Set amid a recent(ish) French heatwave, likely 2003, Eva Husson’s steamy “Bang Gang” is the story of a girl named George who sincerely believes she has invented the concept of the swingers party, as told by a young director who acquits herself as if Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant and a coupla Coppola gals haven’t already made the same movie. That’s not to say that Husson brings nothing new to the mix, although her sun-kissed, pastel-hued collage of half-naked adolescents cavorting free from their Biarritz parents’ ambivalent eyes feels less shocking than it does personal. While the skin factor alone should ensure prurient curiosity among festival and VOD auds, it’s more interesting to speculate how much of herself Husson is exposing in this supposedly fact-based, clearly ironic “modern day love story” — and to fantasize what this fearless talent might do next.
Originally tipped as a possible Cannes selection, “Bang Gang” instead premieres in Toronto’s new competitive Platform strand, trading the likely dismissal of a blase Croisette crowd for what are sure to be more receptive reactions, given Toronto’s long-standing rep as a fest where watching naked French teens swap sexual favors never goes out of style. (The French themselves aren’t so easily seduced, having just witnessed Helene Zimmer’s “Being 14” push those same buttons, albeit not so explicitly, with a far-younger ensemble.)
The novelty with “Bang Gang” — which is dedicated to a long list of male filmmakers, with particular thanks to “Men who love strong women. Thanks for helping me become one” — is the extent to which Husson’s take may be considered “feminist.” D.p. (and fellow AFI grad) Mattias Troelstrup’s camera ogles the onscreen boys and girls alike, visually framing this memory through the shifting vantage of two teenage girls, timid Laetitia (Daisy Broom) and her more aggressively sex-hungry best friend George (Marilyn Lima), while privileging the group’s worst offender, Alex (Finnegan Oldfield, recently seen in Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys”), with a “The Virgin Suicides”-style voiceover that sounds as if it was written and added at a very late stage.
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One indolent afternoon, the two girls find themselves hanging out by Alex’s pool. He’s a weaselly young man whose face seems permanently twisted into a distrustful scowl, but his seductive skills seem downright classy compared to red-headed pal Nikita (Fred Hotier), who strips down immediately, then begs Laetitia to help keep him warm. Alex’s strategy is to get George alone and then insult her best friend, claiming to find George far more desirable — a ruse she falls for almost instantly (Alex will try the opposite line on Laetitia later, with equivalent success).
For the moment, however, audiences raised on the chastity-thumping morality of American horror movies (not that this is one, far from it, but that’s the genre where such pretty young things most consistently face consequences for their lusty slip-ups) will peg George as the slutty one and Laetitia as the innocent. Such labels don’t apply for long once the big “bang gang” explosion occurs, however.
Shocked that Alex doesn’t return her phone calls or text messages after their hook-up, George comes up with a scheme designed to make him jealous: Though all she really wants is Alex to herself, George suggests to a group of classmates gathered in his living room that they raise the stakes on their lame games of “Spin the Bottle” and “Truth or Dare” and try a version that’s nothing but dares. In short order, this extracurricular hang-out session has turned into a group hook-up — one that’s so popular with all who participated that the other kids at school want in, flocking to Alex’s house anytime a kick-off text message (“it’s now or never!” they claim) goes ’round.
This is precisely the fantasy Abercrombie & Fitch has been selling all these years, as “Bang Gang” recreates the sort of predominately white, ambisexual summertime orgies that filled its early-2000s catalogs, complete with carefree skinny dipping and drunk, naked teens huddled around the foosball table. Not everyone in George’s class wants in on the fun, however, and the movie holds a special regard for Laetitia’s shy next door neighbor, Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre), an awkward, amateur electronic-music mixer (the film’s entrancing soundtrack, by L.A.-based snyth-pop siren White Sea, is one of those hip touches that should get Husson more work, likely directing musicvideos or fashion campaigns). While his classmates bang-gang, Gabriel lets off steam in his own way, seeking out local “beat parties” where he can dance out his frustrations.
Gabriel is one of a couple characters who, without explanation, turn and gaze directly into the camera at a certain point, and one suspects that Husson originally tried this approach with others as well, though the film bears the traces of having been heavily reworked in editing. While the film’s fluid, free-roaming perspective gives things a dreamy feel, as if these adolescent love-ins (which Husson semi-explicitly teases from the film’s flash-forward first scene) all took place in some alcohol- and ecstasy-clouded reverie, the lack of a single clear character with whom to identify ultimately proves problematic.
Though Husson is predictably obliged to affix a cautionary scarlet letter on her teen libertines, as the school’s entire graduating class is subjected to mandatory syphilis testing in a scene that recalls Clark’s “Kids,” her judgment isn’t targeted so much at George, who started it all, but Alex, whom George holds responsible. Rather than getting back at this one boy in particular, a more effective cut of the film would put us inside the various characters’ heads, giving us the chance to identify with both their selfish impulses and the consequences of such teenage egotism (the way Roger Avary’s “The Rules of Attraction” did at roughly the time the film is set), whereas this one shifts focus as casually as its characters swap partners.