Veteran French director Andre Techine’s ensembler Unforgivable serves as a gentle reminder of the superiority of the finest contemporary European dramas over their Hollywood equivalents. The movie stands out in sharp contrast to much American filmmaking by virtue of its depth and complexity. Even a U.S. drama like Young Adult, as satisfying as it was, could be digested in one sitting and summed up in a single pitch. Unforgivable achieves distinction because it refuses to simplify the motivations, needs, or interactions of its subjects; these are complex, meaty characters with long and nuanced histories. Techine never belonged to the Nouvelle Vague -- his career began a decade or so later -- but the maturity of his observations in this picture can’t help but summon memories of François Truffaut, that grand master of onscreen relationships and emotions.
Andre Dussollier (Wild Grass) stars as Francis, a successful author of French crime novels. As the story opens, he consults travel agent Judith (Carole Bouquet) about renting living quarters in Venice, where he plans to write a new book. When she shows him a home on the Venetian isle of Sant’Erasmo, he makes a romantic play for her, but she initially rebuffs his advances. The movie then jumps forward 18 months, to a point when Judith and Francis are now married and sharing the island house together. Francis’s actress daughter Alice (Melanie Thierry) has arrived for a visit with her father, but soon absconds late at night to visit her lover Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), a handsome drug dealer and the son of a local countess (Sandra Toffolatti). When Alice inexplicably fails to return, Francis grows sick with worry over her whereabouts. Meanwhile, a former lover of Judith’s, the private detective Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), also turns up on the island; her troubled son Jeremie (Mauro Conte) is about to be released from prison, having served time for an act that initially goes unstated.
The narrative of this picture may sound melodramatic or plot-heavy, but curiously, events such as Alice’s disappearance and Jeremie’s initial days as an ex-convict matter far less than the film’s unifying theme. Techine uses the drama to explore the idea of personal relationships as a source of emotional complication -- the fact that, when one opens up to another human being, it automatically increases the heart’s capacity for shared joy, but also leaves one vulnerable to pain and introduces the potentially crushing or terrifying burden of commitment to someone else. It’s telling, for example, that the icy Jeremie harbors an intense fear of being physically touched, and equally revealing that Francis -- who is completely emotionally accessible, and thus presented as Francis’s antithesis -- feels a love for Judith that grows suffocating and possessive. At one point, he even develops suspicions of her infidelity and hires Jeremie to trail her. The character of Alice also provides some interesting reflections on the movie’s central idea. In a video mailed to her father, she comments on the relative facility of her relationship with Alvise vis-à-vis her marriage -- “It’s actually very simple,” she says. “I met Alvise, and I love him. That’s all. I can’t say a word against Roger. He’s the perfect husband, the perfect father. A bit too perfect, a bit too supportive.” Again: An excess of emotional support and understanding can be debilitating and suffocating, especially if the recipient isn’t equipped to handle or process it.
This central theme of Unforgivable is remarkable for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is because it gives Techine and co-scribe Mehdi Ben Attia a broad framework in which to explore the needs that magnetically pull us together at certain times, and drive us apart at others -- such as fear, guilt, emotional disparity, love, concern, and resentment. The filmmakers understand that, as people, we are riddled with contradictions and ambiguities, particularly in our romantic and familial relationships, where emotional ties are strongest and most dangerous by virtue of their influentiality and intimacy.
This is a mature, adult drama, and to call that refreshing would be an understatement. You need to have lived a while to even begin to grasp why these characters act and respond to one another in the way that they do. All told, it’s an endlessly fascinating film and one that practically demands repeat viewings and analysis to be fully appreciated. leave a comment --Nathan Southern