Once in a while you watch a movie that dredges buried emotions and nuances. Being 17 is one of them. Directed by the seventy-three-year-old André Téchiné, Being 17 is as observant about teenage lust as a movie made by a man half his age, even if you discount the fact that Téchiné has long had an interest in exploring love roundelays with the eye of a novelist and grasping the consequences with the heart of a family friend. I wanted to hug this movie.
Set in the Hautes-Pyrénées, Being 17 follows two young men who excel as fighters, not lovers. When Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) comes onscreen he has just cut his mop of blond hair; a silly purple earring aims to startle. These prove too much for Thomas (Corentin Fila), who trips him in class after hearing Damien recite Rimbaud. In retaliation Damien attacks on the basketball court. The war is on, as much about class as adolescent rage. On Damien’s large estate lives a family friend who teaches Damien boxing. Part of Téchiné’s achievement is to toy with the audience’s knowledge about what really fuels the boys’ contempt for the purpose of building curiosity about the architecture of their families, hobbies, habits. Damian’s mother Marianne is a veterinarian, his father a military doctor with whom she often Skypes; Thomas, an adopted child of mixed race, helps his father on the farm while his mom’s laid up with a pulmonary infection. During a house call (it’s a small town), Marianne tells the mom, Christine, that she’s pregnant. Because Thomas’ grades are slipping and the three-hour journey from home to school exhausting, Marianne proposes Thomas stay with them.
Marianne enforces a truce but it doesn’t last long. A broken wrist and a bruised torso are added to the damage report. At one point Thomas and Damien are so pissed at each other that after school they meet in an isolated snow-covered summit to pummel each other. Nevertheless, classic rivals still manage mutual respect. Téchiné’s shots of Thomas watching Damien’s ease in the kitchen (Marianne prefers drinking wine to cooking) and complete mastery of poetry and math adduce his veiled envy; the intimacy between Damien and his parents is a delight too (we Americans want parents with whom we can drink wine at seventeen). For Damien it’s Thomas’ spontaneity and natural warmth; in one of Being 17‘s attempts at brief poetry Thomas strips and dives into an icy creek, an act which leaves Damien breathless. But dichotomies don’t interest Téchiné much. Given a warm bed and people interested in his well-being Thomas proves as diligent a student as Damien; and his parents, grateful to Marianne, make up in love what they lack in sophistication; they genuinely want Thomas to do well on his “bac.”
Klein and Fila give wonderful performances; I hope they get recognized for creating modern queer archetypes. With her prominent jaw and white sunburned radiance, Sandrine Kiberlain’s Marianne not only matches physically with Klein but proves a third corner of a romantic triangle. Suffice it to say that Téchiné upsets expectations on this front too. But as The Witnesses, Wild Reeds, and My Favorite Season showed, a democracy of feeling animates his best work; he may be the greatest living French devotee of Jean Renoir’s oft-quoted line said by his character Octave in The Rules of the Game, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.” Alone and required to project authority, Marianne has her reasons too. A woman whose cheerful surface masks hidden resentments and passions is a movie cliche; Marianne, however, relishes the projection of cheer, in large part because she’s good at it. Entwined in this cheer is a deep sensuality (even Christine responds to it). In one of Being 17′s few violations of its interest in the boys Téchiné’s camera watches as Marianne’s husband Nathan, back from his danger zones overseas, makes love to her. Then she awakens — it’s a dream. That Téchiné regular Alexis Loret plays Nathan makes Marianne’s pangs understandable. And Damien is on to Thomas: he accuses him of catching a bout of strep throat on purpose (he turns off the space heaters and lets the bitter cold mountain air into his room) so that he can stay in bed and be attended by Marianne.
This accusation comes at Being 17‘s midpoint, and it’s a tribute to the sturdiness of Téchiné’s architecture that Damien’s motives are revealed as part of a pattern instead of an epiphanic moment; in his films our private thoughts, because formed by friction with external forces, have public consequences. Having sketched the other characters first, Téchiné returns to Damien. He asks Thomas to drive him to a thwarted online hookup with an older man (there’s a charming icebreaker when each reveals the other’s lied about his age). This man owns a large livestock farm, and Téchiné does what few directors would: interrupt the narrative so that the man can explain to Thomas, the farmer by birth, how his modern equipment works and the number of gallons of milk he produces (the scene doesn’t work; Téchiné’s quick, glancing approach is off a beat). Infuriated, Damien lashes back on the car ride home: “You’re more his type anyway.” Thomas is unprepared though for another confession. “I don’t know if I’m into guys or into you,” Damien says without affect, thus all the more shattering.
Attentive to the painful ritual of clandestine peeking, aware of the thin line between sadism and suppressed homosexual attraction, Being 17 isn’t a gay film so much as a queer one—in both the contemporary and classic sense of the adjective. It’s queer that the white Marianne would feel a shiver in the bones around the mixed race Thomas. It’s queer that the white kid—a child of privilege—with the Bowie posters on his bedroom wall would fetishize the farmhand of color. The singularity of Téchiné’s approach is to delineate the contours of a relationship but suggest the rest. Parsing every filigree but eschewing motivation has sometimes produced baffling pictures. A worthwhile aesthetic, nevertheless. Psychology matters less than behavior. It’s possible that Damien means what he says: he doesn’t know if he’s gay but he sure loves Thomas (his character doesn’t scan this way though; call it adolescent delusion). Thomas’ attraction to Damien may be as much situational as the frisson between him and Marianne. To be queer is to be aware of possibilities and, animated by the thought of transgressing, seizing them.
In its last half hour Being 17 does. While many plot threads get tied the film’s conclusion is as open-ended as Wild Reeds—and it ends with another beautifully executed whirling camera. I won’t reveal what happens to Thomas and Damien; the denouement may strain plausibility too, an exemplar of what A.O. Scott called in his review of 1998’s Alice et Martin “an excess of curiosity about the world it depicts — a surfeit of generosity, intelligence and art.” There are worse accusations. Being 17 is a film in love with characters, played by actors comfortable in their sets and with each other, interacting in a natural world; it’s a film that, thanks to Julien Hirsch’s camerawork, is in love with air, animals, and water (an important secondary character in Téchiné films like The Witnesses and Wild Reeds). Why did you trip me, Damien asks when the hostility ebbs. “I thought you were pretentious,” Thomas explains. Applause, please, for co-writer Céline Sciamma, whose own Girlhood last year limned similar charged moments. The shifting-sands texture of Being 17 reflects the muddle of youth better than any film I’ve seen in years. It’s one of 2016’s best.