In André Téchiné’s vibrant new film Being 17, two teens wrestle with desire and hostility in a mountainous corner of France. The subject matter is not new for Téchiné, who has for more than 40 years explored sexual self-awakening, alienation and family strife in films notable for their consistency and diversity. The director has made period pieces (The Brontë Sisters), thrillers (Barocco, Scene of the Crime), war movies (Strayed), romantic comedies (Changing Times) and more, but they are all marked by his attention to the nuances and rhythms of human behavior. Téchiné doesn’t travel much (he famously refuses to fly) and gives relatively few interviews, but he recently spoke to us about his new film and career.
Being 17 takes on a number of themes you’ve covered in your past films. What were you trying to achieve this time?
The purpose of the film, at the beginning, was not really clear to me. My first idea was to show the violence inherent in adolescence through these two young men who have this animosity towards each other and you aren’t quite clear why. They just can’t seem to communicate verbally, so they communicate via violence. Nothing is actually being communicated in that way, but they also can’t be prevented from engaging in this violence. As the film developed, I decided that I also wanted to focus on the apprenticeship of desire, how these two young men learn to identify desire, to overcome their own inherent resistance to desire once they’ve defined what it is, and then their emancipation — both on the emotional and sexual level.
This process of discovering what the film is about — is that similar to how you’ve worked on your other films? Do you go into a project with some uncertainty about what you want it to be?
With this particular film, I knew right from the start there were two things I wanted to deal with. One is this question of violence, and the other is the question of emancipation. And I wanted to express these two ideas in a way that was original, but also very concrete — so I really entered into it without completely fixed ideas. This is the way I like to work. I like to have this march into the unknown, and then once I’m there to see the landscape that opens up as a result. If you think about it, basically what I’m talking about in this film is these two young men who are programmed in a particular way to think about homosexuality. And what I’m trying to show is the process and time that’s involved in their becoming deprogrammed in the way they look at it. In order to do this, I had to be as precise as possible — to focus on them very closely.
When I hear you talk about the violence of youth that makes me think of the visual style of the film. You use handheld camera quite a bit in your work, but here the camera style seems even more unhinged.
I really wanted to use a handheld camera here, particularly because it’s much less expensive and we didn’t have a huge budget. But also, in filming, I wanted to get as close as I could to the physical bodies of these two adolescent young men, and also to get as close as possible to the body of the mother. Because, you know, this isn’t a film about two; it’s really a triangle in which the mother plays a central role between the two young men. And so the handheld camera was very much a necessity, because it provides the mobility and fluidity that makes this possible. I think that it is also a reflection of the characteristic of the adolescent. Adolescents are always agitated; they’re always moving. There’s no such thing as calm in an adolescent.
You worked on this script with Girlhood and Water Lilies director Céline Sciamma, who is an excellent filmmaker in her own right. What did she bring to the writing of the film?
Her contribution was really a very precious one. From a technical point of view, our approach was the same. We wanted to make a film that was really an “action” film — one that has little dialogue and relies very little on words to convey its themes and ideas. She was always vigilant, very helpful in making sure that we were staying on that path. Also, some of the themes, particularly this whole idea of the emancipation of adolescents, and of homosexuality — these are of interest to her as well. Another of her great contributions was to be able to build a female character like the mother, a happy female in the midst of these two young men.
Over the years, you’ve collaborated on screenplays with many people who later became directors, like Olivier Assayas and Jacques Nolot. What do you look for in a collaborator?
My choice of a collaborator is always dependent on the specific project. Every type of film that you make has its own inherent rules, its own inherent demands. For me, it’s important when I choose to work with someone that they can bring something to that particular kind of a film. With Céline, I’ve already discussed what specifically she was able to bring. For The Brontë Sisters, I needed somebody who knew something about the 19th century and that setting, so I worked with Pascal Bonitzer.
But there is also something else that I look for: their ability to provide a critical viewpoint on the film as it’s being made. What’s important is that in working together, we need to avoid complacency. And this is very often a trap when you speak about a film d’auteur — this complacency. By using a project-specific collaborator on each one, I hope to be able to avoid that.
Is that perhaps why some of your collaborators have been former film critics, such as yourself?
With people like Olivier Assayas and Pascal Bonitzer it was an important starting point, because it represents a common culture, this background in film criticism. They also have an inherent knowledge of film from a technical point of view. So, in that respect, yes, that was something that was very helpful. But that wasn’t why I chose them. When I worked with Jacques Nolot, he was not at all from a cinephile kind of background. What was important for me was that he represented a different approach and point of view. What I ask with each of my choices is, “How is this collaborator going to work with me and in my constant quest to renew my work, to renew myself with each project?”
The performances in your films are intriguing. Very casual, naturalistic, sometimes even understated — even when the stories themselves could easily become melodramatic. You’ve worked with all sorts of actors — some well known, some young and inexperienced. What do you look for in actors, and how do you work with them to create the part?
