The prospect of an ardent French romance set against the distant backdrop of the Algerian War of Independence may not sound too appealing, at least if one has had the misfortune of seeing Patrice Leconte’s dreadful Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994). But André Téchiné’s lightly autobiographical memoir is a remarkable and passionate film, and unquestionably high among the freest, freshest and best films he has made in his career.
I have always loved American pop teen movies (such as Clueless, 1995), but French teen movies have their own, special quality. They tend to be more sullen and thoughtful than their American counterparts – every French teen hero solemnly quotes either Nietzsche, Rimbaud or Bob Dylan – but also more reckless, violent and hysterical.
In Europe, Wild Reeds has been the great commercial success of the made-for-TV series The Boys and Girls of Their Time, first broadcast in 1994. As in the other outstanding films from that bunch, Téchiné’s contribution (he is the oldest of thi chosen clan) is built upon the relatively unspectacular dalliances of daily teen life: school, parties, picnics, going to the pictures.
These teenagers, however, come fully alive as in very few films. François (Gaël Morel) is Téchiné’s stand-in: frail, narcissistic, over-thoughtful, sexually confused. Maité (Élodie Bouchez) is one of the most vivid and moving female portraits in contemporary cinema: politically engagé, vacillating between joy, depression and temptation. Serge (Stéphane Rideau) is a familiar Téchiné figure: mercurial, instinctive, unintellectual, a bit of an animal.
But the central catalyst for the action is Henri (Frédéric Gorny): dark, brilliant, seductive and violently right-wing. It is his fierce opposition to the prospect of Algerian independence which puts him on a collision course with all the other characters. Téchiné traces, with consummate mastery, the gradually evolving and shifting relations (both sexual and political) between these four remarkable characters. It’s a narrative geometry created from testing out all possible permutations and pairings.
As a young critic for Cahiers du cinéma magazine in the 1960s, Téchiné championed films in which people were presented in a mysterious, even ghostly fashion – whether Val Lewton’s fantasy-horror movies (such as I Walked with a Zombie, 1943) or severe art films by Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer. Accordingly, these teenagers seem driven, even possessed by passions and motivations that remain stubbornly mysterious to them, and to us.
The film’s style matches the openness and freshness of these young hearts running free. Every emotion is expressed through a motion, as in the masterpieces of F.W. Murnau: an individual breaking away from a pack, or a boat cutting across the stillness of a lake. Classical music (especially Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings Opus 11”) surges up and dies away in brief, magical grabs. Even technical blemishes (out-of-focus or overexposed shots) become part and parcel of the lyrical poetry of this style.
The movies for which Téchiné is best known beyond Europe (such as Scene of the Crime  and I Don’t Kiss ) often have a cruel, misogynist streak. “Without sin and evil”, he once declared, “I cannot see how there can be a motor for the story”. Unsurprisingly, the loss of innocence that his young heroes ritually face is usually tinged with decadence and despair. Curiosity, blind trust and rampant desire lead the typical Téchiné character to an often violent disintegration of his or her very self. He has described his heroes, including in their literally ghostliest form, as in Rendez-vous (1985), as the polar opposite to the idealised, sentimental, sexless angels of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).
Téchiné’s films have long been obsessed with crossover experiences – those sudden moments of social or sexual mobility where people find themselves attracted to an erotic partner, or an ideological position, which contradicts everything they have hitherto lived by. This sort of interpersonal dynamism – a twist on Stendhal’s famous notion of crystallisation as a psychic-emotional projection governing one’s love-choice – gives Wild Reeds a welcome frisson of political incorrectness.
There are hard truths and painful experiences recorded in this story – especially the stark breakdown of Maïté’s mother (Michèle Moretti) – but the overall tone of the film is overwhelmingly generous and compassionate. Lovers of French cinema will find themselves irresistibly recalling the great films of Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, 1939) or François Truffaut’s Nouvelle Vague classic Jules et Jim (1962) – movies that balanced a tough, philosophical realism with a romantic optimism and joy.
But Téchiné adds something uniquely of own sensibility to this fine French tradition. His sometime script collaborator Pascal Bonitzer once suggested that all filmic stories should possess a “crucial secret” – something central and unspoken which generates the intensity of the events and interactions shown. The crucial secret of Wild Reeds is held within the heart of Serge – and it is to him, in the final moments of this magnificent film, that Téchiné gives one of the most haunting and heartrending close-ups in cinema history.
© Adrian Martin August/December 1995