Polish-German director Ernst Lubitsch was known for infusing his subversive comedies with an effervescent sexiness and class. Studio marketers branded this invisible style “The Lubitsch Touch”, compiling multitudes of tonal complexities into a trendy selling point that still resonates with critics and audiences today. André Téchiné, the great auteur of emotional melodramas who helped redefine French cinema during the post-New Wave era, brings something similarly intangible to the screen. Unlike Lubitsch, though, his films are marked by a sublime longing that remains internalised for extended periods of time. This intense yearning – call it “The Téchiné Ache” – looms over nearly all of the director’s early and mid-career output.
After growing up in rural Valence-d’Agen, Téchiné spent his formidable teenage years attending a Catholic boarding school in Montauban, where he’d visit the cinema on weekends. One can sense the tension between repression and creativity in his dystopian and fragmented debut Paulina s’en va (Paulina Is Leaving, 1969), and in later efforts like Les soeurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters, 1979) and Rendez-vous (1985). Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Téchiné would explore this motif fully, crafting dreamy and elusive films that gleefully deconstruct classic genres like the neo-noir, biopic and weepie.
Suffocating social unease and personal possession underline each distinct work. Young characters ranging in age and social background find their lives consumed by love and the numbing self-doubt that comes with impending separation. Perplexing betrayals juxtapose with impassioned desires that momentarily liberate them from madness. But this temporary awakening – of identity, body and soul – has its own inherent dangers, leaving many protagonists caught between flights of fancy and crippling reality checks.
Warped affection functions as the catalyst for Téchiné’s unromantic entanglements. His best films obsess over consequences associated with psychological and emotional dilemmas that turn potential joys of romance into feverish and poisonous experiences. To paraphrase Evelyne (Hélène Vincent) in J’embrasse pas (I Don’t Kiss, 1991), passion is the sickness that ultimately alters how characters see (or don’t see) the world. Like most fleeting bouts of euphoric intoxication, the hangover stings.
Of all the tormented adolescents populating Téchiné’s beguiling post-New Wave cinema, it’s Maïté (Élodie Bouchez) from his masterpiece Les roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds, 1994) who best expresses what it means to feel completely out of sync with social norms and their emotional expressions. “I hate to be young,” she confesses. “It’s a huge burden.” Her blunt admission to François (Gaël Morel) – the film’s central figure, who’s experiencing his own crisis of sexual identity – taps into Téchiné’s ongoing interest in the stresses of feeling trapped by age, economic circumstance and conflicting emotion.
Ultimately, destructive impulses cause a fracturing of self, making his films more surrealist in nature than fellow Post-New Wave auteur Philippe Garrel. Yet, Téchiné’s equally interested in the emotional poisons that seep out from failing relationships, toxic warning signs that his tortured characters refuse to heed. For these stubborn people, doing so would be an unacceptable admission of failure, another consistent and pressing theme that helps clarify why duration plays such a pivotal role in the director’s work.
Love Me Forever
Typically, classic melodramas start off with a “meet-cute”. Happenstance or fate brings two strangers together, and their instant connection thrives off fresh excitement and attraction. Téchiné prefers the opposite set-up: he’s a master of the “meet-sad”, first encounters that heighten pre-existing melancholy and angst already spreading within the characters’ soft hearts.
In the frantic opening sequence of Hôtel des Amériques (Hotel America, 1981), Hélène (Catherine Deneuve) almost runs over her lover-to-be Gilles (Patrick Dewaere). Instead of them going their separate ways, he begins following her like a puppy dog, leading to one of the worst first dates in cinema history. When Nina (Juliette Binoche) first locks eyes with Quentin (Lambert Wilson) in Rendez-vous, he lashes out verbally for no apparent reason. Only a few scenes later, the wild young thespian begins stalking Nina’s every move, culminating in scenes of relentless discomfort that eventually consume her career and personal life.
