Wild Reeds (France, 1994)
Winner of four 1994 Cesar awards (best picture, best director, best screenplay, and best female newcomer), Wild Reeds beat out such big-name, high-budget productions as Queen Margot. Originally commissioned by French television, but first released theatrically, this story of four youths struggling with the pressures of becoming adults in 1962 France presents an honest look at all the angst and uncertainty of finding oneself.
If Wild Reeds was just another coming-of-age story, it wouldn't be worth more than a cursory glance. However, Andre Techine's semi-autobiographical look back at his final year in boarding school possesses more depth and realism than many similar films. Nostalgia does not tint this narrative with its warm sepia tones. Essentially a character study of the four corners of a romantic quadrangle, Wild Reeds examines adolescence from the point-of-view of those who feel themselves to be "outsiders", and shows that while the political and social climate may affect a person's development, other factors -- such as friendship and love -- are often more dominant.
Wild Reeds takes place around the time that the Evian Agreements ratified the independence of the Algerian people. The Algerian war, as devastating to France as Vietnam was to the United States, has ended, and the nation is facing a time of national reflection and identity rebuilding.
Maite (Elodie Bouchez) is the only girl in the group of four. Descended from a Spanish family (her last name is Alvarez), she's the daughter of the school's French teacher. She is also a devout Communist, at a time when Communism is in vogue. Fiercely loyal to her beliefs and hopelessly in love with the intellectual Francois (Gael Morel), Maite is nevertheless frightened of a sexual relationship. Not that one is likely with Francois in any case, since he's in the process of recognizing and coping with his homosexuality. An experimental relationship with Serge (Stephane Rideau) confirms Francois' beliefs, but Serge views their coupling as a moment of experimentation best forgotten. Francois, however, is unwilling to give up his newfound friend/lover, but Serge is more interested in pursuing Maite.
Into this mix comes Henri (Frederic Gorny), a twenty-one year old, intellectual French national expelled from Algeria. Branded a fascist by Maite, Henri arrives steeped in bitterness and anger at just about everyone and everything. Gradually, through patience and effort, Francois breaks through Henri's facade. But it is the tempestuous relationship that develops between Henri and Maite that leads to one of the film's defining moments.
Wild Reeds is one of those movies that tells a story about simple events in the lives of normal people. Nothing spectacular happens here. The pace is quite deliberate and occasionally a little slow. Director Techine simply will not be hurried. Little details and character interaction make this film worth viewing. These are the kinds of people you get to understand and care about over the course of one-hundred ten minutes.
Emotions often seem richer and more intense in character-based dramas, and that's the case in Wild Reeds. There's a sense of immediacy about every new sensation and feeling. Credit for this should be divided equally among script, direction, and performances -- all four of which are turned in by relative newcomers. Elodie Bouchez, winner of the best female newcomer Cesar, deserves special mention for bringing an extra measure of life to Maite.
Ultimately, Wild Reeds works because it remains steadfastly true to itself. This may sound trite, but consider how many movies go for facile resolutions to satisfy the so-called "masses". All the relationships in this film, no matter how deeply-felt, are ephemeral, and presented as such. This is a slice of life with an imperfect beginning and conclusion, but what transpires between those two endpoints is strong enough to leave an impression on anyone with the patience to commit to a movie of such unhurried temperament.
Wild Reeds (France, 1994)
Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Gael Morel, Stephane Rideau, Frederic Gorny, Michele Moretti, Jacques Nolot
Screenplay: Andre Téchiné, Gilles Taurand, Olivier Massart
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing