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High-toned soaper strains for poignancy

European super-producer Paulo Branco, known for his cycle of Proust adaptations, collared the two greatest living French stars, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, for their sixth cinematic match under the direction of André Téchiné, whose often middlebrow fare has grown spottier of late. The resulting venture, “Changing Times,” is hung up on colonial history, but a less than historic occasion.

Antoine (Depardieu), a successful engineering manager, has been posted to Tangiers to oversee construction of a new multimedia complex, but vied for the job in order to pursue a secret quest. After more than three decades in a heartsick wilderness he’s intent on reclaiming his first love Cécile (Deneuve), nowadays a popular radio host living in Tangiers, somewhat inconveniently married to the appreciably younger Moroccan physician Nathan (Gilbert Melki), a strapping rake.

In the first of the script’s thunderous coincidences, no sooner has Antoine arrived than Cécile and Nathan’s adult son Sami (Malik Zidi) jets in from Paris on a visit of uncertain length, with his Moroccan-born girlfriend Nadia (Lubna Azabal) and her nine-year-old son Said in tow. Angelic Said (Jabir Elomri) is about the only one who’s not nursing some ulterior desire. High-strung Nadia parks herself at the airport upon arrival, hoping to rendezvous with her even more volatile twin sister Aicha (also Azabal), while freckle-puss Sami makes a beeline for Bilal (Nadem Rachati), a former rough-trade fuck buddy.

The decks thus overstacked, characters bounce and collide through the histrionics of sun-dappled boulevard melodrama. Antoine spies Cécile in a supermarket one afternoon and, trying to exit inconspicuously, instead slams the famous Depardieu schnozz on an invisible plate-glass window. Suddenly it’s doc Nathan to the rescue, adroitly palpating Antoine’s cartilage just as Cécile wanders over. Later the middle-aged mooncalf drops in on the couple unannounced, and manages to tuck a snapshot of two youthful beaming French film idols under Cécile’s bed, votive for a love hex.

He’s coached in this deviltry by Nabila, his client’s executive minder, who, being Moroccan, is also a natural sorceress and fount of ageless wisdom; she warns him, “You cannot possess something without causing it harm.” Nabila offers a clear example of the atavism operating behind the film’s worldly surface of insouciant postcolonial métissage, elsewhere manifest in Bilal’s pack of ravening hounds, arbitrary irruptions of state violence, and prurient animal sacrifice—wait for the close-up of blood from a sheep’s sawed-open throat soaking into the sand.

In classical comic form, each principal finds contentment at last, but there’s a disturbing way that this amounts here to “knowing one’s place.” Frisky Nathan takes a shine to Aicha and elopes with her to Casablanca, Sami mans up to adulthood and heads back to Paris rededicated to supporting his two waifs, and the deities are finally conjoined, over Antoine’s sickbed following a construction-site accident. That is, the Europeans are inexorably paired off and Nathan falls for a “proper” Muslim bride via a crypto-incestuous liaison with the double of his virtual daughter-in-law, while Sami at least temporarily sheds his homo attachment as blithely as he’d renewed it.

The few gestures at topicality falter. Snatches of news about the Iraq war bob like wilted balloons in midair, and when a conked-out car engine sends Deneuve and Depardieu on foot across a rocky headland sprinkled with sub-Saharan refugees waiting to enter Europe, things approach “Constant Gardener”-like othering. Meant to index the humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers massed outside the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or increasingly deported by Morocco, the pointing sideshow turns grotesque when Téchiné alights again on the encampment during a droll montage in the denouement.

Shot with one eye on the small screen, cinematographer Julien Hirsch splashes bright Fauvist hues around a dun-azure canvas, lensed in a fat-grained stock that makes saturated objects seem to bleed beyond their outlines. Too much of the action is a pixilated blur caught by a needlessly manic handheld camera; the film improves whenever it decelerates and remembers to breathe. And Téchiné leans on a goosebump-raising anthem by Angelique Kidjo like a crutch, cueing it whenever he wants to semaphore the characters’ deepest longings, though careful to motivate its use narratively through Cécile’s radio show.

A special frustration is the squandering of Lubna Azabal, a gifted actor given her big break in Téchiné’s previous feature “Far” (2001) and seen to best effect in Nadir Moknèche’s “Vive L’aldjérie” (2004), but in danger of getting typed as a heavy, between “Changing Times” and Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” (2005). The superficially tricksy twin role here does her few favors, socking Nadia with a drug habit and barely permitting Aicha any warmth, as if the religious devotion telegraphed by her hijab required her to be a brittle scold.

But as you knew right along, it’s about the stars in their early-autumn grandeur. In recent years it seems to me only one director, Léos Carax, has done justice to Deneuve’s innate perversity, flinging her bloodied across a highway shoulder in dead of night and launching a pinwheeling motorbike at her skull. A comparatively sedate business, “Changing Times” lets everyone have a crack at putting Cécile down—she’s too uptight, too demanding, never knew how to love—consistent with Deneuve’s long deglamorizing strategy, serially abusing her own image in paradoxical confirmation of her essential, inviolable radiance.

So Deneuve makes lemonade from “Changing Times,” radiantly, and for the faithful that’s probably enough.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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