Téchiné’s protracted love affairs rarely have a firm beginning, but they experience different transformations along the way involving power, sexual attraction, and motivation. Thinking back to Hotel America, the film’s very structure and pace mirrors Hélène’s serpentine relationship with Gilles. The two are permanently mired in an uneven power dynamic that shifts with each passing day. It’s like love provides them with the necessary permanent distraction, perpetuating a stasis that only leads to more of the same frustrations.
These lengthy affairs usually culminate with mental breakdown, suicide, separation or imprisonment. Take for instance the fast and furious liaison between inmate Martin (Wadeck Stanczak) and small town restaurateur Lili (Deneuve) in Le lieu de crime (Scene of the Crime, 1986). The two only meet because Martin’s fellow prison escapee tries to kill Lili’s son Thomas (Nicholas Giraudi) the night before. Almost inexplicably so, their magnetic attraction stems from the mutual need to escape unhappiness and start anew. She desires his fringe status in society, and the fact that he has a shady past. “That’s exactly why I wanted him, because he was lost,” says Lili. Ironically, she tells Thomas he must “harden his heart” while falling in deeper with a wanted man. In the end, she chooses prison over the real world just to be close to Martin’s ghost. Not even death can end their fatal attraction.
Prolonged relationships make up the crux of Hotel America, Rendez-vous and Les innocents (1987), the one true modern fairytale in Téchiné’s early oeuvre. The last of these follows the tumultuous and sometimes magical tryst between Jeanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Stéphane (Simon de La Brosse), two young people whose affection for each other masks the deep guilt of past traumas. Their relationship always seems on the precipice of disaster, but the film suggests many times that death doesn’t signify the end. “We die and we come back to life; that’s the way it goes,” says Mr. Klotz (Jean-Claude Brialy), the film’s de-facto Greek Chorus.
If happiness does exist in Téchiné’s work, it gets extinguished rather quickly. In the insanely stylized Barocco (1976), Isabelle Adjani’s Laure plans to run away with her boxer boyfriend, Samson (Gerard Depardieu), who has been bribed to keep secrets about a popular politician running for re-election. Almost immediately, an assassin (also played by Depardieu) murders Samson by shooting him in the eye. He too becomes infatuated with Laure, and, despite facing her boyfriend’s murderous doppelganger, she eventually falls in love with him. Brazenly moody and cynical, Barocco is Téchiné’s strange, red-light-district reimagining of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), which illuminates his fascination with dangerous pairings whose time together resembles purgatory.
Evoking the New Hollywood’s formal audaciousness and scathing anti-establishment ideology (influences that originated with the French New Wave), Barocco explores the unpredictable ebbs and flows of attraction through bold stylistics worthy of its title. An exploitation-style montage of predatory mammals and reptiles hunting in their natural environments plays over the opening credits. Fittingly, this is Téchiné’s least subtle film, and most brazen metaphor for humankind’s devastating attraction to death.
Angry Young Men
Within this construct, perils nearly always originate with Téchiné’s tormented male characters. Usually in their late teens or early twenties, they are stubborn and volatile riffs on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the disaffected youth made famous by Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959). While Depardieu’s killer in Barocco embodies the coldest and most lethal representation of this archetype, it’s Wilson’s Quentin that stands as the purest distillation of rage in any of the director’s early works. He challenges an early assertion made by Nina that “there’s always something to like about a man”. Moral and ethical contradictions live inside each protagonist, and Téchiné’s films slowly revel in this duality over time.
The first of two collaborations between Téchiné, Binoche and co-writer Olivier Assayas, Rendez-vous constitutes a drastic tonal shift from the director’s earlier films, representing a newly urgent and hazardous form of melodrama. While Hotel America and The Brontë Sisters examine characters whose fears remain mostly private, Rendez-vous brazenly depicts emotionally raw situations that feature outburst, threats of danger and maniacal ultimatums. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an open wound, with Quentin picking at what’s left of the scab. Forged by past trauma and the pure id of experimenting with method acting in everyday life, he is not just an angry young man, but one determined to spread wrath through the medium of love.
