27 March 2009

The Decade List: Presque rien (2000)

Presque rien [Come Undone / Almost Nothing] - dir. Sébastien Lifshitz

Few films have succeeded in capturing what Sébastien Lifshitz's feature debut Presque rien (literally Almost Nothing, re-titled Come Undone in the U.S.) accomplishes in capturing clinical depression in all its ambiguousness. To grasp what Lifshitz captures can be a challenging endeavor, one which alluded me in early viewings of the film. Presque rien is not, by any means, a romantic summer love story between a pair of good-looking, scantilly-clad teenage boys, Mathieu (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Cédric (Stéphane Rideau), nor is it a love story at all. The central romance is fueled by displaced emotions and void-fillers for both boys. It's alienation, and not of the obvious gay breed, that brings them together and, ultimately, places them further way from what they truly yearn for. This is Presque rien's greatest deception.

Weaving three periods of Mathieu's life alongside one another, his disorder becomes apparent quickly, aligning his failed suicide attempt with the earliest moments of his fateful summer vacation. The vacation itself is just as facetious as the boys' romance. Instead of a typical relaxing holiday, the vacation for Mathieu and his irritable sister (Laetitia Legrix) is just a guise for getting their ailing mother (Dominique Reymond) away from Paris (and perhaps from her absent husband as well). Through the mother's suffering, an unnamable malady that sprung after she gave birth to a child riddled with cancer, the genetic disposition for Mathieu's depression is drawn out. He claims to not truly understand his mother's illness when mentioning it to Cédric, but a shot of Mathieu crying on the balcony suggests otherwise. His tears may come from the neglect that has resulted in his mother's condition, or more likely because he knows all-too-well what she's going through.

Lifshitz's construction of Presque rien evades the narrative details of what leads Mathieu to attempt suicide, but his deterioration seeps through the carefully selected moments during that summer. He consistently fools himself in his relationship with Cédric, as Lifshitz never gives them common ground to justify their affair as being anything more than a distraction from their own longing. With the summer hours passing, Mathieu loses the spark in their relationship, as Cédric's past flings start to present themselves and as his sex drive begins to diminish.

All of Presque rien's narrative answers happen offscreen, leaving the audience with the aftermath. Suggestions to what drove the final wedge between the boys are given, but in the same way Mathieu attributes his mother's illness with the death of her baby son, this only provides the basest of reasoning for Mathieu's state of mind. Cédric admits a lapse in fidelity, which may or may not have been what pushed Mathieu to try to kill himself, but that could only been seen as the superficial catalyst. His sense of hopelessness was briefly diluted by his summer fling, but his inability to curb his depression with Cédric opened the void even further.

In many ways, Presque rien is the unmasking of fantasies. Its depiction of first love, depression and suicide are unglamorous and rid of inevitably sour nostalgia. Even for its characters, their attempts at evading truths about themselves foil in the end. Lifshitz, whom I've called the most criminally overlooked (or under-appreciated) filmmaker of the past decade, paints an unforgettable portrait of mental disorder, one that effectively gives no easy resolution. Presque rien is one of the few shining examples of astute post-New Queer Cinema film art and, without a doubt in my mind, one of the finest films of the past ten years.

With: Jérémie Elkaïm, Stéphane Rideau, Dominique Reymond, Marie Matheron, Laetitia Legrix, Nils Ohlund, Réjane Kerdaffrec, Guy Houssier
Screenplay: Stéphane Bouquet, Sébastien Lifshitz
Cinematography: Pascal Poucet
Music: Perry Blake
Country of Origin: France/Belgium
US Distributor: Picture This!

Premiere: 7 June 2000 (France)
US Premiere: October 2000 (Chicago International Film Festival)

6 comments:

Matthew Doyle said...

I'll check this out this weekend.

I remember skipping "Presque rien" years ago because of dull synopsis I read and the cover. It just seemed like another one of those Euro-style, young-gay-kid-comes-out and struggles to find love, paint by numbers jobs that becomes a fag festival favorite (these fests always want positive, GLAAD-approved gay images) and lacks depth (something I can almost forgive if there is enough flesh, which never happens anyway) and tends to bore.

Joe said...

I can assure you, Matthew, Presque rien is the exact opposite of what you described.

It's perhaps the best example of the conundrum of gay cinema. One would like to believe NQC found its audience because of the artistic risks the films took, but really, it's more likely that those films were the only outlet for the gays to see "themselves" onscreen. I could go on and on about this, but I'll refrain.

Because of its marketing (by Picture This!, who has shown to not be below exploiting teenage boy flesh to sell a Holocaust film), Presque rien was handed to an audience that couldn't appreciate it. And with its trashy/banal artwork/description/re-title, the people who should appreciate the film wouldn't give it a second look at the video store (even though Blockbuster carried a version that cut out all the frontal nudity).

Jordany said...

