Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Kinds of Class

by Stanley Kauffmann | August 2, 2012

Unforgivable
Last Ride

ANDRÈ TÈCHINÈ , THE FRENCH director known for his deft probing of dark human recesses, has come up with a sparkler Unforgivable, which sets out as an account of unusuallives, finishes as a portrait of a society—one that lives between the conventional and the openly low. It accomplishes all this while it amuses and moves us. The screenplay, by Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia, from a novel by Philippe Djian, changed the novel’s setting on the French coast to Venice. The most beautiful city in the world, built on visible and implied concepts, is the right setting for a story no less confident but somewhat less constrained.

First we see an attractive gray-bearded man closing his address to a meeting with a quote from Schopenhauer—to the effect that a man has no more idea where his works come from than a mother where her baby comes from. The film then proceeds to contravene this. We are in a rental office in Venice. That man is Francis, a very successful novelist, who is looking for a quiet apartment in which to write. The agent, Judith, chic, sleek, mid-forties, persuades him to take a look at a house on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo. Their dialogue is done with a verve that assumes certain competences in each. On the way, however, their aplomb is breached when, in her motorboat, the gas runs out. They have to row. The silliness of it draws them even further together.

The story leaps a year and a half. They are now married, living in that house. He writes; she goes to the city for her business. They are figuratively surrounded by their families and friends: he has a daughter, Alice, and a granddaughter. (His wife died in a suicidal auto accident.) Alice, though married, is now off on an affair with an aristo who deals in drugs. Judith has an ex-lover, Anna Maria, a former private investigator, who has a son, Jérémie, now in jail on drug charges. There are even further wrinkles. But what holds us is the ease with which all these matters are introduced and accepted, the way that lives are lived within these acceptances. Through it all, Francis acts as a sort of center, while he continues to write and to snap photos of Venetian architecture to describe in his book. Yet he, too, enters this bizarre society. In the course of things, he becomes a bit suspicious of his wife and engages Jérémie, now out of jail, to tail her. During this job Jérémie has a fling (as he calls it) with Judith, his mother’s former girlfriend.

Still, most assuredly, the tenor of the piece is oddly normal, not farcical, and despite two fistfights and a boat collision, not harried. These people simply live as if their lives were proceeding in the way that people of some polish live. Each of these individual’s stories ends more or less as they and we expect. In fact the picture’s basic triumph is that we feel satisfied, after all these unusual doings, that it ends as it does. (The title is thus incomprehensible.)

The dialogue helps: even in subtitles, it has pitch and sheen. (In the film, of course, it flows back and forth between French and Italian.) The actors are just what we want, acute and wise. André Dussollier, as Francis, has a kind of engaging preparedness. Carole Bouquet, as Judith, has endured a lot and looks much the better for it. Adriana Asti, as Anna Maria, is feverishly ready to relax after a strenuous life. Every one of the others deserves a bow.

Julien Hirsch, the cinematographer, could hardly have had an easier job than to make Venice look appealing. Still he does it. The laurel of laurels, however, must go to Téchiné. Every scene, every shot is exactly placed; every tempo of dialogue is fit; and throughout the whole film Téchiné makes motion itself part of the story, through either the cast or the camera. Unforgivable may be a peculiar achievement, but it gleams.

Immensity. Green hills rolling like frozen waves. Vast plains to the far horizon. Groves of gnarled old trees; sudden huge lakes amid the hills.

The American West? Not this time. The Australian outback, the setting for most of Last Ride, an extraordinary film for which the locale is a quiet, almost secret catalyst. Directed by Glendyn Ivin, with a screenplay derived by Mac Gudgeon from a novel by Denise Young, it needs only two major characters to create a picture that begins as a bare-knuckled adventure and becomes a folk tale. At the last we are almost gratifyingly ashamed for not having seen from the first the quasi-myth that it becomes.

Kev is a man in his thirties, a rough character not untouched by the law, who has a ten-year-old son named Chook. The bulk of the film is Kev’s flight from the law and to a possible new life accompanied by his son. Various stops and encounters follow in varying tones. First is a stop with a mother figure to Chook, beloved by Chook and warm to Kev; but she understands, or at least accepts, that the pair must fare on, as does Chook.

Hitchhiking, stealing cars, and pilfering from filling stations, groceries, and other shops all help the two along. One stop is at a place with a huge restaurant sign in front, though it seems to be situated in outer space. Kev hustles and fights with people he meets, except for two aborigines with whom he is amiable. Chook accepts what is going on, with no special moral concern but with the son’s emotional range in most father-son relationships—affection, tantrums, flat dispute.

Through much of the first part we suspect that we are seeing a new version of an old form, an account of a muddled older man being straightened out by the influence of a youngster. (The Champ, for instance.) But an almost lofty effect in Ivin’s view of the proceedings, plus his sense of the awesome environment as a silent character, alerts us for surprise. About midway comes a sequence in which, during a quarrel, Kev orders the boy to get back in the car. Angry about some difference, Chook declines. Equally angry, Kev gets in the car and drives off alone.

The place is a huge wet empty waste, uninhabited. Chook starts tearfully to trudge after the car, then breaks down, kneels, and pulls his jacket over his head. At this point he can have only two ideas: either he feels sure that his father will return for him or he doesn’t care. The chance to imagine this choice gives the film a hint of a larger dimension.

This deepened view extends backward to touch everything we have seen before. And that view is enriched by the very end of the picture. Last Ride is then seen as an attempt to render with words and pictures the sad lyricism of a country ballad. Ivin, with his loving direction, lets this gradually come through to us. Hugo Weaving, a leading Australian actor, makes Kev exceptionally sound along every shade of his register. And once again a breathtaking performance by a child. Tom Russell is Chook most endearingly.

For Andrew Sarris, a farewell of respect. He was the contemporary film critic with whom I disagreed most often, yet he was the critic from whom I learned most.

His passing prompts a look at the changes that he brought about with his apostolic mission for the auteur theory—the belief, originating in France, that the primary point of film criticism should be the director’s work, not the subsequent or previous work of writers, designers, and so on. Cinema was to be judged cinematically. Like some others, I was unable to leave my opinions of the writing and characterization and drama at the door of the screening room, but Andrew’s insistence convinced me early on that I needed at least to expand my concerns cinematically. I have always been grateful to him for it, and I think there were others who learned from him and owed him that debt.

When the news of his death spread, I thought I heard a sigh at the loss of something virtually unique, something that was for me at least more considerable than the auteur theory—Andrew’s passion, fierce passion, for film. Others of us critics, fervent film-lovers indeed, could, if it were necessary, work on other subjects. Many of us did. If Andrew couldn’t have written about film, I think he would have been crushed. Happily, he was permitted to work where he belonged. That passion empowered him and helped many. 

This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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