BY GARY M. KRAMER | Gay filmmaker André Téchiné opens “Unforgivable,” his intriguing new drama, by quickly establishing the central importance of each of the four main characters. Francis (André Dussollier) is a celebrated crime writer looking for a rental property in Venice. He meets Judith (Carole Bouquet), a real estate agent, who suggests a place on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo. Francis, in turn, suggests she move in with him. Judith, who is bisexual, weighs his proposition in a conversation with her ex, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), a private detective. We then see Anna Maria meeting with her troubled son, Jérémie (Mauro Conte), who is soon to be released from prison.
Deep romantic and emotional attachments among these characters come to light over the course of this subtle and engaging — though likely for some inscrutable — film. Téchiné presents a series of episodes exploring issues of love, trust, and absence. The director deftly traces the ebbs and flows of love — both sexual and parental — mirrored by the waves that surround Venice. However, fair warning to audiences — considerable concentration is required to mine all the meaning in this story.
“Unforgivable” features two plotlines, both involving investigations. One concerns the disappearance of Francis’ daughter, Alice (Mélanie Thierry). He hires Anna Marie to search for her, and she travels to France to do so. This narrative, however, is quickly jettisoned for another, when Francis hires Jérémie to follow Judith, whom he has married but suspects of cheating on him. A low-key but compelling chase through the streets and waterways of Venice ends with Judith confronting Jérémie — and the two beginning a sexual affair.
Téchiné creates a palpable mood of despair and longing as both Francis and Judith wrestle with their physical and emotional isolation from each other. In several marvelous scenes, we see Francis spying on his wife using binoculars and Judith swimming alone. The dramatic tension is teased out by the question of whether the characters provoke each other by their actions. Does Francis’ surveillance of Judith prompt her to sleep with Jérémie? Are his provocative actions a ploy to cure his writer’s block? And what are the ramifications of Judith’s affair with her ex-lover’s son? The film reveals most of these answers in due time, and it remains spellbinding throughout.
Watching these complex characters and their daily routines is absorbing. Scenes of Judith working at her agency and Jérémie playing with his dog reveal details about them that magnify — though at times also refract — what we learn about them in their interactions with Francis and Anna Marie. “Unforgivable” unpeels like an onion, revealing multiple layers and measuring the distance between parents and children and between lovers over the course of more than a year. Francis’ separation from Alice and later Judith has its parallel in the distance between Anna Marie and Jérémie.
Téchiné is really delving into a deeper theme, however, one that emerges from the film’s most interesting sequence. One night, Jérémie is followed by — or perhaps lures — a gay man through the canals of Venice. When the stranger makes a pass at him, Jérémie throws him over the bridge into the water. A later scene shows the stranger chasing Jérémie and exacting a violent revenge on the gay basher. Francis witnesses the mayhem and advises Jérémie, “Violence against other people, setting out to wound or maim them, is unforgivable.”
The film is really about the violence — whether physical or emotional — that people commit toward others. Alice’s disappearance upsets her father; Francis has Judith followed because he is emotionally vulnerable; Judith’s behavior irritates her lovers; Anna Maria is pained by the actions of both her ex-lover and her son; and Jérémie can be an abuser. Téchiné shows without telling, letting viewers grasp the meanings behind each character’s actions as well as their consequences. Francis, Judith, and Jérémie are all, in their own ways, seductive and sinister.
“Unforgivable” benefits from a quartet of strong performances. Bouquet is particularly alluring in the pivotal role of Judith. A scene where she wears a blonde wig and fights with Francis is terrific; we see how her identity is mutable and she will not be controlled by others. As Francis, Dussollier manages to project both a wise voice of reason and an insecure lover and father. In support, Conte makes an indelible impression as the beguiling Jérémie. He engenders sympathy even when he is most despicable.
Téchiné may deliberately obfuscate in “Unforgivable,” but the connections he creates sneak up on viewers. In the process, the film provides satisfying insights into human behavior.
UNFORGIVABLE | Directed by André Téchiné | Strand Releasing | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | Opens Jun. 29 | ifccenter.com