Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
Téchiné realized his mission almost too late. Like his predecessors in the Nouvelle Vague, Téchiné began his career writing for the trailblazing magazine Cahiers du cinéma before he turned to making films in the 1970s. His early features, like those by Godard and Truffaut, were filled with movie references and dominated by a self-conscious directorial style. It wasn't until he was nearly 40 that he realized that his cinephilia had kept him from learning about other people. As he explained in a 1995 episode of the French TV series Cinéma de notre temps, he decided with his 1981 feature Hotel des Amériques to approach filmmaking as a means of overcoming his ignorance. All of his movies since Hotel convey his desire to better understand human beings—a desire that sometimes overwhelms his storytelling.
Some critics have derided the narrative of Unforgivable for being disorganized, but I think they're missing the point. The movie takes its inspiration from the line that "no one lives in Venice, they're only passing through," imagining a cast of characters so restless and stubborn that they can barely organize their own lives. It begins with the romantic union of mystery writer Francois (André Dussolier) and real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet)—two very different personalities who move in together more or less arbitrarily—before introducing the wayward lives in their orbit. Francois's daughter (Mélanie Thierry) is a fairly successful actress still playing the poor little rich girl routine at 30; during her visit to her father, she runs off with a shady aristocrat several years her junior. Judith's former lover Anna Maria (Adrian Asti), a former private detective with a son in prison, cherishes her retirement by drinking and smoking in anticipation of death. Francois ends up hiring Anna Maria to look for his daughter in France and, soon after, hires her son to spy on Judith when he suspects her of having an affair.
These lives form a knot that grows tighter as each soul tries to pull in his own direction. Evidently, a particular type of son of a bitch thrives when he keeps to his own. Judith, a former model who's still drop-dead gorgeous in her 50s, boasts of having neither loved nor been loved for years before meeting Francois, who's ruined countless relationships through philandering. The author has a revealing line late in the film, when he tries to explain his jealousy. "I don't know how to handle someone being unfaithful to me. Whenever a woman confronted me about it, I just left." This is the sort of moment at which Téchiné excels: the shock of a new emotion, for which no amount of living can ever prepare us.
There's another moment of Unforgivable that I keep thinking about since revisiting the film last night. It's when Francois and Judith's marriage is first starting to crumble: they have a fight at bedtime, and she takes her things into another room. "I can't sleep with someone else when I'm upset," she says to Francois from down the hall, and Téchiné arranges a deep focus shot so that they both register clearly on separate sides of the frame. Strangely, the image—which is essentially a two-shot—feels more stuffed with detail than any of the touristic shots of Venice. It shouldn't be so surprising that Judith wants to sleep alone, and yet I find her assertion shattering. Her desire for independence is so powerful that it seems to pull at Téchiné's composition (it doesn't; and Dussolier, as perceptive an actor as Téchiné is a filmmaker, holds his ground too). Judith's transformation might feel implausible if she didn't seem to be surprising herself.