The father is an emotionally distant and highly successful gynecologist. His young wife, Clara (Lea Massari), is unapologetically sexual, carrying on extramarital affairs and acting less like a mother and more like a sister to her children. Thomas (Fabien Ferreux) and Marc (Marc Winocourt) are the obnoxiously cruel older brothers, humiliating Laurent during his first sexual encounter (at a brothel no less) and tormenting both their parents and the house servants.
With a deep affection for rambunctious youth, Malle fills the first half of the film with a rush of that revel in the unbridled escapades of boyhood. Pranks, familial tyrannies and the adolescent appeal of smoking, drinking, stealing and sex are captured with lighthearted familiarity. Malle not only understands the arrogance and decadence of youth but also embraces it, delivering small, honest moments without judgment or criticism. By capturing the real-life rhythms of these young men, Malle sets the stage for the film’s more audacious conceits.
The second half of the story shifts focus as Laurent discovers he has a heart murmur, and is forced to move to an exclusive health spa to recuperate. Joined by his mother, their uncertain relationship slowly grows more and more intimate, progressing from playful wrestling to lingering hugs and kisses. It all climaxes with what is probably the most tasteful and discreet portrayal of incest ever committed to film. It almost got the film banned upon its release, but the director’s deft, relaxed touch allows him to openly address otherwise taboo subject matter in a way that disarms potential critics. Everything about the film is so believably modest and tender you accept this verboten act as the logical conclusion to Laurent and his mother’s complex relationship. The film is filled with wonderfully genuine performances, particularly Benoît Ferreux as Laurent. A non-actor, he has the clumsy, fresh-faced appeal of a teen truly puzzled by adolescence.
Despite the film’s blatantly provocative aspects, Louis Malle’s tender approach keeps the sexual content in perspective and grounds his flawed characters. Yes, they are spoiled and indulgent people who make foolish choices and grow up far too fast. But by understanding the thoughts and emotions that lead us astray, Malle accepts, without shame, the absurdity of life, reassuring us that everyone learns from their mistakes and eventually heals.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theater, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18. 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].