Following their first collaboration with last spring’s French Cinema’s Secret Trove, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, have partnered again to present the CinéSalon film series Eccentrics of French Cinema. Beginning this week, the series features a selection of rarely screened French comedies selected by FIAF’s Delphine Selles-Alvarez and Cahiers du Cinéma’s Jean-Philippe Tessé and Nicholas Elliott.
Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.
This review of Riad Sattouf’s “French Kissers” was originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 646 in June 2009. It was written by Cahiers du Cinéma’s current deputy editor Jean-Philippe Tessé.
Back to junior high. Two 9th graders, Hervé and Camel, stuck in front of the camera, looking both fascinated and stunned as they stare at an abstract counter-shot: a close-up of two faces glued together at the lips, in which one can perceive searching tongues noisily chewing at each other in a field of acne and peach fuzz—full-on French kissing. What goes through Hervé and Camel’s minds as they stand there in an argyle brown sweater and a sleeveless jeans jacket and skull and crossbones T-shirt? Nothing. Pure, immobile contemplation. Fresh breeze between their ears, mask of stupidity and emptiness across their gaping faces.
How do you make a film with protagonists like these? The return to junior high appears difficult, as awkward as the teen years and these two juxtaposed shots. Between the shot riveted to the schoolyard lovers’ anatomy and the one of this labial fusion’s spectators, the film immediately sides with the latter, the “good-looking kids” of the film’s French title (“Les Beaux Gosses”) — who aren’t good-looking at all’ they’re even downright ugly.
They’re a little dirty, obsessed with girls, tongue-kissing techniques, and frenetic masturbation. “French Kissers” pays particular attention to Hervé, a boy whose teachers deplore that he is “average at everything,” while he sees his mediocrity as a source of satisfaction and insurance that he will be left in peace. Hervé lives with his mother, whose depression does not prevent her from being hysteric. Hervé is a soft-in-the-head slug who gets blown off, thinks nothing and has opinions about nothing. At night, he eats noodles and watches TV. At school, he hangs out with his buddy Camel, the metal fan with the anachronistic mop of hair.
How do you make a film with ghastly creatures like these? To make a movie about regular teenagers nowadays in France is to come up against the old problem of your point-of-view on your characters, especially when they aren’t particularly seductive but you still venture into the realm of comedy with them and not against them.
This first feature by successful young comics artist Riad Sattouf modestly and simply delivers several solutions to the quandary. Local solutions (in his film, in his narrative, with and about his characters), as well as other solutions that go beyond this setting and make it worthwhile to look at “French Kissers” in the context of other films, frequently acclaimed and always American, that have placed the figure of the teen at the very top of the elegiac pantheon.
Locally, Sattouf’s skill as a portraitist goes far beyond mere description of the habitus of the awkward age. In this context, the film’s comedy is due to a deftness in portrayal, an always-accurate precision that seems to take in all the harmless flaws of pimply adolescence at once: both in the micro of a thousand details (masturbating into socks, that way of pulling on your previous day’s shirt and sweater at the same time in the morning etc.) and the macro of our 14-year-old selves’ Weltanschauung (the fear of going to jail for the slightest mini-infraction, the dilated relationship to time that makes you think the smallest decision is the most definitive resolution etc.).
The film is also successful in its anecdotal dimension because it settles in an intermediate zone, both on a narrative level (a judicious distance from the characters) and the sociological (an unremarkable junior high in a provincial town, with genuine social diversity) and temporal levels: while the film is set in the present day, Sattouf has nearly done away with all signs of the contemporary, to avoid giving his portrait any generational connotation. A mix of memories (the 1990s, for this director born in 1978) and impressions of the present, “French Kissers” is a non-current, slightly old-fashioned film, in which the protagonists still masturbate to mail order catalogs, while trying out the latest trendy porn sites (hot-moms.com).
But beyond its nearly documentary aspect, the film also positions itself as the secret reverse angle to all those teen movies — particularly American ones — which have imposed the teenager as a central character of contemporary cinema. A central yet slightly displaced character, for the teen is often bigger than life. An always unreal creature. From the suave islets of Gus Van Sant to the little cadavers of Larry Clark, from the much-commented-upon hyperactive kids in “Superbad” to the precociously puritanical children of bottom-of-the-line teen movies, American cinema makes teenagers exist by separating them from themselves. By lowering its protagonists’ age to 14 (a recent teen movie was called “17 Again,” note the “again”), by limiting their concerns to their immediate, organic, instinctual, often slightly grimy concerns, “French Kissers” captures adolescence at zit-level.
Back to sociology: Sattouf’s kids are average, but they’re proliferating. It’s the anonymous army of the awkward age, not the teens that worry you (those who are in real trouble) or that disgust you (the little rich kids in advertisements). They are only those who are in transition (from this perspective, the film’s ending is very beautiful: after a summer ellipsis, we find the characters a little taller, a little changed, toeing the line) and are never seen in the movies due to a sample-based, selective sociology. Background characters.
Yet Sattouf’s film is also not a treatise on the hidden beauty of the ugly. It’s a film with a lot of counter-shots, but no counterpoint: no lessons about life or learning, no heavy emotion sequence. Not a pretty film. Sattouf delves into the flesh of an unpleasing age and condition that had nearly disappeared from the screen. It’s not a question of saving or accusing, being moved by or elevating these kids into the ether, but rather,— in the manner of that shot of a slobbery kiss seen “camera on-board” — to render from the inside an age that was once our own and whose repressed memory attests that along with Hervé and Camel, we have grown up.