Unforgivable features an aging lesbian private detective with a violent son who can’t stay out of jail. Also, a former model who now sells real estate and falls for a 70-year-old novelist when he asks her to move with him to a private island across the bay from Venice. Then there’s a formerly wealthy aristocrat who’s been reduced to selling forgeries of his family’s most valuable paintings in order to support the decadent lifestyle ingrained in his blood. Also, a nymphet minor film star who hates her father enough to send him graphic videos of her fucking her boyfriend. There are shifty criminals tailing elegant ladies through the streets of old Italian cities. There are titillating effects too, like shots through pairs of binoculars, spying on unfaithful women as they bathe in the sea. There are also boat chases. There’s a lot of tawdriness, the refuse of the basic elements of most crime films, filling up Unforgivable. And yet, it’s one of the most emotionally acute films of the year.
All of the above is shot like a classy crime thriller, dark and enigmatic, the rhythm of its scenes kept just off balance with jarring editing and a jangling, on-edge score that creates a surprising tonal discord with the story. Despite all the tawdriness, Unforgivable is actually about the emotional struggle of an aging artist (as well as that of the people most important to him). The film’s director, André Téchiné, is an old French master who has been making movies since 1965. He was a writer for Cahiers du Cinema until 1967, and thus part of the generation who succeeded Godard and Truffaut as the preeminent critics in France. It shouldn’t be surprising that a director who was once able to brilliantly criticize cinema is so adept at the smooth mix of genres, of seamy thriller and direct character study, that Unforgivable achieves.
André Dussolier, an actor who, like his character, is an artist who’s come into his own in old age, plays the novelist Francis. A writer whose two major personality traits are womanizing and an uncertainty about his creative abilities (he writes what are described as Gothic neo-noirs), Francis reaches an artistic block when his beautiful realtor, Judith (Carole Bouquet), agrees to an essentially boastful marriage offer. Whether he meant his proposal or not, Judith seems to devoted to him, and so Francis begins to think maybe he’s happy, he doesn’t need to write, he can simply settle into a Venetian villa and be in love. But his daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry), a struggling film actress, can’t get behind the shotgun marriage and runs off in a huff. In a slow panic, Francis hires Judith’s ex-lover, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), to track her down. But Anna Maria, whose days are mainly devoted to boozing and chain-smoking, isn’t as ace a private eye as she was once, and her tracking efforts don’t turn up much. Once Francis starts letting suspicion get the best of him, however, it proves hard to stop. When he can’t shake the feeling that Alice might have been right, Francis retains a second private eye, Anna Maria’s son, Jérémie (Mauro Conte), a ne’er-do-well petty thief, to tail Judith, who may be running around with rich-kid art forger Alvise (Andrea Pergolisi).
These plot strands and a good deal more pile up at Téchiné’s steady, deliberate pace, but the plot itself, or rather, the plot we expect, never actually moves forward. Despite his surface effects and the ever-present dark patina of criminality encroaching on upper class life, Téchiné is more interested in capturing the complexity of a community, with the way that people’s hidden motives (Is the private investigator’s son a repressed homosexual? Is the writer simply jealous of his wife or is he trying to jump-start some inner feeling so that he can break through his writing block? Is the PI refusing a job because it involves her ex-lover, or because she really is too old to be doing it?) tumble over into the lives of their friends and relatives. Téchiné creates a web of people and gives them exotic jobs and interesting things to do, but he refuses to move them through anything that could be called a traditional plot.
In place of one, the director offers his slow, delicate mix of character psychology and languid Euro-noir, which pitches the movie more tensely than dense plotting could. The crime elements, in fact, distract from the emotional lines that the movie tows, so much so that it becomes hard to believe a master like Téchiné would include them without intending the distraction. Which raises the question of why he insists that Unforgivable retain the surface constructs of a thriller, rather than just show average people doing average things, like struggling, suffering, trying to be happy. To keep the film interesting? But the most fascinating movies have always been the ones that take the time to focus on truth in emotions. Because he believes action is essential to film? Maybe, but a pure thriller, even if it were a loving homage to his predecessor Claude Chabrol, is clearly more than an avowed intellectual like Techine could maintain without getting bored. So maybe to make a point about movies: We don’t look deeply enough into the reasons we have for demanding (tacitly, through what we buy tickets for) that films contain titillation, action, and intrigue. Audiences may not have accepted Mizoguchi, Rohmer, and Dreyer en masse, but nevertheless, what we really want is for movies to focus on what it means to be people, to struggle and deal with each others complexities. A film that showed us what we usually pay for while simultaneously giving us what we secretly want might do just that without anybody noticing. That is the movie that Téchiné provides.