André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds ends in a swirling Eden, with a 360-degree pan around a serene wooded meadow in the south of France. At first, the landscape is empty of human life, but as the pan completes itself, we pick up our protagonists, teenagers François, Maïté, and Serge. As we’ve come to realize over the course of the film, all three are queer in their own way: François is drawn romantically to girls but sexually to boys; Maïté, for now, is seemingly uninterested in the whole mess of desire; and Serge is attracted to both men and women but resistant to meaningful bonds. The film takes place at the start of the 1960s, and the sociopolitical tensions of the Algerian War have only intensified the roiling emotions within these innocents. The three of them, having just experienced the agony and ecstasy of youthful desire during an afternoon swim, are about to head back into an ever-spinning world, identities unresolved. The mixture of calm and agitation in this climactic camera move is a crystalline summation of not just this particular film but of Téchiné’s entire body of work, which spans fifty years and, to our great fortune, is still growing.
By the time Téchiné arrived at his extraordinary 1990s three-punch of My
Favorite Season, Wild Reeds, and Thieves, he was already in
his fifties. Raised in southwestern France, he was a cinephile from adolescence
and at the age of nineteen moved to Paris to pursue a film career. When his
application to film school was rejected, he began writing criticism for Cahiers
du Cinéma, eventually finding his way to feature filmmaking in
1969 by way of crew positions on experimental and independent projects. The arc
of the next couple of decades would primarily be that of an artist abandoning
influence, as the stylized and mannered work of the 1970s—inspired by heroes as
varied as Brecht and Bergman, Rivette and Faulkner—gave way to the more
character-driven, psychologically rich, genre-defying work of the 1980s,
including Hotel America, Rendez-vous, and Scene of the Crime.
It was during these middle years that Téchiné, in leaving behind conventional notions of plot and
inherited style, became a great artist, embracing a novelistic density so
organic and inherent to its characters that it seemed to emerge directly from
observation, fully formed. As he entered the 1990s, he began confidently combining
breezy humanism—captured by the fiercely observant, nonjudgmental gaze of his
camera—with introspective chamber drama. And at the center of his new universe
were characters in a constant state of becoming, not yet settled into sexual or
social identities, at once liberated and tormented by the seemingly infinite
possibilities of human desire.
My own first encounters with the films of André Téchiné came via my weekly browsing of the Tower Records at Lincoln Center, as well as a long-forgotten video store sandwiched between Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown, during my one year as a New York City resident, from 2002 to 2003. Fresh out of the University of South Carolina, theater degree in tow, I’d spent the summer before performing Shakespeare at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. When I moved to New York, I sealed myself off into my 6x6 bedroom, watching one strange cinematic miracle after another on my bulky Dell laptop. After a steady ten-year diet of action films, American independents, and AFI 100 Classics, the novelistic quality of Téchiné’s narratives, as well as the open sexuality of his characters, thrusted me into a strange new world of contradictions, a far cry from both my Biblical upbringing in the South and the mostly binary narratives of gay indies.
Despite having a boyfriend, my experience of sexual identity, from elementary school up through college, had been vast and fluid, and at odds with the black-and-white views embedded in South Carolina in the 1990s. Outside of Gregg Araki, with whom I was intrigued but not yet ready to fully engage, I had rarely seen this fluidity portrayed as convincingly as it was in Wild Reeds. The film, inspired by Téchiné’s own upbringing, serves as an impressionistic portrait of the sensual lives of teenagers in the southwest of France. As the Algerian War reaches a fever pitch, boarding school student François is preoccupied with negotiating his romantic feelings for Maïté, the communist daughter of his teacher, and his sexual feelings for the lower-class Serge, the son of a local farmer. With the ingredients in place for a wrenching, fatalistic melodrama about conflicted passions, one would expect things to end in turmoil and tragedy. And yet, to this Southern Baptist preacher’s kid nervously involved with a boy for the first time, it was a shock to discover that a late-night scene of intense lovemaking between François and Serge gives way not to ridicule but to a new understanding. These characters’ encounters and communications did not lead to the exhibitions of shame I would have expected but to a slack-jawed acceptance of the fact that the molecules between us can shift so unexpectedly.
This revelation—that sex between men did not have to result in humiliation or resentment—made that first DVD viewing of Wild Reeds life-altering. I couldn’t have known that, seven years later, I would be making my own film about the emotional struggles of three teenagers. The Wise Kids (2011), which takes place in the suburban South Carolina of my youth, was influenced by the anxious grace and shifting winds of Wild Reeds.
While that film served as an international breakthrough for Téchiné, the twenty-first-century output of the now seventy-six-year-old Téchiné has been largely overlooked and underrated by both critics and audiences. His work continues to explore complicated matters of the heart but in an increasingly kinetic, handheld style, with the director looking to the past and the present, and to the headlines, for story material. With The Witnesses, an ensemble drama set during the early years of the AIDS crisis, there was the usual useless “return to form” chatter (bizarre, considering the movie followed 2004’s remarkable Changing Times), but, as with almost all of his films, it became almost instantly undervalued.
Emmanuelle Béart plays Sarah, a children’s book writer in an open marriage with bisexual policeman Mehdi. The couple are new parents, experiencing all of the ambiguity and tension that comes with such a major life change. Sarah’s close friend, a doctor named Adrien, is meanwhile getting swept up in an emotional relationship with a young gay man named Manu, whom he meets while cruising in the park. As Manu is welcomed into this friendly fold, Mehdi falls for him after saving him from drowning, and they begin an affair. When Manu is diagnosed with a terrifying new disease, the utopia this quartet has attempted to build suddenly begins to erode.
Despite being the work of a veteran, The Witnesses doesn’t approach anything near late-life serenity; if anything, there is an increasingly restless engagement with the fluid nature of identity, which Téchiné understands better than most is hardly a niche experience. Like Wild Reeds and most of Téchiné’s other movies, the film centers on characters who are alternately willing and unwilling to face the ever-shifting needs and desires within themselves and others. I’ve written before that in the work of Téchiné you never know who’s going to hop into bed with whom. For me, this searching quality, this openness, is Téchiné’s greatest asset, and I find it endlessly moving. When The Witnesses was released in 2008, I was twenty-seven, living in Chicago, and coming out of a relationship with a woman—an emotional surprise right out of Téchiné.
With each year, I find myself returning to Téchiné’s
vibrantly restorative body of work, to both recharge as a human being and,
hopefully, to continue summoning his influence the best I can. I grow older
with his characters, and I feel the passage of time in his films. Partly this
is a result of their speed. Olivier Assayas, who began his career as a
screenwriter for Téchiné, clearly found in the elder filmmaker a rhythmic godfather,
and indeed it’s impossible to watch the openings of Wild Reeds and Summer
Hours and not see the spiritual affinity, their shared interest in time,
space, and people in motion. It’s tempting to read the pacing of these films as
a simple aesthetic or personal choice, but watching them now, at thirty-nine, I
find it poignantly clear that these are works of art finely tuned into the
brevity of life, and the deep need of human beings to cling to objects of
desire in the shadow of eternal sleep. Both Wild Reeds and The
Witnesses end with complicated groups of friends—or loving enemies—moving
together toward an unknown horizon, staying close to each other as time rushes
Three of André Téchiné’s films are available to stream now on the Criterion Channel. Wild Reeds and The Witnesses expire January 31, 2020.