J’embrasse pas (1991) is the culmination, in many respects, to a long meditation on the psychological turmoil of youth, a meditation that has undergone a number of revisions from film to film before finally expressing a definitive subjective perspective on “the rite of passage” which has obsessed cinema artists since the early twentieth century. Written by Andre Téchiné (who also directs), Isabelle Coudrier-Kleist, Michel Grisolia, and Jacques Nolot, J’embrasse pas works as a kind of exorcism for the film’s director, who, since Rendez-vous (1985), has obsessively revisited the same motifs time and again, enabling Téchiné to construct a new narrative pattern to probe more deeply and succinctly into his thematic concerns with the masterful and humanistic Wild Reeds (1994). These three coming of age films each represent a dynamic advancement in Téchiné’s directorial style and a further refinement in the articulation of themes that bind these three films together.
Rendez-vous concerns a would-be actress, Nina (Juliette Binoche), who migrates to Paris from rural France. In Paris, she encounters a career minded man bound to society’s expectations named Paulot (Wadeck Stanczack), and his roommate, the free-spirited actor Quentin (Lambert Wilson). Nina quickly falls for Quentin, but when he dies suddenly and her life seems directionless, Quentin’s former mentor and director Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes her in and gives her a legitimate acting career. This rather simplistic account of the plot to Rendez-vous already reveals motifs that recur in J’embrasse pas, albeit with a more refined understanding of character.
Just in terms of plot points, both of the central characters in Rendez-vous (Nina) and J’embrasse pas (Pierre, played by Manuel Blanc) are native to the more rural French countryside and have migrated to metropolitan Paris to pursue careers as actors. Both also adopt the former mentor of a close companion, whose part is played by a veteran of the French cinema (Jean-Louis Trintignant in Rendez-vous and Philippe Noiret in J’embrasse pas). These two narrative devices are expressive not only of traditional motifs of the coming of age story, but also of the succession of one generation to another and the differences between them. In this respect one can sense the direct influence of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957). Though not just in how Téchiné handles his juxtaposition of generational morality clashes, but in his employment of ellipses in time. In terms of narrative duration, J’embrasse Pas demonstrates a more masterful approach to the Ozu aesthetic, particularly with the film’s brief epilogue. Rendez-vous is more subtle, moving ahead in time out of necessity to perpetuate Nina’s narrative from her grief over Quentin and to the tutelage of Scrutzler. However, Téchiné would master this approach to narrative time in Wild Reeds, employing a number of ellipses throughout the film.
Narrative structure is not the only similarity between Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas. Both films make use of similar character types, excluding the archetypal mentor figures. These types are manifested in each film in very different ways that speak to Téchiné’s approach to both sexual awakening and sexual identity, two themes that define and unify his entire body of work. First, there is Nina. Nina begins Rendez-vous as a naive yet flirtatious young woman on the verge of her sexual awakening. That “awakening” coincides with the deterioration of her naivety when she is seduced by Quentin. Interestingly, she stays the course, she becomes an actor and follows the guidance of her mentor figure. Pierre in J’embrasse pas varies slightly. His sexual awakening occurs in opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality; specifically the homosexuality of his mentor figure Romain. Pierre does not meet his love interest until forty minutes into the film, and they do not unite as lovers until the film’s final act. Largely this is due to Téchiné’s revision of how he perceived these character types. Pierre embodies the traits of both Nina and Quentitn in Rendez-vous. Thusly, the external conflict of Nina and Quentin becomes Pierre’s internal conflict. So it is not so much a matter of an outside influence affecting or directing Pierre, but an internal force. Time and again Pierre will reject one thing only to be spun off into a collision course with something else that he will later reject.
The supporting characters in each film also undergo a transformation of archetypes as Téchiné progressed from Rendez-vous to J’embrasse pas. Paulot, by the time he encounters Nina at the conclusion of Rendez-vous, is a bitter man, gone are all of his traditional Romantic inclinations, replaced by a base carnal urge. In J’embrasse pas, Pierre’s love-interest Ingrid (Emmanuele Beart) undergoes Paulot’s transformation in reverse. Though first it’s important to note Pierre’s psychological trajectory. His rejection of Romain is indicative of his rejection of his own homosexuality from which the film gets it’s title, J’embrasse pas (English title: I Don’t Kiss). Pierre, determining that he is too “stupid”, gives up on acting and becomes a male prostitute who will only masturbate in front of clients for 1,000 francs. It is as a prostitute that he meets and forms a bond with Ingrid. At this point Ingrid, also a prostitute, is jaded and cold. She warms to Pierre after his demonstration of compassion, having intercourse with a man for the first time without money changing hands. Her awakening, therefore, is a Romantic one. In contrast, Pierre seeks only to posses Ingrid, just as her pimp does, mistaking ownership for love. It is this behavior by both parties that prompts Ingrid’s pimp to intervene violently.
These incidents in J’embrasse pas indicate Téchiné’s own perspective of Pierre as a young man without a clear sense of self who strives, via ownership of other people, to come to a sort of “self-definition”. Nina’s journey to self is the inverse, born out of an acceptance of those around her she slowly grows, existing more symbiotically than parasitical. In the climax of Rendez-vous Nina sleeps with Paulot, prompting his own re-evaluation of self much in the same way Pierre effected Ingrid, stirring the romantic within. This self-martyrdom is absent in J’embrasse pas. After Ingrid’s pimp intervene’s, beating and raping Pierre, Pierre joins the army, like his brother, turning his quest for self into an obsessively cyclical vendetta.
The main theses of both films deals entirely with the relationship one has with the acceptance of one’s self as a means to define that self. It isn’t mere coincidence that the protagonists of Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas are aspiring actors. Téchiné uses the profession as an allegory, particularly in Rendez-vous, for the emersion of one’s identity in the identity another chooses for one’s self. It is this submissive requirement of Western Society that Téchiné is rallying against; it is why Nina outgrows Scrutzler and why Pierre surrenders unto it. Over time, between 1985 and 1991, Téchiné’s view had clearly grown more pessimistic.
By the time Téchiné made Wild Reeds his entire approach to the subject had changed though his main sociopolitical message and its accompanying motive had not. For unlike Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas, Wild Reeds is an ensemble film where ellipses in time are as common as the narrative’s shift in focus from one character to another. There is also the very different approach to plot. Where Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas follow a single character’s emotional and physical journey, Wild Reeds never changes locations and uses the journeys of the films characters as stepping-stones, a cause and effect if you will, from one character to another as one journey begins and another ends. The visuals are also strikingly different. The heavily saturated colors of the Paris nightlife are replaced by cool earth-tones, evoking Wild Reeds‘ pastoral location in rural France. Wild Reeds also uses the camera movements, dramatic pans and tracking shots, to evoke the budding sensuality and sexuality of the film’s characters much like in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1929). These aesthetic developments evidenced in Wild Reeds show Téchiné as a more mature and calculated filmmaker, able to move beyond the narrative tropes and character types that he had employed for so long. That said, it was Téchiné’s own journey there that was so fascinating and should not be missed.