Like a lot of French films, "Wild Reeds" opens with a
wedding. But it is a wedding of desperation, not romance. It is 1962, near the
end of the Algerian war that bitterly divided France. The groom has been
serving in the army in Algeria, and during the wedding feast, he confesses to a
former teacher that the only reason he got married was to go on leave. He begs
the teacher, a Communist Party member, to hide him so he won't have to return.
There is a bond of love between them, but she refuses. Three days later, he is
gone, and soon after that, he is dead.
wedding has introduced many of the key players in the story, although at first
we don't realize who they are. The teacher, Madame Alvarez (Michele Moretti),
has a daughter named Maite (Elodie Bouchez) who is a student in the school. A
boy named Francois (Gael Morel) is her best friend. Another of his close
friends is Serge (Stephane Rideau), the younger brother of the dead soldier.
the funeral, as Serge runs away, blinded by tears, Francois sends Maite after
him: "Only you can help him." Maite says something awkward about the
brother's heroism, but Serge says bitterly, "He wanted to escape. Ask your
mother." The war, which seemed far away from the quiet provincial school,
now seems closer, and it comes closer still with the arrival of a new student:
Henri (Frederic Gorny). He is a ped noir, an Algerian-born Frenchman, who has
fled with his family.
is uncertain of his sexuality, and his confusion is complicated by
inexperience. Maite is his best friend, but they keep at arm's length from each
other. His secret is that he is attracted to Serge, a boarding school veteran
who thinks nothing of it when they do have sex, but is not homosexual and
doesn't want any deeper involvement with Francois. Serge, in fact, is attracted
Francois is tormented by his feelings, staring in his mirror and calling
of this perhaps sounds more steamy than it is. Director Andre Techine, who says
the story is based on his own memories, wants to show his characters in the
middle of political and personal upheaval, and the character of the Communist
teacher is important because she brings her feelings about the Algerian war
into the classroom, causing her students to question government policy at the
same time they question their own values.
are also, after all, teenagers, and the soundtrack of the movie is heavy with
hit records of the period (even some by the Beach Boys). And yet the movie is
not nostalgic in the way that, say, "American Graffiti" was. Young
people in France often take intellectuals as their heroes, and Camus was
probably more important to these kids than Elvis. They are thoughtful, they
talk earnestly, they feel deeply.
Francois becomes convinced that he is gay, he reacts in a way that would seem
strange to an American teenager. He has known for some time that the man who
runs the shoe store in town is evidently a homosexual. So, Francois goes
downtown and enters the store - for what? To ask the man what it means to be
gay, and how one goes about it? Probably, although Francois loses his nerve.
But his impulse is revealing. He believes that if he asks the right questions,
he can get the answers he needs.
Reeds"" is one of the most honored of recent French films; it won the
Cesar, France's equivalent of the Oscar, as the best film of 1994, defeating
"Queen Margot" and "Red." I have a suspicion it resonates
more deeply for the French than it can for us, because the period of the
Algerian war resonates in their emotions the way Vietnam would for us. Some of
the political undertones may go astray, but the emotional center of the film is
touching and honest.