I have a soft spot for Téchiné’s Les Temps Qui Changent (2004). It has had very little exposure in the UK and is unavailable on DVD Region 2. A family drama without histrionics, it places Cécile played by Catherine Deneuve (61) in a changing social and geographical context. The social tensions and conflicts are embodied in the characters and expressed in brief scenes and rapid editing. Circular time also has a role in the story.
The film starts with a few sequences where Antoine is seen arriving on a building site. He remonstrates with the workers because they are resting. He walks in mud and water, touches the soaked wall and is engulfed by a mudslide. Flash-back : Antoine is greeted on his arrival in Tangier by a mature woman personal assistant, Nabila, who speaks perfect French. After the planning meeting in a modern office building, Antoine is in his hotel room dictating a letter to Cécile. Cécile greets her son Sami at the airport on his arrival from Paris. She is introduced to his girlfriend Nadia and her little boy Saïd.*
The story is simple. The married couple Cécile and Natan live in Tangier. She is French. He is Moroccan. They have a bisexual son who has a male lover in Tangier and lives in Paris with a female partner and child. The young couple come on a visit. At the same time Cécile’s first love, Antoine, has traced her and comes to Tangier to supervise a new building project. He is determined to pursue Cécile and regain her love.
The film is special to me because it gives us very accurate glimpses into a multicultural town, Tangier, similar to Beirut where I grew up. Both towns were under French protectorate. The dual culture French/Moroccan is well conveyed in the film but not in a simple fashion. Witchcraft, Islamic observance, westernisation, culture and class differences, identity problems co-exist as the background to the love story. The proximity of Europe is hinted at in different ways: Paris is very often mentioned, Cécile is presenter of a bilingual radio programme, one can see the coast of Spain from a hill. Frequent shots of the city give the impression of a town by the sea, on the edge of the desert, being developed into a modern one with glass constructions , building sites and traffic jams. Teeming streets, play areas, the beach, a casino complement this picture.
The idea of time is obvious in the title: Changing Times. A newsflash about the end of the Iraq war and the presence of a community of illegal migrants in two scenes place the film firmly in the present. But in a clever way it is not only linear passing time that is shown in the film but the circular time that we experience as we get older. This is achieved by having Antoine looking for and regaining his first love.
The characters embody cultural, economic and social pressures and contradictions rather than psychological depth typical of classic melodramas. Two incidental characters are working women. The personal assistant who does Antoine’s bidding is Moslem and Cécile’s friend and workmate Rachel Meyer, is Jewish.
There is Sami who has identity problems. He lives in Paris but every time he comes back to Tangier he does not know who he is. He does not speak Arabic. He is accused by his Moroccan homosexual lover Bilal, of not knowing what he wants ” half French half Moroccan, half man half woman”…. There are the twins: Nadia who lives in Paris with Sami and her child. She finds it difficult to cope with Sami’s life and is addicted to prescription drugs. Her sister Aycha, devout Moslem, wears the scarf, works in a MacDonald’s and has the responsibility of her ill mother in the village. She has little financial means. Sensitive about gossip about Nadia’s way of life she refuses in a phone conversation to meet the sister she has not seen for 6 years. Under the sentence of rejection : ” I must learn to live without you” lurks the drama of sisters separated geographically but also culturally, of two worlds in conflict. Bilal, Sami’s lover is fiercely independent. He is the caretaker of a big house guarded by fierce dogs. The lush garden has a sea view. The house is occupied only one month in the year and this makes Bilal’s life tolerable. ***
Cecile’s husband Natan is Moroccan. He is played by Gilbert Melki, who is born in Paris. of Jewish Moroccan parents. Both in an interview with the actor and in some reviews the character he plays is considered to be Jewish although there is not one hint in the film that would indicate this. His name however is not traditional Arabic. He is much younger than Cécile. His relationship with his son is distant. Cécile accuses him of being a coward, of not facing facts, of not involving himself with his son. She informs him that Sami is gay. His reply is that he respects Sami’s privacy. However when Natan finds out that Nadia is addicted he gives his savings to Sami for her treatment in Paris. As a doctor he is not doing well in Tangier and he wants to accept a job in Casablanca. He has not been faithful to his wife and considers this as normal in Morocco. In a chance meeting in a casino he has a drink with Antoine.
