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‘Impardonnables’, despite some admirable qualities, is a bit of a mess

Impardonnables (English title: Unforgivable)

Directed by André Téchiné

Written by André Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia

France, 2011

French director and screenwriter André Téchiné has had a long and illustrious career, earning critical acclaim for a great variety of films. His works date as far back as 1969, the year he released his debut, Aline s’en va. Among the common threads which tie in his works are the complicated interactions and strained relationships between his characters, who are continuously confronted with emotional challenges they would much rather not deal with. The wealth they sometimes possess is belittled in the face of various interpersonal hardships. Another is that he adapts almost exclusively original scripts, oftentimes playing a major role in the writing process. For Impardonnables, his latest feature film, the inspiration differs, for it is based on a novel of the same name from Philippe Dijan. Dealing with a vastly different screenwriting process, how would the highly regarded Téchiné fair?

Impardonnables‘ story is spread over the course of approximately two years. Francis (André Dussollier) is an ageing author struggling to find inspiration. To remedy this frustrating predicament, he travels to Italy, Venice more specifically, in the hopes of renting out an apartment where he may live in peace and quiet for the next year or so and simply write. Through his search he makes the acquaintance of Judith (Carole Bouquet), a real estate agent, who offers him a lovely villa outside the city, accessible by boat. As she shows him the building, the author makes an unexpected and bold proposition: he asks her to live with him! Cut to a year and a half later, Francis and Judith are married. The former’s granddaughters come visit one summer. The eldest, Alice (Mélanie Thierry) is a difficult girl to please. Given that her marriage is on the rocks, she takes advantage of her time in Venice to hook up with an old flame, the tremendously well off Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), who just so happens to deal in drug trafficking, which worries Francis a great deal. Against Judith’s counsel, Francis hires a retired private detective, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti) to seek out Mélanie. This is but the beginning in a long, elaborate game of mistrust, voyerism and shattered emotions.

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”Impardonnables’ never achieves its comfort zone…

The talented director easily flexes his muscles when forcing his characters to confront one another with undesirable revelations and confessions, something he does quite well, especially when the dramatic action is set against a gorgeous backdrop, in this case Venice, one of the most romantic cities in the world, one of the film’s many ironic qualities. He seems to enjoy playing such opposing elements against one another and has done so before. Despite this, André Téchiné, by taking cues from a piece of work he himself did not create, has painted himself in a corner. The single greatest issue plaguing Impardonnables is, precisely, its reliance on a a previously created story. There are more than a few examples throughout the film when the narrative feels as though it is stretching itself far too wide, attempting to successfully juggle a few plot threads too many. What’s more, just when one believes Téchiné might have settled the film into a sufficiently high number of plot points, a couple more will rear their heads, some very deep into the running time. Pictures driven by multiple storylines are arguably among the more difficult to pull off because the risk involved in investing too much energy into one and not enough in another. His previous works, such as Les témoins (The Witnesses), also wrestled with an impressive amount of characters, but perhaps the director had creative control from the start that the script was original, it resulted in very smooth direction and comfortable transitions from one story facet to another. Impardonnables never achieves its comfort zone, hopping almost schizophrenically from one event to another. Characters who feel like central figures in the plot at the beginning are seen infrequently for long stretches, and several threads never touch the viewer with the full impact they might have earned otherwise.

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Regardless of the film’s unfortunate sloppiness, there are some clever constructs that will surprise and please a few. For one, the overall story and the dilemmas its many protagonists are confronted with are laced with ironic twists. For one, Francis’ story begins with him living through a temporary yet frustrating creative drought. Just as this annoying problem prevents him from exercising his profession, he is thrust, through the flippant behaviour of his eldest granddaughter, into a wildly imaginative, emotionally and and down adventure the likes of a real ‘page-turner’ as such stories are affectionately described. Writers often admit to writing what they know best, and what inspiration for a gripping novel than one’s own experience, especially with so much material to work from. His other better half, Judith, also finds herself facing an unfortunate reality. Alice’s infuriating decision to run off proves to be the smoking gun which slowly but surely forces Judith to arrive at the conclusion that her and Francis are not as close as they once were. The film goes on to reveal that none of her previous relationships ended happily either, including her lesbian courtship with Anna Maria. Here is a woman whose profession is to help others find places to settle down and feel comfortable for long periods, oftentimes for families, yet she has always been incapable of doing so herself with individuals.

‘Mistrust and voyeurism play a strong role in the ethically murky behaviour many of these characters engage in…

Mistrust and voyeurism play a strong role in the ethically murky behaviour many of these characters engage in, chief among them Francis. At first, his decision to hunt down his daughter seems honourable, relatively speaking. She has, after all, gone away with a young man whose own ethical standards are less than exemplary. Francis therefore asks for the help of private eye Anna Maria, who reluctantly agrees after she recognizes some parallels between Francis’ current situation and her own involving her delinquent, strangely a-sexual son Jérémie (Mauro Conte). The ease of having someone trace the steps of a loved one convinces Francis to do the same when doubt begins to germinate in his mind with regards to Judith’s fidelity (yet another added plot point). He therefore provides Jérémie, recently released from prison, with such a task in return for a handsome weekly wage. Impardonnables, even though it struggles to keep its narrative coherent at times, has its protagonist give in to an amoral activity with the hopes of arriving at the right conclusions for the good of everybody involved, which is always a slippery slope to go down as one incurs the risk of having everything explode in their face eventually.

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If there are people not worthy of any blame, it would have to be the cast members, with both André Dussollier and Carole Bouquet giving their respective characters degrees of complexity fitting for the material awarded to them. In the end, however, director André Téchiné’s labyrinthine story lacks a few too many solid foundations in order for everything to hold together nicely. The film goes right, left, up, down…a little bit everywhere, really. Given his enviable career though, this may be considered just a small blemish.

-Edgar Chaput