The wonderful French director André Téchiné makes movies about people whose lives are perpetually in flux – the more fluctuations the better. In the human comedy, Téchiné seems to be saying, to his delight, nothing stays the same.
There is something exasperating and yet marvelous about Téchiné's approach, and this dichotomy is no more apparent than in his latest film, "Unforgivable," which is about a best-selling crime novelist whose personal life is as messy as his books are carefully plotted.
Francis (André Dussollier) has decided he needs a quiet refuge in which to write his new novel, and he finds it in the lush island of Sant'Erasmo off the Venice coast.
His real estate agent, Judith (Carole Bouquet), is a pristinely beautiful ex-model about 20 years his junior. Aging roué that he is, Francis decides she must be a part of the deal as well – as his housemate. When the movie abruptly shifts to the following summer, the two are not only living together but married.
The irony here is that Francis is so content in his newfound situation that he finds himself unable to write. (Love as an impediment to creativity – how French.) But not to worry. He will soon find himself in a series of misery-making predicaments, none of which, however, do much to jump-start his novel.
Chief among these are his jealous suspicions over his wife and the disappearance of his troublesome daughter, Alice (Melanie Thierry), who arrives on the island with her young daughter and soon thereafter vanishes – most likely as a runaway with her impoverished aristocrat, heroin-dealing boyfriend (Andrea Pergolesi).
In case this isn't messy enough already, Francis hires a private detective, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), who was once Judith's lover, to track down his daughter. And he pays Anna Maria's ex-con son Jérémie (Mauro Conte) to tail his wife and see if she is having an affair.
Téchiné piles on the complications and allows these stories to flow inside each other. His controlled chaos can seem, as it sometimes does here, like a great big soap opera mishmash – a way of avoiding the rigor of a well-honed narrative. But not every artist is a traditionalist. (Most aren't.) Téchiné is so good at capturing the psychological nuances of his characters that I often wish he would lower the body count a bit and not spread himself so thin. But there are also felicities to be had in his approach. Every single player in "Unforgivable" is worth a movie of his or her own. The fact that they are all in the same movie together is more boon than bust.
It's poetically perfect that Téchiné (who co-wrote the script with Medhi Ben Attia) should have set his film in Venice, that crumbling glory of a city. (The novel by Philippe Djian on which the film is based was set on the Basque coast.) Venice, with its roiling lagoons, is an equal protagonist in the movie. And because Téchiné sees the city with fresh eyes, we don't experience travelogue-itis.
Among other things, "Unforgivable" is a free-floating meditation on the distresses and exhilarations of being a parent. Francis becomes a kind of father to the fatherless Jérémie, but the impetus to do so comes almost entirely from the man, not the boy. Francis sets up himself for rejection again and again, and yet you can't exactly blame him for risking his repose. Whatever he has uncovered in his newfound life is likely more exciting than anything he might put into one of his novels. This is why, when he finally begins writing again, he realizes for the first time that books are no longer the most important thing in his life.
His decision to have Jérémie follow his wife has inevitable consequences that this crime novelist, of all people, fails to foresee. His lament at Jérémie's ingratitude, and his daughter's venom, is not exactly up there with King Lear's, but it has its resonances (especially coming from someone as seemingly composed as Francis). "Nothing," he says, "is worse in life than being a parent. There should be a ban on reproduction. It's the only way out of guilt."
But this is just how Francis feels in the moment. At other times he yearns for the filial love that is, in his sense, his salvation. "Unforgivable" gives tumult its due. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)