goddess nor a pedestal of purity – she has just a touch more eloquent when justifying her latest about face.
The teenage cast is comprised of novices recruited for their gawky authenticity and Sattouf celebrates their ripened pimples and wispy attempts at facial hair. The performances have an offhand naturalism, matched by the often handheld camerawork, and they don’t overact their various predicaments, allowing the implicit humour to sit alongside the cruelty. Having been previously mocked by a girl he desires, Herve’s reaction when approached by another girl with a crush on him is to show her the same disdain.
The film’s not interested in lessons, suggesting that wisdom does not suddenly dawn on these almost adults. Neither of the two standards of the American teen flick – the angst-ridden social struggle and the raucous, antic, gross-out comedy – have a residual currency here. Teenage misdemeanours, for example, are a by-product of Herve and Camel’s attempts to negotiate the wider world as opposed to a scene’s reason.
The French Kissers has a notable feel for the oddities that become the norm within a school – eccentric teachers, unsubstantiated rumours, the importance to boys of role-playing games – and it also takes a free hand with the adults outside. Herve’s mother (Noemie Lvovsky), you come to realise, is not the happiest of souls, but he’s too busy complaining to notice and she in turn refuses to take his moaning seriously. She even crashes a crucial family celebration he attends, and has more fun with the other parents present than he does with his friends.
The story doesn’t so much close as reach the end of the school year. As a closing coda makes clear, there is no moment of wisdom that requires a thoughtful voiceover. Instead you make a lot of mistakes, learn from the odd one and come back the next year, with a new image, to start all over again. The French Kissers knows that adolescence is a struggle, but it’s also aware we never entirely lose that part of ourselves.
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