To the extent that Andre Techine’s “Being 17” is about the erotic awakening between two French teens, audiences might reasonably claim to have seen it before, not least of all in the director’s now-classic “Wild Reeds” (1994). But to the extent that the film truly is about being 17 — and what that age does to our heads and our hearts, when we experience unfamiliar feelings with confusion, fear and a force approaching violence — this vibrant portrait feels like something of a revelation, which is remarkable, really, considering how many more films have tackled coming-of-age than the relatively niche experience of coming out. It remains to be seen whether heterosexual audiences also relate, or else relegate this potential arthouse breakout to queer festival and distribution channels, though artistically speaking, this well-observed collaboration with co-writer Celine Sciamma is Techine’s strongest film in years.
Seventeen is that age that adults patronizingly refer to as one of the best years of your life, which may be true in retrospect — when it’s too late to recapture the unjaded thrill of feeling butterflies in one’s stomach — but seldom seems that way for those suffering through it for the first time. Compared with the period-set separation of Techine’s career-high “Wild Reeds,” this return to burgeoning-romance territory subtracts the buffer of safe nostalgia that so often idealizes those years, engaging directly with the messy immediacy of today’s world.
To that end, Techine was understandably eager to work with Sciamma, whose three finger-on-the-pulse features to date — “Water Lilies,” “Tomboy” and “Girlhood” — display an insight into the behavior of contemporary young people, while never reducing the complex and frequently contradictory question of sexual identity to a simple matter of gay or straight. Perhaps such clarity does arrive with age, but for many adolescents, desire is a threatening and alien sensation when it first arrives, less about “I like girls” or “I like boys” than an overwhelming attraction to a specific individual. As self-doubting Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) eventually finds the strength to admit to classmate Thomas (Corentin Fila), “I don’t know if I’m into guys or just you.”
Superficially, the two young men, both played by fresh and distinctive-looking young actors, have almost nothing in common. With his angular face, wide ears and beak-like nose, Mottet Klein (of Ursula Meier’s “Home” and “Sister”) is only slightly less unusually proportioned than his on-screen mother, a well-cast Sandrine Kiberlain. As the adopted son of a farming couple with a history of fertility troubles, biracial Fila is tall and exotic by comparison with Thomas’ nearly all-white classmates. Though he knows what he wants to do with his life (be a veterinarian), he struggles in school, whereas Damien hasn’t yet decided, despite showing an aptitude for math, cooking and self-defense.
Both being 17 at the time (give or take a few months, since the film unspools over the last three trimesters of their high-school studies), the two young men would seem to have enough on their minds without the complication of sexual desire, and probably couldn’t even articulate their early attractions if they wanted to. Which explains why their first interactions might be taken for bullying, as Thomas responds to Damien’s energy (the lingering unspoken looks, the gaudy rhinestone earring) by tripping him in class, following up with a seemingly unprovoked shove in front of school.
Their relationship might have ended there, snuffed by an act of pre-emptive homophobia (the sort that potentially masks one’s own forbidden desires), were it not for Kiberlain’s character, Marianne, who makes a house call to Thomas’ farm the same day he lashes out at Damien on campus. Thomas lives high in the Pyrenees mountains, as cinematically ideal a spot as one could hope to find, enabling frequent side trips into the sylvan environment, though this lofty perch overlooking Bagneres-du-Luchon requires a three-hour round trip to attend school in town.
Impressed by the young man’s dedication, Marianne proposes that he come to live with them in town, not realizing the latent — and potentially dangerous — dynamic between the two young men. For the moment, their sentiments are still too inchoate to be identified, and though audiences will surely anticipate where their relationship is headed (to the extent that gay stories remain a “genre” and are marketed as such, that development can hardly be considered a twist here), Techine revels in the mystery of why they don’t get along, while teasing the possibility that Marianne — whose own air-force husband (Alexis Loret) is stationed somewhere on the other end of a Skype connection — might have designs of her own on this handsome young man. Damien isn’t the only one who thinks so, either, our own suspicions encouraged by an ambiguous erotic fantasy that awakens her one night.
Most striking among those aspects that make “Being 17” unique from other burgeoning gay romances is the way sexual tension finds an outlet in spontaneous outbursts of violence. This concept of redirected repression is nothing new in cinema (the being-17 classics “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Carrie” both come to mind), although Damien and Thomas’ skirmishes introduce a sense of danger and excitement that makes the final payoff — a startlingly physical sex scene in which the boys take turns dominating one another — all the more powerful.
In what appears to be Sciamma’s influence on the screenplay, the boys are not terribly vocal about their feelings, though it’s up to Techine to ensure that all the unspoken looks and necessary body language find their way on screen. Since so much of “Being 17” depends on analyzing Damien’s and Thomas’ actions, the director embraces a restless, heated and frequently impulsive style to match, employing a dynamic handheld camera and aggressive cutting strategy, evident from the brisk opening credits drive to the truncated and somewhat unclear epilogue.
Even a scene in which Thomas brushes and milks his cows boasts a certain dynamism, which — along with the strong maternal connection brought out by Kiberlain — could prove to be the key element in helping the film cross over beyond a strictly gay viewership. In short, the movie feels alive, and though Techine himself is now well into his seventies, by partnering with Sciamma (and absorbing some of her own directorial sensibilities into this project), he has created what is arguably the most youthful film of his oeuvre.