Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2003 8:51 am 
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Portrait by indirection

The central conceit of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's Ma vraie vie à Rouen/My Life on Ice (2002, shown in London as Ma Vie) is that everything we see in it is shot on a digital video camera by Étienne, a sixteen-year-old lycée student and budding skating champion who lives with his widowed mother in Rouen. Étienne films everything he likes with his camera, beginning with his mom (Ariane Ascaride of La ville est tranquille), his grandma (Hélene Surgère), and his best pal, Ludo (Lucas Bonnifait). He even films himself, his mom, and her boyfriend watching TV. It's startling to see when he leaves the camera on, or has someone else use it at practice in a large skating rink, that he really is a potentially world class skater (the young actor, Jimmy Tavares is a real life skating champion )-- this gives one a sense of authenticity: Étienne is what he's supposed to be. There is an element of trompe-l'oeil in any fake artefact and Ma Vie's is very accomplished.

There's a constant soundtrack picked up by Étienne 's camera but there's no explanatory voiceover narration in Ma Vie. It's a quite convincing imitation of what home videos are like. People are constantly saying "J'arrive pas!" ("I can't do this!") to declare that they’ve become too self conscious to act natural before the camera. Étienne's mother, whom he adores, gets tired of being filmed all the time and says he will have to get her permission before shooting in future or she will "confiscate" the camera.

The handsome Ludo is a boy who, like the hero of Téchiné's J'embrasse pas (I Don't Kiss, 1991) wants to become an actor without having even the ability to memorize lines. Ludo reports to Étienne (and the camera) on a succession of girlfriends, but admits he hasn't gone all the way with any of them. Étienne has no girlfriends at all, but declares boldly that this will be his "année d'amour"--the year he's going to -- what? Get laid? Fall in love? Come out? It's hard not to suspect that Étienne is gay. He keeps surreptitiously filming his attractive (male) geography teacher, when not focusing on Ludo or his mom's boyfriend (also a lycée prof), and when Ludo grabs the camera and shoots a new female interest in class Étienne gets quite annoyed and says, "Hey, that's MY camera!"

Home video is an inarticulate, needless to say amateurish, medium, and Ma Vie progresses in the true home video style, awkwardly, constantly jerking forward with no logic than chronology to the next shot. As a self-conscious artifice, the film communicates by what it doesn't say, by what isn't there. The very fact that Étienne uses the camera so obsessively suggests that despite being a terrific athlete and having an affectionate little family and a nice best friend, he hasn’t yet got much of a life. By pointing the camera out all the time he’s both searching for himself and seeking to fill an inner void. Gradually hints of male-oriented sexuality creep out. He relentlessly shoots a male fellow skater undressing in the locker room. He shoots himself naked, and parts of his body, withdrawing into himself when his mother forbids him to film her any more. He focuses on her boyfriend so much that the boyfriend realizes he turns Étienne on, and, being a little drunk, provocatively threatens to undress. Commenting on an unsuccessful acting performance by Ludo , Étienne has revealingly declared to him, “But you looked good. You’re handsome. You’re really handsome!”

Ludo gets ditched by his best girl because Étienne’s filming bothered her so much and seemed so unnatural. This aspect suggests burgeoning sexuality; but it never seems creepy that Étienne is so obsessive as a cameramen, because overall he always remains such a cheerful, healthy guy: he’s just unformed and aggressively needy. Finally Étienne competes for the youth French Cup in figure skating and, because of a slip, gets second place. He has belatedly discovered a device that allows him to switch his camera on and off with a remote unit and he shoots himself and Ludo side by side and says, “Two losers.”

The inevitable tentative coming-out-to-the-best-friend conversation occurs in which Étienne asks Ludo, “Do you think a boy can love a boy?” Ludo says, “Only if he’s a ‘pédé [homo] he can,” but he flees from further declarations by Étienne.

On holiday in Brittany, Étienne has a footrace with his mom’s boyfriend and after they have a scuffle the boyfriend falls on the rocks and breaks his leg. The attempt to displace the boyfriend is very oedipal – except that Étienne desires the boyfriend too.

There is also a classic home movie moment when Étienne’s mom blows out the candles on her birthday cake, which they’ve put “all the candles” on, showing her actual age. Étienne shoots this moment over and over with new candles, showing that this isn’t quite just a home video and has become an effort to stage his life or alter it and indeed to make his dreams and wishes come true as well as his mother’s, especially perhaps the desire to erase the discrepancy between his and his mother’s age.

Ma vraie vie à Rouen is the portrait of a waiting process. In a sense all the filming is stalling for time until that moment when Étienne’s promise, that this will be his "année d'amour," suddenly, unexpectedly, perhaps inexplicable, comes true. The readiness is all. The camera creates a stage on which the major action is about to begin. There is suspense from shot to shot as one waits for that decisive moment to arrive.

And finally it does in a very short scene where Étienne is in a tent letting the camera shoot his seduction by another young man. It’s the moment the whole film has been hinting at, but it’s gone in an instant, and the film ends.

Ma vraie vie à Rouen isn’t very memorable unless, like Gus van Sant’s Gerry, you as the viewer bring to it the maximum attention and sympathy. This film is far more risky and experimental than Ducastel and Martineau’s entertaining earlier narrative of a young gay HIV positive man’s journey to find his father, Drôle de Félix (Adventures of Felix, 2000), yet it is pleasing and beautiful in its own way. The filmmakers have processed their digital video to give it a deep, vivid color and a smooth, handsome look, a little like early Polaroid snapshots. The film is as empty and unformed as its main character, but like him it is also fully of energy and a curious repressed dramatic tension. This is Étienne’s film: he shoots most of it, and by watching how he shoots it, we learn by indirection who he is. Ma vraie vie à Rouen is a minimalist piece. But like any actual home video, it’s rich in personal meaning. It’s sweet, touching, and human if seen with a friendly eye, and in it Ducastel and Martineau have devised a subtle, fresh way of doing a gay coming of age film.

Ma vraie vie à Rouen/My Life on Ice, 102 mins., debuted at Locarno, August 2002; also Toronto; US and UK gay film festivals.

"Tavares has toured with several productions of Holiday on Ice throughout France and other countries in Europe, including Peter Pan and Bugs Bunny on Ice." --Wikipedia, "Jimmy Tavares."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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