(2016, Andre Techine)
[4 out of 5 stars]
This film is being screened in Australia as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017. More details and book tickets here.
A glance that leads to a shove that follows a punch and ends with an embrace. BEING 17 is a movie filled with gestures - of communicating through one's body. It is about two teenage boys who find it hard to express (like most teenage boys) what is going on inside and taking all that turbulent energy and manifests itself into aggression. Both are outsiders in their high school - one is named Thomas (Corentin Fila), a handsome adopted boy of African descent who works at his family's farm and dreams of becoming a veterinarian, and the other is Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) a bright and smug middle-class son of the town's doctor and a dad on active tour duty as a pilot. When Damien's mother is called in to treat Thomas' ill mother she offers a place for him in their home so he doesn't have to travel the long distance he commutes every day from home to school, giving him time to focus on his studies. Little does she know that Thomas and Damien both have a troubled and violent history. Both bully each other for no apparent reason other than they just simply don't like one another.
Over the course of a school year, they form a relationship that doesn't follow a conventional romantic arc but ebbs and flows in a way that is beautifully confusing. Their attraction to each other is invisible but it clouds over them like a heavy fog. The only way they deal with it is through mutual hostility.
I have to say this is completely foreign to me. I am by no means an aggressive person. When I become really angry, it dissolves into uncontrollable fits of laughter (a particular kind of laughter that is discernible only by people who know me best) so that whenever I want to express to someone how much they've pissed me off, they think that I'm joking around. Anger for me, forms like foam - it builds up but then disappears as quickly as it came. I physically cannot hold anger in for too long for me to take action on it. From the outside, this looks like I'm trying to bottle it up (I'm not), or I'm too afraid to act on it (I'm not). The feeling just doesn't linger or eat away inside me.
(Mild spoilers from this point)
Watching Damien and Thomas express their inner feelings with such aggression and brutal physicality was a strange and fascinating experience. In the first instance where they kiss, Damien approaches Thomas in an empty locker room and circles him like a predator and Thomas guards himself like a beast protecting its territory. As their heads grow closer they look like two creatures ready to lock horns. There is something animalistic about their intimacy. It's a mix of aggression, suppressed desire and genuine tenderness. I have never seen a relationship like this depicted in this way.
Gender identity, especially aspects of which are socially constructed, play an important role in gay relationships. The most obvious is that of dominance, or to put it in sexual terms - who is top and who is bottom. Sometimes the lines are blurred, and it doesn't matter but in some cases each person's role is distinct - and rigid. I've slept with men who refused to kiss me because they deemed it too intimate, even though they were still inside me. I've also slept with men twice my size, and are textbook examples of "manly men" but when it comes down to it, they prefer to be the submissive. Every sexual experience for me opens up the vast array of sexual dynamics, preferences and surprises that represent the spectrum of variable relationships that exist even in a specific, male-to-male relationship.
The wonderful thing about this movie is that it conveys these complex, messy and confusing occurrences not through its dialogue but in the actor's physical actions. It evens makes fun of explanatory dialogue in one scene when the two boys quote philosophical texts to each other on a school project about desire. Thomas amusingly tells Damien how heavy-handed he is.
The sex scene in this movie typifies the nebulous dynamic between same-sex relationships. Damien first receives but later in the night, it is Thomas who receives. They each play a dual role. But it isn't only through sexual acts where the interplay between the two is constantly shifting - though Thomas is typically the more aggressive and dominant one, it's Damien who makes all the first moves. At one point he blurts out to Thomas: "I'm not sure if I like guys or if it's just you." He's the first to move things along. Control and dominance is not a responsibility held by a person. What controls relationships and sexual encounters is desire. Some people keep this in check or they eventually learn how to give in to it. BEING 17 is a brilliant exploration of this tug-of-war. Thomas and Damien use their might to pull away or pull the other closer, but in the end both end up falling on top of each other.