‘Unforgivable’ a bizarre, enigmatic drama about paranoia

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Unforgivable

Directed by André Téchiné

Written by André Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia

France, 2011

There have certainly been worse cases of writer’s block, but the main character in the new French film Unforgivable really lets his spin out of control. Unforgivable, from co-writer and director André Téchiné, tells an almost Hitchcockian story of how paranoia can drive people to ridiculous lengths. Téchiné’s unique decision to let the script itself not be so single-minded is both a breath of fresh air and a bit of a detriment to the film’s overall impact.

André Dussolier plays Francis, a bestselling crime novelist who just can’t find the inspiration to push him forward in the writing process. Unable to focus in his homeland of France, Francis decides to move to Venice to re-commit to his latest work of fiction. While finding a place to stay, he becomes enamored with his real estate agent, Judith (Carole Bouquet); after she shows him a house on the isolated island of Sant’Erasmo, he convinces her that the only way he’ll buy it is if she moves in with him. As inexplicable as the offer is, they’re soon married and living happily in their idyllic home. Eighteen months later, however, after his willful daughter and single mother Alice (Mélanie Thierry) leaves her child with Francis and Judith, then disappears, Francis becomes so concerned for her safety and determined to find her that he threatens to destroy all of his relationships.

The script, by Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia, is, surprisingly, less interested in Francis’ internal struggle, instead focusing on how his search has a ripple effect on those around him. As opposed to letting Dussolier dominate each frame of the film, Téchiné and Attia give equal focus to Judith, Francis’ private-detective friend Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), and her son Jérémie (Mauro Conte). On one hand, it’s refreshing to watch a film with thriller-esque elements—the roots of Unforgivable could easily have inspired a 90s-era American thriller with someone like Michael Douglas playing Francis—meander down unexpected alleys. Because of this choice, the film is pleasantly surprising, eschewing big, blaring twists. However, seeing as the film clocks in at around 105 minutes (before the end credits roll), none of the characters feels as three-dimensional as they would if the film was, perhaps, 30 minutes longer.

That said, letting Judith, Anna Maria, and especially Jérémie share the stage is smart, seeing as Francis comes off as spectacularly narrow-minded and nosy, even early on. Dussolier does well in Unforgivable, in that Francis’ seemingly legitimate concern for his daughter’s well-being is perceived as irrational and pesky by the other characters almost instantly. He ably portrays a character whose good intentions drive everyone else up a wall. Francis’ personality is such that you can’t blame Alice for vanishing without a trace. With a father like that, you might not want to hang around too long either. What’s more, Francis soon spins off his inability to find Alice into believing his wife is fooling around on him. Of course, because of how they met so randomly and then immediately began a relationship, it’s not unfair of Francis to consider that maybe he knows too little about his wife. The way this subplot winds up, though, is steeped in Greek-tragedy-level irony.

Dussolier may be billed first, but Bouquet is the dominant force in Unforgivable, her captivating face a constant beacon of mystery throughout. (And it’s wise of Téchiné to throw us off-balance in regards to Judith and her motivations early on, as we watch her get one of many inexplicable nosebleeds, representing the story’s general unpredictability.) Asti and Conte are solid in smaller roles; Conte, however, has a more pivotal part to play. Jérémie winds up being a lightning rod of sorts for each of the older characters, as they gravitate toward him, often with dangerous results. What’s best about Conte’s performance is how he can have, in essence, different personalities depending on who’s looking at him. He’s as enigmatic a performer as Bouquet is.

Unforgivable is, perhaps, not quite heated enough to be as cracking a melodrama as it’d like to be. By spreading out the focus to multiple characters, and in almost relaxing with each of them, André Téchiné has a tendency to slow the pacing nearly to a crawl at key moments. But enough of the patient storytelling, along with strong performances from André Dussolier and Carole Bouquet, push the film to a surprising and somewhat bizarre conclusion, fitting considering how oddly the story begins.

— Josh Spiegel

Note. In the Phoenix area, Unforgivable will be playing exclusively at the Harkins Camelview 5.

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