Those Who Love Me…

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

A Dream Bestirred 

“Our lives could be more inventive,” says Francois (Pascal Greggory), a scowling, handsome art critic defining the failures of his set in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. They’re a mean bunch–drug addicts, homosexuals, clinging wives, cheating husbands, cruel parents and crueler children–all traveling from Paris to Limoges for the funeral of a painter-professor, Jean-Baptiste Emmerich, who inspired or slept with but certainly intimidated them all. In this extended family gathering–alternately flirtatious and quarrelsome–sex and recrimination preoccupy the mourners’ thoughts. Mixed with memories
of the daunting Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (“He painted violence; he was obsessed
with Francis Bacon”) is their unarticulated need to revolt. It’s an
Oedipal compulsion, but director-writer Patrice Chereau gives it immediacy;
he sees in it their desire to reinvent the mess of their lives. Chereau’s
dramatization is so daring and accomplished it single-handedly reinvents the
contemporary cinema.

Chereau’s previous
film, the 1994 Queen Margot, staged the intrigues leading to the 16th-century
Huguenot massacre with mesmerizing opulence and high melodrama. (Critic Kent
Jones said, “Chereau wants every movie to be Shakespeare, there’s
nothing wrong with that.”) This contemporary pageant suggests a similar
impulse–one amazing scene after another, fascinating characters dealing
with love and death, plus a convulsive, winged view of life. More impressive
than Chereau’s historicism is this fearlessly complex acceptance of modern
types. Queen Margot came with a booklet–a scorecard/family tree–and
this time Chereau pitches the audience into hubbub, an emotional labyrinth,
so that paying attention and identifying each character’s quirk and twitch
amounts to dramatic discovery.

At first Those Who Love
plays hide-and-seek among its characters the way Altman shuffled to-and-fro
introductions and arrivals in Nashville and Short Cuts, but here
the energy level is even higher. The opening movement–the 40-minute train
segment–plays like the drug-haze sequence of GoodFellas. And Chereau
sustains it for over two hours of total montage–cutting from Francois listening
to tapes of an interview he did with Emmerich, his lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini)
tagging along and getting awestruck by the waiflike Bruno (Sylvain Jacques).
Other traveling mourners include Emmerich’s junky nephew Jean-Marie (Charles
Berling) hiding from his estranged, junky wife Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi);
Catherine and Elodie (Dominique Blanc and Delphine Schlitz), the wife and daughter
of Emmerich’s rough-trade porter Thierry (Roschdy Zem). And there are more,
including Emmerich’s past romances (Lucie, an elderly lady with an Akita-like
face played by Marie Daems, one of Emmerich’s few heterosexual conquests,
calling herself “The Impossible Woman…the impossible dream”) and
assorted acolytes.

This cross section of the
middle-class art world, already grief-stricken, is unusually high-strung. The
sober ones’ emotions are as exacerbated as those who are stoned. Coping
through decadence and near-exhausted sophistication, their highs are seen coldly,
honestly (as hyper as the art groupies of High Art were enervated). They’re
tense and weary commuters, dissociated from standard etiquette but shaken by
the simplest emotion. Chereau doesn’t sentimentalize their travelers’
blues; he transmits its electricity and fullness. Eric Gautier’s breathtaking
camerawork balances detail with virtuosity, giving as much care to startled,
tired, excited faces as to the mid-morning light inside a train–superb!
Chereau and Gautier use the widescreen as an enlarging, liberating space. As
the mourners press past each other in the train’s aisles, tight compartments
and corridors, Chereau stays open to the world on its borders–agape at
the fleeting scenery outside the train window (it’s as exalted as the space
outside the trolley car in Murnau’s Sunrise). These complicated,
shuffled relationships are not resolved in typical dramatic terms; they’re

Bertolucci’s Stealing
was warmer about secrets and subterfuges among bourgeois snakes;
but this stings. The luminous innocence Liv Tyler represented for Bertolucci
has its sullied equivalent in Sylvain Jacques’ wandering Bruno (he looks
like the late Jeff Buckley) and Vincent Perez’ showstopping appearance
as Emmerich’s transsexual son Viviane. But instead of celebrating the bloom
into sexual pleasure and threat, Chereau chooses a not-quite-cynical view (thus
exposing that heterosexual romantic convention). His darker scrutiny of parents
and lovers is closer to the resigned quality in Visconti’s Conversation
(where an elderly Burt Lancaster enacted a sage’s bisexual benediction);
it’s reinvented here as a study on gay families.

Two mature male figures
bracket Chereau’s panorama of human experience, Francois and Emmerich’s
twin brother Lucien (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who shows up at the cemetery.
We’ve seen Trintignant’s paternal idiosyncrasies and majestic reserve
before (most recently in Kieslowski’s Red) and he’s remarkable
here, too, greeting his angry, distant son Jean-Marie with caring, tentative
touches. But Pascal Greggory’s Francois, the intellectual scourge, is a
quiet revelation. His shaved head and grizzled, gray facial growth (not quite
a beard) suggest an authentic Right Bank mandarin cynic, a queen with the camp
burned away. (“I think I’ll go jerk off,” he tells a pious mourner
after the burial.) Greggory, first noticed as the sensitive brother Branwell
in Techine’s The Bronte Sisters and the naive young romantic in
Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, here shows gaunt cheek hollows that
recall Trintignant’s pawkiness, but he also, startlingly, has the face
of gay age. Francois begins the film looking up, wondering and worried–a
self-sufficient sensibility facing an unknown future. Death? Yeah, but life,
too. Francois’ arguments with Louis about Bruno–dark-eyed Todeschini
(the scene-stealer of La Sentinelle) quivers emotion like a violin bow–are
like pop music duets: hard and soft hearts speaking in harmony.

