The chemistry between two people on screen can be a palpable thing, whether the connection is based on attraction or animosity. Two young men spend most of acclaimed French post-New Wave director André Téchiné’s beautiful film “Being 17” wavering between one and the other. For the audience, that means an enigmatic, deliberately paced and hard-to-pin-down cinematic experience – just the type of movie that should appeal to fans of the Fresno Filmworks monthly series.
Set in a picturesque French valley town nestled by the towering Pyrenees mountains, “Being 17” introduces us to Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), who attend the same school. Damien, whose mother is a local doctor and father an army helicopter pilot stationed in an undisclosed war zone, is bright, precocious and assertive, and he projects a sense of only-child entitlement.
Unlike Damien, who lives in town, Thomas lives far up the mountain, requiring a 90-minute commute by foot and bus each way to school. He is biracial (Damien is white) and adopted, living with his parents on a small family farm, and is as quiet (perhaps even sullen) as Damien is outgoing.
And they hate each other.
Makers of romantic comedies know how to exploit the opposites-attract formula: Audiences love to see characters bicker and banter while learning their common bonds outweigh their differences. “Being 17” is as far from a romantic comedy as you can get even as it offers an enlightening (and even disturbing) twist on the formula.
These two young men spend much of the film fighting (not just bickering), with extended scenes of violence between them. Interestingly, Téchiné uses long takes to document these angry interludes instead of the quick-cutting tricks directors often use when filming fight scenes; the result is an uncomfortable truthfulness to the violence.
Is the animosity between them also charged with sexual attraction? It appears to be from Damien’s point of view, who is much more open with his feelings than Thomas. But there is ambiguity. Anti-gay violence is a very real thing, of course, and so is the theory that some of the people most vociferous in their opposition to homosexuality are struggling with their own sexual leanings.
But just as Téchiné carefully avoids siding with any one character in the film, serving instead as a more dispassionate observer, he also skirts ironclad generalizations. This is less any sort of gay coming-of-age film and more a thoughtful examination of the human need for desire and connection. The result is a cinematic environment that slowly grows on you, enveloping you in the emotional lives of the characters.
Sandrine Kiberlain, as Damien’s mother, gives an exquisite performance as she struggles with her own emotional baggage dealing with an absent husband, whom she most often communicates with by Skype. And the gorgeous seasonal arc of the film, based on the three “trimesters” of school, from winter to spring, adds a raw, earthy sensibility. The gorgeous scenery matches the individual beauty of the tale it tells. “Being 17” reminds us that no love story – or hate story, or, indeed, any human relationship – is quite the same.
Cast: Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Sandrine Kiberlain
Director: André Téchiné
Rating: Unrated (violence, sexuality, graphic images)
Screenings: 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday. This month’s presentation by Fresno Filmworks at the Tower Theatre.