This is a little different take on the film, Joe. Or perhaps more thought out. It's brilliant.

The cover is actually a photographic artwork done by two french lovers (Pierre et Gilles:http://www.optimistique.com/pierre.et.gilles/) who were popular in the art world around the time the film was made. I'm sure Lifshitz asked them to make the cover for him, perhaps to appeal to a wider audience? He must have known what to expect..or maybe they never watched the film??

If you search on google you will be able to find the entire image and they are actually both nude in the photograph. I agree about the title 'Come Undone'; but I can't help but love their artwork as inappropriate for the film as it may be. It's a mix of photography and painting. Check out the gallery on the website! Just click on the nude french man wrapped in the spiders web.

Joe said...

I was aware that Pierre et Gilles shot the poster for Lifshitz, and though I like it on its own (particularly as it's poorly suited for the film in the first place), I can't help but think it might have dissuaded people from seeing it. Not because there's anything wrong with the poster, but most discerning viewers know when they see a poster/box-art with glistening shirtless teen boys, the chances of a good (or great in this case) film hiding beneath it are almost nil. (Or presque rien. har har.)

Jordany said...

Har Har.

Matthew Doyle said...

Okay, I watched “Presque rien” last night. It artfully defies nearly everything the audience would look for in a film that is ostensibly about young love (and it is all the better for it). Add to this the fact that the direction is restrained, the cinematography isn’t too pretty and the performances uniformly good and you’ve got a great movie.

This is the kind of movie I both look for and try to make; a film that isn't about things, but rather speak of things (this requires a great deal more sophistication). “Presque rien” speaks of depression, mistaken emotions, young lust and longing - and it speaks of them beautifully.

When I write about mistaken emotions, I’m thinking about the emotions of young adults (not teens), particularly those who are entering their first same-sex relationship, who are very much like the replicants in “Blade Runner” and experiencing certain feelings for the first time and the confusion that results.

With this in mind, I have no doubt that Mathieu genuinely loves Cedric, but it is a love based primarily on ignorance as he knows nearly nothing about him - and doesn’t bother to ask any questions about family, etc., until after the accident at the grotto. Until then, Cedric was perfect summer fling, a two-dimensional object.

I very much liked how Mathieu told his mother that he was in love with Cedric. He didn’t come out of the closet, he never said “I’m gay, Mummy” (and he probably isn’t). Since the movie was about complex emotions and not sexual orientation, this was just right.

The film also avoids playing depression as a one-note tune; Mathieu has his ups and downs, though the moments of joy and laughter, sex and sweat, are just relief for what he feels the rest of the time. This is truly how the burning pain of depression evaporates happiness - and is so incredibly rare to see on the screen. While watching “Presque rien” it occurred to me how this script would have been done as American melodrama (likely starring Michael Pitt as Mathieu) and I shuddered. Disease of the week, anyone?

But...

The first problem I had with the movie, while I watching it, is that both Jérémie Elkaïm and Stéphane Rideau are too old and too good looking for the roles they play. Handsome young men (especially Latins) are not so ignorant of the power they have over others - and the result of having that sexual power is a knowing, playful detachment. Since that’s not what these characters are about, the casting nearly blew it for me.

Elkaïm in particular struck me as too physically fit for a depressed, sexually inexperienced, 19 year old student of architecture; his actor’s awareness of his own gym-body was just so wrong. I bet he brought his own speedo to wear in the beach scenes! Seriously, I’ve seen enough twink porn (just this morning, as a matter of fact) to be reminded of what a 19 year old looks like...

Because he looked nearly the right age for someone to have quit college when fairly close to finishing his degree (or was he supposed to have dropped out of high school?), Stéphane Rideau as muscle-boy Cedric wasn’t so disconcerting for me, but the idea that somebody who looks like that, with so much sexual experience under his belt (he did hustle for a time), would be trolling the beach for straight guys in a summer resort town (he practically stalked less attractive Mathieu, for Pete's sake) just seemed so ridiculous - and that nearly blew it for me as well.

But then came the fuck scene in the dunes when Lifshitz, against my expectation, showed Cedric as the bottom. This, I think, should serve as an object lesson about how and why sex scenes matter. In my mind this totally changed the dynamic of the relationship in a sensible way.

Where a young top, especially given the resort atmosphere, will stop at nothing to stick his cock in nearly any acceptable hole, a strong but damaged bottom, someone who once sold his ass and knows both the score and the scene and rejected that life, would likely be far more selective. He would use the power of his beauty to seduce a safer, less experienced, less jaded partner. Since Mathieu is young and radiates a needy emotional hunger (making him more pliable for the more experienced Cedric), his selection suddenly makes sense. Cedric wants to be clean and innocent again - and he only see himself that way when reflected in Mathieu’s eyes. That’s the subtext I got, at any rate.

Beyond this, I have nothing to add to your excellent review.