Taking a bit of a detour from the sexy gay arthouse dramas he’s known for, Sebastien Lifshitz (“Come Undone”) records the little-heard, agreeably candid voices of France’s elderly lesbians and gay men in “The Invisible Ones.” A Cannes berth and Lifshitz’s name should help build the profile of this modestly rewarding piece, which will achieve its highest visibility at international queer fests but may be little seen beyond that rarefied sphere. Gaul distrib Ad Vitam could root out modest niche auds on home turf.
Avowedly inspired by mainstream French society’s negligible interest in its gay minority, and the latter’s preoccupation with youth and beauty, Lifshitz set out to explore the generation that grew up before the time of sexual liberation. Not that “The Invisible Ones” presents anything so crude as a manifesto, since there is no narration or captioning, and the director’s voice is never heard. Instead, 11 subjects from a wide range of backgrounds present their testimony to a still camera, intercut with mood-setting shots of drifting clouds and rustling corn.
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Audiences used to more conventional factual content may yearn to know the name of the grizzled goat farmer (Pierrot) who sits on a folding chair in a field among his flock, reflecting on the sexual impulses of man and beast — a billy goat will auto-fellate, he reveals, if he is unable to find a partner in mating season. Or the identity of the self-styled radical dyke (Monique), whose poetic reverie about the trove of memories recorded by the walls of Auxy-Juranville train station will strike international auds as distinctly, possibly pretentiously, French. (The subjects’ names do naturally emerge in the conversations of the three old couples presented here, whose familiar intimacies prove reliably engaging.)
Lifshitz’s initially pure aesthetic gradually gives way, as the helmer drops in first photographs and homemovie footage, and then — a welcome intrusion — documentary and news clips from 1968 and beyond. Perhaps tellingly, the more overtly politicized voices come from the film’s female subjects, who saw their struggle for sexual freedom as one opposed to Catholic-hued patriarchy, joining with their sisters in a battle for the reproductive rights of contraception and abortion. Particularly engaging is Therese, who meekly accepted her lot as wife, homemaker and mother of four, before discovering personal and sexual fulfilment at age 42, in the aftermath of the 1968 Paris Spring. An intimate, tipsy family dinner with three of her grown children and their spouses provides an occasion for fond remembrance.
Thanks in part to widescreen lensing, a crisp sound mix and rustic interludes set to composers such as Chopin, Vivaldi and Jocelyn Pook, “The Invisible Ones” benefits from cinematic scale and tone. Pacing is a problem, however, and the pic feels positively languorous at 105 minutes.