Set in the beautiful high Pyrenees in south-west France, Damien lives with his mother Marianne, a doctor, while his father, a pilot, is on a tour of duty abroad with the French military. At school, Damien is bullied by Thomas, who lives in the farming community up in the mountains, nut learns to fight back. The boys find themselves living together when Marianne invites Thomas to come and stay with them while his mother is ill in hospital. Damien must learn to live with the boy who terrorised him.
Attraction and repulsion are often close cousins, especially during that confusing teenage time when hormones rage and sexual longing is mixed with self-loathing. André Téchiné’s Being Seventeen captures the contradictions of this age perfectly, despite the fact that as a veteran post-New Wave auteur, he’s now in his seventies. Teaming up for writing duties with the much younger Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy), Téchiné tells a tale of two boys whose hatred slowly turns to friendship and then into love – but it’s far less schematic and more complicated than that sounds.
The film opens with a fast drive on tree-lined roads, hurtling around corners and quickly winding up into France’s sparse snow-covered Pyrénées mountains. Traipsing energetically on foot through the white drifts is Thomas (Corentin Fila), a biracial boy whose adoptive parents run a remote sheep and cattle farm on the top of a mountain. Thomas doesn’t mind the hour-long walk to catch the school bus. He’s a strong-minded lad, determined to study hard and become a vet. Perhaps there’s a touch of masochism in his tendency to swim naked in the icy lake, but he seems to revel in his gorgeous physicality and his self-sufficiency.
At school, Thomas is an outcast, the second last boy to be chosen when basketball teams are selected. The last boy is Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein). Gangly and intellectual, Damien is doted on by his mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a compassionate doctor who is always giving free services to the poor – one of whom includes Thomas’s own adopted mum (Mama Prassinos), who is unexpectedly pregnant after numerous miscarriages. Thomas seems both disgusted by the mummy’s boy, Damien, and also jealous of the warm nurturing he receives, and a cycle of vicious schoolyard bullying begins. But Marianne refuses to accept that the boys can’t be friends, and proposes that Thomas moves into their more convenient house while he completes his schooling and his mother convalesces.
The film is divided into three ‘trimesters’ – the name given to the French school system’s terms, but also a reference to Thomas’s mother’s developing pregnancy, and the insecurity this breeds in the adopted teenager. The passing seasons and the stunning alpine landscapes are beautifully captured by Téchiné’s frequent DOP, Julien Hirsch. This isn’t a wordy film – fitting for a drama about inarticulate seventeen-year-olds who seem more at ease with their fists than with words. Refusing to spell things out, the story moves in fits and starts with bursts of humour, physical violence and occasional but never conclusive emotional breakthroughs. Are these boys gay, or just specifically attracted to each other? It’s a question that one of them asks, and never answers.
Being Seventeen contains echoes and updates to Téchiné’s acclaimed 1994 film Wild Reeds (streaming now at SBS On Demand), with its homosexual themes and concerns around the effects of war. In this contemporary story, Damien’s father (Alexis Loret) is an army helicopter pilot who stays in touch with the family via Skype. The dangerous nature of his work is always a worry, and it’s to the film’s credit that Marianne’s story as a wife, mother and doctor, is given as much importance as her son’s coming of age. Kiberlain’s performance is so touching and real and expressive that we feel we understand this woman intimately. Perhaps unfortunately, this highlights how little we really know the boys in her care.
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Being Seventeen is screening as part of the French Film Festival 2017.