At a pivotal moment in his aggressive courtship of Nina, Quentin suggests she join an acting troupe doing porno performances of Romeo and Juliet. “What you do in life, you might as well do on-stage,” he says, noting an important distinction in Téchiné’s interest in repressed carnal potential. Nina initially finds this rhetoric vile and revolting, but it becomes the basis for Téchiné’s statement on extreme sacrifice. For Quentin, normal romantic relationships can’t inspire great acting without an element of chaos; one must put their entire body and mind on the line to connect with their audience. Naturally, Quentin’s greatest performance is his last – he commits suicide and passes on all of his pain to Nina, who then experiences supernatural visions. Quentin’s ghost delivers the film’s most brutal line at her most vulnerable moment: “You’re all alone now. It’s just you and me.”
Male selfishness dominates much of Les innocents too, featuring characters like Alain (Stéphane Onfroy), Jeanne’s flighty younger brother who disappears for long stretches of time out of frustration with his family. But it is Stéphane who best fits the mould of Téchiné’s enraged male archetype. Having recently woken from a coma, he behaves in a risky manner that directly correlates with immobility and impotence. Meeting Jeanne gives him the opportunity to fall in love, be the hero and avenge old grudges.
Les innocents is a tragedy posing as a fable; Stéphane’s recklessness only gets him accidentally gunned down in the street with Said (played by filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche), his Arabic foil who also becomes enamoured with Jeanne. The tensions of French colonialism are present in many of Téchiné’s works (see also Wild Reeds), but this is the closest he’s ever gotten to remaking La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) through his own prism. In the haunting climactic shot of Les innocents, the dead bodies of the two men perfectly mirror each other. Over the closing credits, Téchiné offers a parting quote from Creon of Greek mythology: “After death, enemies don’t become friends.” None of the young men in his films seem to understand this sentiment while they are still breathing.
Frustrated Young Women
Téchiné’s The Brontë Sisters perfectly counters the masculine energy and destructive impulses that course through Barocco, Rendez-vous and Les innocents. Neither interested in the process of writing nor in the egos of artists, this beautifully strange biopic refuses to give white men the power of historical authorship. Opening on a local English watering hole called The Black Bull, the film finds a group of local drunks attempting to narrate the tale themselves.
Yet, these slurred memories are the romanticised stuff of legend and history books; they can’t begin to describe the frustrations and internal struggles of Emily (Isabel Adjani), Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), women with world-views and ideas constantly repressed by gender inequality and societal limitations. The film’s single recurring image – an anonymous woman sitting down, her head slumped between her knees – externalizes the mental exhaustion that capable women have with a largely indifferent male world.
Despite social, familial and medical obstacles that mire the Brontë sisters in devastating cycles of failure, Téchiné depicts them as stubbornly steadfast and quietly brilliant. Adjani’s brave performance exemplifies this spirit to the fullest. Early on, she dons men’s clothing and roams the expansive verdant heath outside their English farm, explaining her dress code in wonderfully practical terms: “It simply allows me to go farther and faster.” Later, Emily talks about her hatred of the wild rose: “I scorn and trample it; I spit on love and its vanity.” To her, affection is a distraction from living, worthy of constant suspicion because of its temporary, disappointing, and self-destructive qualities.
In Les innocents, Jeanne resembles more of a traditional romantic than any of the Brontë sisters, but she has her own hang-ups. “I don’t really like young people,” she says, echoing the same sentiments of Maïté in Wild Reeds. More specifically, she seems fed up with young men. For all the grief Alain and Stéphane give her, it’s amazing she doesn’t just up and leave town. But most of the time, like Nina and Lili, Téchiné’s female characters rationalise a reason to stay, even though that decision undermines their long-term happiness and sanity. Only Emily, Charlotte and Anne are discerning enough to resist the stranglehold of masculine emotional control.
