Following the disappointing family melodrama “Ma Saison preferee,” which opened last year’s Cannes festival, Andre Techine is back in top form with “Wild Reed,” a poignantly touching coming-of-age saga. Putting his notorious penchant for visual style at the service of a more personal work, Techine has made one of his best and most emotional films. Evocation of universal themes about adolescence and sexual politics, peppered with Gallic charm and popular American songs, should make this film, which could be described as a French “American Graffiti,” seductive to offshore audiences with a taste for warm French fare.
Set in 1962, at the end of the Algerian war, tale centers on the inner turmoil of a trio of youngsters at a boarding school. Francois (Gael Morel), a sensitive boy (clearly the helmer’s alter ego), is beginning to explore his sexuality when he finds himself attracted to the masculine, working-class Serge (Stephane Rideau), a classmate.
A sexual incident between them in the dorm one night confuses Francois, though it’s clear to Serge that it was a one-time occurrence, a release of unbearable sexual tension. In fact, Serge is attracted to Maite (Elodie Bouchez) , the pretty daughter of Madame Alvarez (Michele Moretti), their severe, demanding teacher.
Into this stable, rather calm world arrives Henri (Frederic Gorny), a militant French-Algerian boy whose radical politics throw the school into turbulence. “Wild Reed” is wonderfully precise in chronicling how political ideas created bitterly opposing camps over the issue of Algeria’s independence and hence tore the country apart.
Pic’s first scene, the wedding of Serge’s brother, establishes that he, like many of his compatriots, would do anything to avoid going back to war, and his death serves as the dramatic impetus for various personal/political crises.
Structured as a series of interlocking vignettes, “Wild Reed” contains moments that are at once painful and droll. In one touching scene, Francois stands in front of a mirror, repeating over and over, as if to convince himself, “I am a faggot.” In another, he storms into the town’s shoe store, whose owner is known to be gay, and shocks the bewildered man with a direct question about his lifestyle.
As always, Techine is excellent at exploring “tiny” personal flashes that assume larger meaning when placed against the broader historical context. In the film’s last and most important sequence, a picnic by the river, the four main characters are forced to come to terms with their inner crises and emerging identities. In a masterly stroke, with a restlessly swirling camera, helmer skillfully captures that crucial moment that announces the end of innocence and the beginning of adulthood.
Techine is one of few French directors to explore life in the provinces, and here Jeanne Lapoirie’s luminous lensing seizes the specific flavor of France’s Southwest. Like “American Graffiti,” the energetic soundtrack uses popular hits from the era, including the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.”
In its lyrical mood, perceptive scrutiny of rites of passage and fresh, naturalistic acting, “Wild Reed” bears resemblance to Louis Malle’s great childhood films, most notably “Murmur of the Heart.”