Turning on the waterworks and ripping open her blouse to cap a performance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Respectful Prostitute,” aspiring actress Stella (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) concludes her audition for France’s most prestigious theatre school with a question from the jury. As he puffs a cigarette and speaks the first lines of dialogue written expressly for this film, an inscrutable juror looks to the ingénue and asks, “Do you think an actress needs to be an exhibitionist?”
In that opening, we find the fulcrum for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s “Forever Young.” Asking the same question to the audience and to herself — with the Stella character a clear analogue for the director — Bruni Tedeschi dances around a definitive answer, turning out an autobiographical portrait that somehow leaves you knowing less about the subject at hand, and a study of actors, warts and all, that offers little insight into the artistic process. Only despite (or maybe thanks to) those contradictions, “Forever Young” is Bruni Tedeschi’s strongest work to date, channeling her mercurial performance style and feisty screen presence through a screen language that asks if nostalgia is really all that it’s cracked up to be.
The year is 1985 and the kids are all clamoring for a break. As a growing coterie of young French actors in their early twenties (played by, well, young French actors in their early twenties), gather en masse around the Théâtre des Amandiers just outside Paris, it would seem said break might be found inside. And for the twelve lucky few, selected from forty kept on for a second round and cut down from the wave of exuberant young things nervously preparing auditions by pouring ketchup all over themselves for lack of more sophisticated stage make-up, securing a spot at this prestigious school very well might.
Joining Stella at school is headstrong redhead Adèle (Clara Bretheau), an unfortunately underused character based on Bruni Tedeschi’s own classmate, Eva Ionesco; the near-term pregnant Camille (“Benedetta” scene-stealer and “Mektoub, My Love” survivor Alexia Chardard), who promised to drop the kid with her folks and get right back on with the show; and an unnamed bartender who didn’t make the cut but opts to stick around the for all the fun, played by “Spring Blossom” star Suzanne Lindon. As fate would have it, the latter character’s bad luck redounds to the overall benefit of the film, as any more screen time for Lindon’s unnamed server might’ve created a pretty big conflict of interest for the Cannes jury, led by the actress’ own father.
The film’s earliest — and strongest — act follows no one perspective as it tracks the in-class exercises and fluid group dynamics of this twelve-person class. After all, there is no “I” in troupe, and Bruni Tedeschi’s impatient camera ably tracks an interconnected network where sexuality is fluid, drug use rampant, and personal boundaries non-existent. So when one student’s (off-screen) partner tests positive for HIV, the climate of fear and uncertainty affects every student in the school.
Their fear is palpable, and powerfully felt. While “Forever Young” certainly lives up to the title’s promise, luxuriating in the everlasting appeal of feeling buoyant and beautiful and blessed by life, Bruni Tedeschi is also hard-nosed about the context of her own youthful abandon. Nowhere is that more clear than with the theater’s artistic director, Patrice Chéreau (played by Louis Garrel). The French opera, theatre, and movie director best known for his films “Queen Margot” and “Intimacy” and who himself once served as Cannes jury president (he gave the Palme d’Or to Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” if you were wondering), Chéreau oversaw the very real school where this film is set and directed Bruni Tedeschi in the 1987 film “Hotel de France” while she was still a student there.
As seen through his one-time student’s lens, this Chéreau is neither exacting taskmaster nor benevolent mentor; he’s mostly just another kid, taking advantage of his top-dog status to feel forever young while imposing himself on whatever student he fancies. What makes Chéreau a genius? What’s behind the social permission to prey on those under his watch? The film never cares to say — but it doesn’t really call him out. Rather than imposing any contemporary reads, Bruni Tedeschi and co-screenwriters Noémie Lvovsky and Agnès de Sacy explore this cloistered world from the inside of a school that arrests growth.
Cast in a certain light, the film’s total disinterest in the nuts and bolts of what makes an actor scans as a feature and not a flaw. The students welcomed into this self-reinforcing hierarchy were chosen because they already had the goods; if you’re part of France’s toniest troupe, doesn’t that prove your worth? We’re the best because we’re here; we’re here because we’re the best, so why overthink the matter when there’s a party to be had and no possible consequences to feel?
“Forever Young” loses a step as it moves to puncture that particular bubble. A wider world does exist, with the drugs consumed on campus leading to addictions that follow you home. And as Stella’s troubled relationship with the bad-boy Etienne (Sofiane Bennacer) overtakes nearly every other element as the film moves forward, it also moves into a much more conventional and entirely predictable register. Like the young actors they are, Stella and Etienne fill standard roles for which we’ve seen many better versions, giving off an ersatz quality that is written into the very script. A late scene inspires the wrong kind of chuckle at the worst emotional point when the broody Etienne repeatedly bellows his girlfriend’s name, as the film plays to the rafters asking, “Doesn’t he remind you of someone?”
But a little bit of ham is always a part of the show, especially from an actor whose performances take big swings. Watching Bruni Tedeschi wrestle with her own questions offers a worthy spectacle all by itself. After previous films pushed the emotional and self-revealing dial far in one direction, it’s interesting to see the filmmaker recalibrate onstage. Nearly four decades after her education, she continues to search and grow.
“Forever Young” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.