Earlier this year Andre Techine's Wild Reeds won four major Cesar Awards--France's version of the Oscars--and the movie has attracted big audiences in that country. But not all French delicacies travel well.
The four interwoven coming-of-age stories at the heart of the film are interesting enough because raging teen hormones and the traumas of first love never seem to go out of style. But Techine (best known here for The Innocents and Rendez-Vous) has set Wild Reeds in a provincial French city in 1962, the year Algeria won independence from France after eight years of civil war. Many American moviegoers will be baffled by the old political arguments on which the film really turns, as well as by crucial but unexplained references to General Salan and the OAS, de Gaulle's dilemma, the FLN and other elements of a conflict that's grown hazy with the passage of time--at least on this side of the Atlantic.
The kids and their trials are fairly standard stuff, with a French twist. Sensitive Francois (Gael Morel) discovers he is gay and attracted to his strapping boarding-school roommate, Serge (Stephane Rideau). Serge is drawn to pretty Maite (Elodie Bouchez), who's a budding communist. Despite herself, Maite eventually gets romantically involved with Henri (Frederic Gorny), an Algerian-born French national who supports the insurgents back home.
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There's a lot of the usual adolescent talk about sex, and the shocking death of an older brother. To make things worse, the teenagers are all scared about passing their final exams. To make things impossible, the teens are a lot more concerned than you might expect about Algeria. The film doesn't make any of this very clear, but a little research shows that by 1962 French public opinion had turned against the barbarity and futility of the war (sound familiar?), and President Charles de Gaulle had come to see it as unwinnable. He had to contend not only with the Algerian insurgents of the Front de Liberation Nationale, but with a group of rogue French officers, led by General Raoul Albin Louis Salan, who earlier formed a secret terrorist army (the OAS) dedicated to keeping Algeria French at all costs--including a series of assassination attempts against de Gaulle.
Wouldn't you know it? A few years back Salan had pledged to keep Indo-China purely French, too. The Viet Minh had other ideas.
Most non-French viewers would understand the emotional roller coasters the kids are on a little better if Techine had provided a few of these details, because his film purports to be about their political and intellectual awakenings as well as their introductions to sex. Instead, we are reduced to dusting off our history books after leaving the theater, and a good deal of the film's power dissipates in the process. Still, the kids are appealing, the melancholy in their hearts seems real enough, and when they pile into a sidewalk cafe and start twisting to Chubby Checker, we understand very well where their little tetes are at when they're not worried sick about the state of the world.
Unfortunately, we don't get much chance to worry along with them.