Deneuve and Depardieu’s remembrance of things past


By Jerry Tallmer

Catherine Deneuve has never wanted for guts, and she proves it once again and most extraordinarily in André Téchiné’s not cruel but ruthless “Changing Times” (“Les Temps qui Changent”). The virginal peaches-and-cream psychopath of Polanski’s “Repulsion,” the ravishing free-spirited 20-year-old of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (88 films ago), must here, as a woman of a certain age married to a bored amoralist 15 or 20 years her junior, not only coat (or calcify?) those impeccable features with overmuch makeup, but at one crucial sexual crossroads say to a man (not her husband) who has loved her all his life: “I am here in a body I don’t like any more.”

A better English-language title might indeed be: “Time Marches On.”

Deneuve is Cécile, a Frenchwoman and longtime resident of Tangiers, where she keeps the household financially afloat by disc-jockeying a rather sappy radio show of pop songs and romantic chatter. That younger husband is the self-indulgent Nathan (Gilbert Melki), an M.D. who spends most of his time in their swimming pool or lounging around in his trunks. “Be nice, Nathan, get dressed,” she enjoins him at one point when company’s coming. Casablanca-born, he wishes to return there; she does not. He also plays around a bit.

Dr. Nathan is, in short, a smooth, sophisticated louse, but I hate to tell you, he is the only person in this movie I might have been pleasured to know. One reason is that, like Astrov in “Uncle Vanya,” he clinically demands that somebody — in this case a screwed-up young woman from Paris — “a mess with a kid” — give back a dangerous substance stolen from his doctor bag. He is also on hand at the right moment to treat the broken nose of a blunderer who has just run into a glass door.

Which brings us to the man, that blunderer, who has adored Cécile all his life — at some distance — ever since they were each other’s first love, somewhere in France, 30 and more years ago. He is Antoine, a civil engineer, who has never married, has nursed his longing and his memories all these years, and here he is now, just arrived by plane in Tangiers, in all his big clumsy self, to oversee construction of a huge new TV broadcasting center — a European-funded counter to the Arabs’ Al Jazeera — but also to open writer-director Téchiné’s hard-grained Flaubertian dissection of romantic illusion, romantic impossibility, by getting buried flashforward in a construction-site mudslide in the film’s first few seconds.

We have seen this Antoine before too. Have seen him in a great many movies, half a hundred variegated roles, hugely heroic or otherwise, for the as-cherished-as-Deneuve actor is Gerard Depardieu. We may even have seen him in any of six previous films in which he costarred with Deneuve, most particularly Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro.”

Téchiné, you see, has brought them together again, Deneuve and Depardieu, much as Fellini brought two gorgeous old storybook hoofers together again — an Italian “Fred and Ginger” of the 1940s, in the person of Marcello Mastroianni and Giuletta Masina in 1986 — or, one step better yet, Fellini bringing the Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg of “La Dolce Vita” (1960) splashing deliciously together again in the Trevi Fountain in “Intervista” (1987).

But Téchiné does his reunion casting with opposite purpose. “Changing Times,” which opens this Friday at the Paris, can indeed be looked upon as an anti-Fellini film of sorts by a director who I’m certain worships Fellini.

Téchiné does not let poor Antoine off the hook — the hook of simple errant foolish humanity. When the guy smashes into that glass door — trying to flee before Cécile spots him trailing her in a Tangiers supermarket — Antoine in mortification gasps: “I’m going to soil myself” to the good Samaritan (“my savior”) who an instant later will turn out to be Cécile’s husband.

Later, and even more potentially embarrassing, is the heart-in-the-mouth moment (our heart in our mouth) in which Antoine, who has presented himself uninvited chez Cécile and her husband, steals into her bedroom on the pretext of going to the john, ducks under her bed, and from underneath inserts between slats and mattress a 30-year-old photograph of himself and Cécile as the lovers they once were.

Antoine is not the only one with self-deceptions in this narrative. Cécile has a twentysomething-year-old ac-dc son, Sami (Malik Zidi) who has arrived from Paris along with his girlfriend, the strung-out Nadia (Lubna Azabal) — she who will filch stuff from the doctor’s bag — and her small son. Nadia’s immediate problem, with God knows how many others parading behind it, is a Muslim twin sister, here in Tangiers (also played by tense, wiry Lubna Azabal), who does not want to see Nadia or any Westerner. This devout sister’s place of employment — a nice Téchiné touch — is the Tangiers McDonald’s.

So there are no winners, and certainly not Cécile, who finds Antoine Redivivus and his passions to be, to say the least, tedious — and worse than that when, in sorry jest, he accuses her of “pulling the broken-down-car routine” in a woods by the sea.

“Please, Antoine, that’s not droll … I don’t live in the past,” she tells him point-blank as they wander along a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. “We’re not teenagers. It’s like this cliff. It ends.”

“Not true,” says the persistent, willfully blind Antoine. He points. “There’s the ocean. Spain. Behind that, Europe.”

But it won’t wash. In desperation, Cécile seeks advice from her knowledgeable friend Rachel (Tanya Lopert). “I don’t know why you’re making so much fuss over a ghost,” the latter declares. “You should sleep with Antoine. That’s the only way to end it.”

Téchiné doesn’t let the matter rest there. In fact, having gone this far down the road of detachment, he now, I’m afraid, takes a 179-degree turn for emotional uplift (ours and Cécile’s) by way of physical disaster (Antoine’s). Yet anyone who cares about Deneuve — or about Depardieu — anyone who in his mind’s eye sees himself walked in on, discovered, in that bedroom under that bed pushing that photo up between slat and mattress — won’t care about pulled punches (via Téchiné’s jittery handheld camera) toward fadeout. Tho’ much is taken, much abides. Enlightenment is all.

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