Catherine Deneuve, one of French cinema’s finest treasures, strips it all back for André Téchiné’s Farewell to The Night, an underwhelming statement on the current state of the gallic nation. Coming at a time when France is in turmoil, it’s unlikely to spark any serious conversations, especially in comparison to Francois Ozon’s urgent By The Grace of God (which premiered earlier in the festival).
Deneuve ditches her classic blonde look for brunette, playing Muriel, the owner of an equestrian school and almond plantation in French Catalonia. Her Muslim ranch helper, Lila (Oulaya Amamra), has always grown up near the family, and will be married soon to Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein) coming down from Toulouse to visit his grandmother. An orphan who picks up odd jobs here and there, he tells her that they plan to move to Montreal for a fresh start. In reality, the disillusioned man has just converted to Radical Islam, and plans to journey to Syria to fight with ISIS.
This is potentially problematic territory for any director, especially in a country as fractured by radicalism as France, but Techine sketches his Islamic characters well, filling them with traits and vulnerabilities miles apart from their belief system. This is what he seemingly wants to interrogate; the difference between words and actions, leading the viewer to really wonder: will they actually go through with it?
Farewell to The Night is smart enough not to draw any obvious conclusions as to why people are drawn to radicalism. In a rather didactic plot development, Muriel meets with a former radical, who suggests every answer from “girls will like you more” to “it gives life purpose” to “it’s summer camp with guns”. While it’s welcome to see Téchiné avoid any simplistic diagnosis, its discourse is neither nuanced or pointed enough, unlikely to please anyone expecting a truly intelligent treatise on the sources of Islamic terror.
Tackling Islamic radicalisation is a bit of a strange about turn from Téchiné, whose previous film at the Berlinale, Being Seventeen, was a gorgeously empathetic love story between two gay teens. While his best work focuses on character first and narrative second, Farewell To The Night is beholden to its Islamic radicalisation narrative. Flirting with both the thriller and tragedy genres, the result is an intermittently interesting experience that cannot figure out exactly what it wants to be.
Téchiné’s trademark style lifts the film when the screenplay fails. Handheld close-ups offer an immediate window into the emotions of each character, meticulously edited for maximum precision. It takes place during the first five days of spring 2015, with the cherry blossom in full bloom and the sun shining beauteously upon the French Catalonian mountains. The film works best when it simply absorbs us into its character’s lives, Téchiné miraculously able to hold the viewer’s attention even when nothing much is actually happening. He remains the master of handheld mise en scène.
It eventually metastases into a classic what-would-you-do-situation, with Muriel unsure how to deal with the grandson she so dearly loves. But Alex remains something of a cipher — a stand-in for French discontent rather than a three-dimensional character in his own right. Deneuve does what she can to give this heartbreaking tale some oomph, but it’s hardly her story to tell in the first place. When the crucial moment comes for true understanding and conversation, it’s resolved with a show of blunt force that suggests a rushed draft more than anything meaningful. A rare misstep from the accomplished director.
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