A golden-lit, refracted sequence of close-ups of a male body in motion — individual muscles stretching, flexing, tensing — opens “Reinventing Marvin,” as we assume we’re watching a dancer in preparation for an arduous ballet. We’re partly right: He’s an actor, not a dancer, readying himself for the spotlight. What he faces there, however, is not tricky footwork or strenuous physical performance, but the hard facts of his past. Skipping liberally across formative stages of a once-denigrated gay man’s self-made life, Anne Fontaine’s unsteady, overlong but rewardingly compassionate character study documents the painful coming of age that builds to cathartic creative process.
Harsh but unexpectedly even-handed as it documents the perils of realizing one’s queer identity in a largely uncomprehending working-class environment, “Reinventing Marvin’s” acutely observed, beautifully played childhood scenes ring a trad truer than its more abstract portrait of the artist as a (slightly older) young man. Still, the latter portion offers audiences a small, witty self-performance from the tireless Isabelle Huppert as a veritable fairy godmother of Parisian theater, so no time here is unworthily spent. Commercially, this somewhat scattered pic has less broad international appeal than previous Fontaine successes like “Coco Before Chanel” or even last year’s excellent “The Innocents,” but LGBT-specializing distributors and festival programmers will snap it up without hesitation. For the director, meanwhile, “Marvin” adds yet another tone to one of French cinema’s more unpredictably modulated filmographies; her affinity for both glossy melodrama and rarefied chamber pieces is in evidence here.
After her poetic intro, Fontaine thrusts us violently into the misery of adolescent Marvin Bijou’s upbringing in a rough-edged countryside village, where school bullies taunt and sexually abuse him in effectively visceral, panic-inducing flashes. At home, things are scarcely more comforting. His hard-up parents regard him with indifference at best, and outright contempt at worst, as his loutish father (an excellent Grégory Gadebois) too often lets slip his homophobic suspicions about the boy: “Why does he act like such a fag? Why does he embarrass us?”
Shy, gentle-natured Marvin (whose bully-bait full name the English subtitles awkwardly translate as “Marvin Jewels”) scarcely knows yet what it is to be gay, but his nascent inclinations are cruelly obvious to those least sensitive to them. Fontaine delicately captures the first inklings of his desirous gaze, as he studies other boys’ bodies at school swimming classes that second too long, or observes older male horseplay with a mixture of intimidation and yearning. Making his screen debut as the younger Marvin, stern-faced, copper-haired Jules Porier is a terrific find, his guarded expression and gangly body language bearing the weight of years of hiding, even when he hasn’t known what exactly to hide. His slow, uncertain blossoming, as a kindly, perceptive school principal (Catherine Mouchet) coaxes him toward drama school, is sincerely touching, without dipping into hokey inspirational cliché.
However, once Marvin grows, moves to Paris and morphs into Finnegan Oldfield — a subtle triumph of child-to-adult casting, let it be said — his story loses some of its emotional immediacy. The still-awkward young man’s attempts to find his place in the daunting Parisian gay scene feel unduly episodic and unfocused, worked as they are into the film’s continuing, flashback-and-forth structure — deftly if somewhat exhaustingly maintained by editor Annette Dutertre. That said, it’s always refreshing to see a coming-out drama in which the closet door doesn’t open right out into a rainbow-colored world of fulfilment.
Marvin’s uneasy courtship with a controlling sugar daddy (Charles Berling) is more dramatically compelling than his ongoing struggle to pen and perform an autobiographical one-man show intended to lay bare the demons of his childhood. Marvin’s dramatic interpretations of the past never carry quite the weight or intensity of the film’s direct depictions thereof, which makes it harder for audiences to invest in his internalized artistry — though it’s kicked up a notch once Huppert, playing herself with dry good humor, gets on board as a mentor and collaborator. Would that all young theater kids still finding their way could land on her as their patient, understanding, disco-dancing patron. Even in these latter-day stages, however, it’s the domestic scenes that hit hardest: Oldfield and Gadebois are both deeply affecting as the older, moderately wiser father and son attempt to find ground that, if not common, is at least peaceful.
Fontaine and Pierre Trividic’s screenplay is credited as an original, though it takes significant inspiration from young writer Edouard Louis’s bestselling, widely translated 2014 book “The End of Eddy” — an autobiographical novel, published at just 21 years of age, documenting his coming-out-and-up from working-class poverty and oppression. A more direct adaptation would probably have enhanced the commercial prospects of Fontaine’s film, though “Reinventing Marvin” is evidently touched by the director’s own passion for, and history in, the theatre. It’s hard to say whether the stylized, burgundy-bathed stage confessional enacted by Oldfield and Huppert is quite the triumph we’re told it is, but the film makes an emotive case for applause all the same.