So what exactly is it that keeps Jeanne invested, and ultimately devastated by Stéphane’s death in the last scene? It has to do with her tenacity, a staple of Téchiné’s most complex female characters. No matter how much frustration these men cause, in the women’s minds, running away would lead to an even worse fate. Jeanne is left frozen in time by the power of an edit – gunshots ring out in the daytime, and one iconic jump cut later it’s night-time, her face still stunned in the same position. The women of Téchiné’s films might be frustrated, but for the most part they are loyal to a fault.
If Les innocents unfolds like an origin story for trauma, other post-New Wave Téchiné films deal with the ongoing impact of mental distress suffered years before. The most diabolical case, Quentin from Rendez-vous once led a happy life, but has since become devastated by his girlfriend’s tragic death in a car accident just days before a new theatrical production was set to open. Nina only knows the hateful shadow of that man who has accepted self-imposed exile on the fringes of society. He is Téchiné’s version of the Joker, eager to watch the world burn.
Hélène’s internal heartache doesn’t seem that far off from Quentin’s, but she handles the pain very differently. Instead of lashing out at society, she retreats into the countryside manor that her dead architect husband had built for her years before. Multiple characters in Hotel America lead similarly reclusive lives, but Hélène’s isolation feels deeply pointed in ways Téchiné would fail to replicate until Ma saison préférée (My Favorite Season, 1993), which also features Deneuve playing a woman desperately retreating from her true feelings. In the final moments of Hotel America, Hélène refuses to accept life in the present, boarding a train bound for Paris and leaving Gilles standing alone on the boarding platform. Trauma perpetuates trauma, and then some.
If Rendez-vous and Hotel America portray individual anguish, The Brontë Sisters conveys the familial kind. Emily, Charlotte and Anne must deal with their philandering brother, Branwell (Pascal Greggory) – who receives all of the professional and social opportunities they are denied – and sickly parents rendered useless by ailments and tragic circumstance. Téchiné’s trio of scribes experience the melodramatic setbacks normally associated with characters in their novels. The old adage “art imitating life” takes on new meaning here, in that we’re not sure where art ends and life begins.
This notion slyly challenges traditional biopic conventions that perpetuate “Great Man” portraits. Instead of treating historiography like a linear timeline with fabricated heroic arcs, The Brontë Sisters unfolds in fragmented gaps and narrative divots, positioning the lives of each sister almost poetically out of time. Unbeknownst to the viewer, each scene shapes impressions and observations that would eventually inform their novels. Achieving a level of fame after her sisters have long passed away, Charlotte finally tells her husband, “I prefer to see things in a fog; it’s less …” She pauses, and then continues: “And I don’t want to pretend.” Téchiné also likes to see things through a fog, and filmmaking allows him to perfectly conjure up life’s ambiguities.
Rise and Fall
For an artist so infatuated with pain, it’s somewhat surprising that Téchiné’s visual style is so effortlessly graceful. Even while distraught characters are caught up in flurries of panic and doubt, the camera remains a charitable and patient companion watching from afar. Téchiné’s fluid imagery comes alive during elaborate tracking shots that defy gravity in order to arrive at the perfect vantage point. Often, his most dynamic sequences feel like a search for narrative truth, rising up and dipping back down to keep up with love stories that never stop changing.
Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten helped craft this aesthetic in Souvenirs d’en France (French Provincial, 1975), Barocco, The Brontë Sisters and Hotel America. His curious long takes ascend and descend freely as if the camera itself were being controlled by the wind. Téchiné would expand the scope of these shots with future collaborators like Renato Berta, whose courtyard-spanning long take in Les innocents floats through air to end at a windowpane two stories up.