It’s a very long process of working with the actors. In the beginning, I give them some amount of freedom, and at this point, there is much more possibility for improvisation. But as we continue to shoot and work more closely, things become tighter, more precise. It sometimes happens that things will still be improvised, and I might reject them because by that point I know more specifically what it is that I’m looking for. Towards the end, the last shots tend to be the tightest, the most rigorous — but it’s a tricky balance, because you want to make sure that you don’t go too far and that things become too mechanical. So, during the editing process, what I often like to do is mix some of the earliest takes with some of the last takes — because in the earliest takes, you still have this kind of spontaneity and freshness, and in the later takes, you have that kind of precision that I’m looking for.
Beginning actors are interesting to work with, but I also like stars — Catherine Deneuve, for example. Also, remember that I’m really showing all different stages of age, and that has an effect on who gets chosen. One kind of actor that I really don’t like to work with is the sort of “professional” who just relies on their own acting skills and goes from job to job, but doesn’t vary from project to project. That is something that I am not interested in.
Stylistically speaking, I feel like you often let your films go a little crazy towards the end. Earlier scenes might be very naturalistic. But then towards the end, you might throw in a sudden flashback or a series of strange cuts. For example, at the end of The Innocents, there are those little jagged, sudden cuts right when the two heroes get shot. Do you make a point of letting your films mutate stylistically towards the end?
It really is impossible for me to control the kind of impact that my films have on others. It’s true that often I do end my films with either something that may seem a little mad or a little exalted — or a little brutal or abrupt. But it really depends on the different stories that I’m telling. In Being 17, at the end I’m showing how these two adolescents have discovered themselves and each other. So, when you see both of them in the mountains at the end, I wanted to arrive almost at a feeling of exaltation — of elevation, in contrast to what has come before. In some of my other films — as in The Innocents, which you mentioned — perhaps there is that change as a way of heightening the dramatic effect. So it’s very much project-related. I’m not really sure if this is something that I’m doing deliberately on a conscious level, or if it’s more instinctive.
A lot of your films focus on families, and specifically on parents who are discovering that they have no control over their child’s life and decisions. I definitely sense this in Being 17, but it also drives the two previous ones, Unforgivable and In the Name of My Daughter. And it goes back all the way to Scene of the Crime (1986).
This question of generational relationships appears in many of my films, and it’s fundamental to many of them. I call this “The Ages of Life.” This could be the title of any one of my films — or if you want to combine all of my films together and give them one title, this could be it!
Let’s talk about musical choices in your films, which are often surprising. In Wild Reeds, you use a song like “Barbara Ann,” which is then offset by the repeated use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Or the Afropop in Being 17.
I want my choices of music to show very specific things. So, in Being 17, we do hear the African music at a moment of complete exaltation for Tom. I didn’t specifically choose it to make a point about his African origins. This I felt was a music that reflected his own personal journey — the path that he had taken up to that point, and this moment in which he finds himself at the end. Yet there’s also some classical music in the film. If you think of the scenes that take place in nature, particularly at night, the music is a reflection of the darkness — of the “witchcraft” that nature can produce in an individual, this slightly malevolent character of nature. So the classical music is representative of the nocturnal, and the African music is the music of sunshine. Heterogeneity in the choice of music is very important — to the point where you can have in the same film happily coexisting music by Mozart as well as popular cabaret songs.
Some of the subjects you’ve dealt with over the years – homosexual awakening, immigration, race relations — were not popular topics in cinema when you started out. This is a silly question, but forgive me — do you ever think of yourself as a pioneer?
No! [Laughs] I don’t consider myself a pioneer. But the unknown is something that’s always been very attractive to me. And I’ve often tried to use my own cinema as a way of exploring things that perhaps had not really been explored before. It’s important to have this combination of the realistic and the fictional. In Being 17, the scenes when they are on the modern farm and Tom is learning about mechanized farming and then contrasting it with his family’s mountain farm, those scenes are almost documentary in their approach.
Also, when Damien’s father speaks about what’s happening in his military assignment — it’s obvious that he’s in a region where there’s a problem with terrorism. That is all treated in a realistic way. I would not show those things otherwise. Yet, at the same time, I also like the moments of fiction. When the mother goes to the cemetery after her husband’s been buried, that’s a scene of pure madness for her — but it’s also 100% totally fictional.
Many years ago, you worked with Olivier Assayas on a film called Rendez-vous, which starred a young Juliette Binoche as a novice actress. A couple of years ago, Assayas made Clouds of Sils Maria — also starring Juliette Binoche, now in the role of a veteran actress — which reflects on your earlier film in some ways. Do you see a connection between the two?
There are certainly parallels. Rendez-vous is a story about ghosts, and so is Sils Maria. But I think what really differentiates the two for me is the dimension of time, and the time that’s passed since the making of the first film and of Olivier’s film. When I saw Olivier’s film, it was almost like watching A Star Is Born — to see what Juliette had become from her original appearance in Rendez-vous to the kind of actress that she is in Sils Maria. It’s an amazing trajectory that she’s followed. Among all the filmmakers working now, Olivier’s work really affects me the most. But it’s a very strange experience to see a film that really revisits the older film. It takes some of the same elements and appropriates the fiction that was present in the first film, but it’s presenting it 30 years later, and now the physical presence of the actress, of Juliette, is so very different.