Sex and coming-of-age movies have gone hand in hand since cinema started making Bildungsromans. The discovery of our sexuality, and the early incidents that help to shape it, are some of the key things that help push us into adulthood, and even when cinema was restricted by censorship and Production Codes, sex remained a key part of cinematic adolescence.
These days, you can get away with showing almost anything on screen, as Gaspar Noé reminded us earlier in the year with “Love.” But as that film proved, plentiful nudity and explicit content doesn’t necessarily lead to a particularly insightful approach to sexual awakenings; it’s still relatively rare for a movie to deal with the subject in a raw and honest way. And while it’s nowhere near as explicit as “Love,” Eva Husson‘s debut feature “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” certainly has button-pushing credentials of its own. Unfortunately, while Husson clearly has talent to burn, her film is something of a case of all talk and no trousers.
The film opens with an extended, impressive tracking shot, as Alex (Finnegan Oldfield, also seen this year in Thomas Bidegain‘s “The Cowboys“) walks lazily through his family home, which is hosting an orgy full of people just as young and attractive as him, doing anything and everything to or with each other. We then flashback to meet the less popular and single-parent raised Laetitia (Daisy Broom), and her glamorous new pal George (Marilyn Lima).
Their burgeoning friendship soon expands to see them hanging out at Alex’s place — a big summer house that his mother moved into after a divorce (she, like most of the adults in the film, is absent) — with his friend Nikita (Fred Hotier, giving off the vibes of a Gallic Ron Weasley). George is in love with Alex, but he’s cool towards her, and later ends up sleeping with Laetitia, which causes George, out of vengeance, to invent the “bang gang” with their various friends, which begins as a racier version of spin the bottle, but winds up as a full on orgy.
Husson’s film wears its influences fairly clearly on its sleeve — take one large dose of Larry Clark’s “Kids,” mix with another big spoonful of Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” and add a sprinkling of Catherine Breillat (among others). What she shares with the aforementioned is clearly a facility for working with young actors — her cast is very strong, both the slightly more established names like Oldfield, and the total newcomers (Husson used the same casting director as “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” and as with that film, we imagine we’ll be seeing these faces start to pop up again regularly in French cinema).
And Husson helms the proceedings with a confidence that belies her first-time director status: that opening scene is clearly a statement, and she handles the camera sturdily throughout (Mattias Troelstrup, of “Electrick Children,” is her DP on the picture), keeping things moving along at a steady pace, and makes excellent use of a terrific, throbbing electronica soundtrack from M83 collaborator Morgan Kibby (aka White Sea). Technically speaking, there’s not much to fault here.
But even in the film’s stronger first half, it’s hard to shake the thought that there isn’t much going on beneath the surface. Characters are mostly broadly sketched — the closest we get to complexity is the way that Laetitia blossoms, not always for the best, as she explores her sexuality, while George becomes increasingly alienated through it — and skin-deep, and the film ends up feeling closer to a long-form American Apparel advert than the more incisive coming-of-age films that it’s emulating.
Most disappointing is the film’s wrap-up. Things go sour for the teens in a way that resembles less the sexual mistakes of youth, and more the sort of finger-wagging PSA someone might have been shown at school in the ’70s: don’t have orgies, kids, or you’ll get nasty diseases. Combined with a rather undernourished romance between George and loner bedroom DJ kid Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre) that feels more John Green than Sofia Coppola, and you end up with a film that’s rather more old-fashioned than the sexual libertarianism of the early stages would suggest.
It’s a pleasant enough watch, and there’s certainly room for an update of this kind of sexually-charged coming-of-age tale for the internet era (which the film engages with, but mostly in an inept way — i.e. a sexually-explicit clip is uploaded on YouTube and can’t be removed except by the person who posted it). Much of the cast are worth keeping an eye on (with Lima being a particular highlight), and Husson’s certainly one to watch, but her first feature is unfortunately more of a forgettable roll in the hay than a mind-blowing all-nighter. [C-]