Slow zooms and ambitious pans add a level of aesthetic intricacy to sequences already dependent on calculated movement. A bravura scene in The Brontë Sisters finds Téchiné using these very elements to magnify the social disgrace of Branwell’s affair with a married socialite, and Anne’s horrified reaction to this news. The shot begins inside where the lovers congregate, only to push out toward the window frame. From there, Téchiné cuts to the grassy knoll merely feet away where Anne babysits the woman’s monstrous children. News of Branwell’s indiscretions sinks in, and the camera then cuts back to the same room with a reverse dolly move. Similarly audacious moments occur in Wild Reeds, like when Techine begins in close-up on Henri (Frédéric Gorny), who has just woken up along the banks of a river, and then tracks left with a passing rower only to end up back on Henri’s face a few moments later.
Freeze frames, flashbacks, dream sequences, and superimpositions also define Téchiné’s trademark melodrama. These formal tools help conjure up feelings of cynicism and dread in Barocco, rampant alienation in Hotel America and perpetuating guilt in My Favorite Season and Wild Reeds. The melancholic musical scores of long-time collaborator Philippe Sarde lend these potentially fractious elements necessary warmth.
To help further humanise his singular sense of longing, Téchiné relies heavily on performance, favouring young actors whose unrefined anger makes them volatile on-screen presences. Nearly all of the director’s post-New Wave work features a protagonist trying to find his or her self through love (I Don’t Kiss), or someone who has decided to use love as a method for self-destruction (Rendez-vous). Actors such as Wilson, Depardieu and Adjani are particularly adept at complicating the constant struggle of psychological transformation. For their tormented characters, evolving past the early phases of courtship and lust is like walking blindly through a minefield.
Away We Go
“I wish we could get lost forever and never be found again”: Hélène’s telling confession to Gilles nicely represents the contradictory forces at play in Téchiné’s cinema. How does one both escape and appreciate the moment? For the characters in Hotel America, this conundrum eventually destroys all semblance of romantic love. Scene of the Crime and Les innocents, meanwhile, manage to maintain the hope that love can conquer all, at least until their sullen final moments.
The Brontë Sisters delivers a more sobering reproach to the idea that people can escape their fate. Téchiné overwhelms many of his exterior shots in the film with massive skylines that push all earthly activity to the bottom of the frame. The narrative itself is disjointed and unglamorous, fitting for lives whose brilliance operates underground in complete secrecy. Emily understands best that her providence is rooted in invisibility, and seems most at peace with living outside the scope of fame: “Where I go, no-one sees me.”
The final shot of Barocco finds Téchiné having fun with the idea that his characters can be cleansed of their fate. As the camera swoops in toward a neon exterior, rainwater drenches the window of a prostitute’s house as she waits for her next client. While Laure escapes with her murderous lover, this woman remains anchored to a service industry that deals in one-sided pleasure. Her destiny is boredom, which feels altogether more real and horrific.
As for Nina in Rendez-vous, she finds it difficult navigating the tricky politics and expectations of the theatre world. In the end, she succeeds because of Quentin’s oppressive presence and not despite it. Like all great artists, his pain and anguish, while often debilitating, has made an impression on Nina, the kind of impression that leaves a lasting mark. Téchiné ends the film with her potential triumph, just as the opening night of her performance of Romeo and Juliet begins. Curtains rise just as the image fades to black.
The most hopeful of Téchiné’s dances with fate comes at the end of Wild Reeds, in many ways the film that marks a transition point in his work from cynical views on love to something more elegiac. The three central characters spend a day by the river frolicking and playing, and two of them make love. With the camera beginning a 360-degree spin, we see them walk off into the distance. Upon the completion of the single revolution, the characters are now long gone.
While so many of Téchiné’s cinematic children spend their days and nights “courting disaster”, to quote Juliette Binoche’s lead character in Alice et Martin (Alice and Martin, 1998), the trio of Wild Reeds seem content to move forward together. Their affection for each other transcends the pitfalls of unrequited love, and enters into the territory of true friendship. Maybe every Téchiné character pines for this very evolution in spirit, even when fortune and history dictate otherwise.