Those Who Love Me moves
into a gay world–but not in a doctrinaire way like recent commercial gay
films. This isn’t a gay film in that sense. Chereau and his co-screenwriters
Daniele Thompson and Pierre Trividic convey the world through shifting, mobile
metaphors that amount to a gay knowledge of living–California Split-style
transient relationships and extended, temporary families. Today’s pop gay
films leap at that fantasy while Chereau dares examine its complications (the
very feasibility of made-up relations); juxtaposing it with the primal, real
thing. The Emmerich family–wealthy shoe manufacturers in a town known for
its porcelain–attracts Jean-Baptiste’s followers, but it is also a
site of discord and strained histories: Lucien sustained the family business
while his twin Jean-Baptiste escaped to high society and art; then Jean-Marie
rejected Lucien for his worldly, indulgent uncle–a travesty that may recur
in the next generation as it seems reflected in Thierry’s own precarious
domicile (the scene of Thierry alone, cackling at horror films, seems a doomed
harbinger). The Emmerich family house, place of the travelers’ final gathering,
is a legacy everyone desires but no one dares to claim.

Chereau tests out ideas
about family and rebel identity matter-of-factly, as part of his stylistic bravery.
He doesn’t exactly use gay subtext, because his view is as forthright as
Renoir’s heterosexuality in Rules of the Game. Like Renoir, Chereau
knows the world’s emotional space is roomy and varied–something Vincent
Perez’ astonishing appearance and performance proves beyond doubt. Both
touching and mercurial, Perez vivifies transsexuality while embodying the film’s
binary themes: Twin brothers, life/death, bisexual nature. Viviane’s hopefulness
about her new being is at constant war with her regret; she’s believably
courageous yet vulnerable. The only one in the Emmerich household who looks
working-class Thierry in the eye, she’s also the end of the family line.

Equally amazing is Chereau’s
ability to convey these transgressive themes in a grand manner. His grasp of
vast experiences and numerous characters suggests The Godfather–something
riveting every scene. It’s dynamic viewing: shots composed in parallelograms,
diagonals and constant forward momentum. In an early high point the child Elodie
spots her father Thierry driving alongside the train transporting Emmerich’s
coffin. This train/hearse sequence is equal to the raid in Stagecoach
(actually a better comparison to social dissection than Rules of the Game,
since Chereau’s view matches Ford’s skepticism about society). Scored
to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Good-bye,” a song with a hurtling immanence,
this sequence displays Chereau’s uncanny sense of theater. As with the
privately principled Francois, any campiness is burned away; Chereau connects
to Buckley’s piquant weirdness–which in this neurotic tale proves
an unexpectedly right dramaturgical effect. Chereau knows what Griffith, Renoir
and Altman all realized: there’s no line between theater and cinema–at
their best both forms share an essence: life enlivened. In Chereau’s leave-taking
finale, Gautier’s camera glides over his disparate, desperate characters
once more en route to their destinies. There hasn’t been an ending so immensely
cinematic since De Palma’s The Fury. It has dreamlike omniscience,
heartbreaking beauty.

Even this year’s best
American movies (Cookie’s Fortune, Election) look paltry next to the dazzling
ambition of this year’s French releases–Leos Carax’s Lovers on
the Bridge, Ducastel and Martineau’s Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, Erick
Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, Eric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale and now
Patrice Chereau’s masterwork. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train’s
frissons of clashing, dodging, repulsion/attraction keep building and stay moving.
Few films have been this kinetic since the Soviet silents, yet music and image
complement each other throughout, whether it’s James Brown’s “That’s
Life” scored to a hitchhiker pickup or Portishead heard in the sepulchral
Emmerich estate. Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love” underscores the
cemetery sequence (Limoges is said to have Europe’s largest graveyard,
185,000 dead to the town’s 140,000 living citizens–an awesome sight).
The music doesn’t intrude, as in a Spike Lee film. Chereau respects pop;
his use honors its resonance and inherent dramatic value. After all, Those Who
Love Me is a melodrama, polemicized like Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears
of Petra Von Kant but with a sleek look and a richer sense of family dynamics.
(“Loving people means putting up with their shit,” Francois says.)
And Fassbinder’s style was never so elegant, nor his characters’ self-deprivation
so ironically graced. This is gay-conscious family philosophy as learned in
post-Fassbinder years, beyond AIDS or bisexual chic. It may be the closest anyone
actually comes to putting Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on the screen.

Most of Chereau’s characters
are not artists, but they seek to live their lives like artists–expressively
with a passionate need to be understood. That urgency is the film’s point,
so when the key line (“Our lives could be more inventive”) comes up,
Francois and Louis’ discussion about adopting Bruno to make a new family
reveals the emotional needs of all three men and sketches their utterly radical
potential. Chereau’s final, magnificent shot dreams a revolution that doesn’t
end at the grave.