Antoine – Depardieu – is in Tangier to supervise the building of an Audio Visual station that will cover the whole of the Maghreb**. The impressive physique of the actor contrasts with a soft voice and a vulnerable behaviour when away from his work. In reviews he is characterised as ‘feminised”, as helpless, childlike. He pursues Cécile obsessively. He sends her red roses at work, visits her at home uninvited, bursts into the radio station, and is even prepared to use witchcraft to get her back. He insists that she says publicly that he was her first love. He tells her that he has never married and has been faithful for 30 years, 8 months and 20 days. He declares to Natan that he has come to Tangier to take Cécile back.
An interesting cultural contradiction exists between the two men. Natan, who is Moroccan says that he has married a feminist, while Antoine seeks witchcraft help to make Cécile fall in love with him. Also when he asks his assistant to introduce him to witchcraft it is Nabila who warns him: ‘one cannot possess somebody without hurting them’.
Téchiné said that Deneuve was very brave to accept acting in the role without make up. Cécile is a beautiful and elegant woman who walks in high heels and her age is never mentioned. One can assume she is Deneuve’s age. She works at the local radio station. She talks in clipped sentences and says what she thinks. There is a feeling of tension when she rushes from home to work and in her relationships with her son and husband. She is worried about Sam. With Natan their disagreements are on the verge of an explosion. The subjects of discord are the son, Natan’s wish to move to Casablanca but also trivial matters. She tries to befriend Nadia who rejects her help but she acts as grandmother with Saïd. She has a friendly relationship with her colleague Rachel Meyer and confides in her. She steadfastly rejects Antoine’s harassment time and again but admits to Rachel that she loved and desired him to distraction in their youth. It is through her husband talk with Antoine that we know some her past. In her youth she found Antoine possessive and jealous. She married a psychiatrist older than her. She left him and married Natan who brought her to Tangier. She confesses to Rachel that she did desire Natan but could not ‘love’ him.
The jump cuts, and fast editing between the different locations, and the treatment of the different relationships fragment the information given to the viewer. Given the high profiles of Deneuve and Depardieu, the story is seen by many reviewers as a beautiful ‘romantic’ love story between the two major protagonists. But this view would ignore the more general important themes of changing times, modernisation, bi-nationality, multiculturalism that Téchiné touches upon by subtle details.
Two thirds into the film the pace of editing changes. Antoine has given up on seducing Cécile and prepares to go back home. At his window he dictates a love letter to Cécile. A slow pan takes in a panoramic view of the old Tangier by the sea. It lasts 28 secs. Although the words of Antoine address Cécile, his disembodied voice coupled with the impact of the town with low whitewashed buildings unfolding may be seen as a farewell to old Tangier. There follows another long montage of 1min 04sec. that consists of close- ups of parts of heavy building machinery, bulldozers digging, mud being scooped and disposed of, feet on accelerators on a sound track of grinding, screeching metallic sounds. This montage ends with what looks like stones falling and abstract forms of dark blobs. Cut to a building site with workers in yellow waterproof gear bailing out water under driving rain, shouting and moving in agitated ways. Antoine also in yellow and protective helmet walks absent mindedly looking lost. Again this is a long take lasting 1min.
Given these sequences it is difficult not to notice the wonderful ambiguity of the film. Is it about love for a woman, for a town, for the past? The remaining 20 mins seem to change gear. We are given a perverse closure full of questions. The sequences seem to focus on the young and the future: Sami meets Aycha and gives her some money to help with her mother’s medical expenses. Secretly Nadia observes Aycha at work, Sami and Bilal are seen in bed and Bilal accepts Sami’s offer of a return ticket to Paris, Sami and Natan converse amicably, Aycha and Natan meet and seem to start a new relationship, Sami accuses his mother of being cold and not capable of love, this leads Cecile to go to Antoine and accept to have sex with him. Finally Antoine has an accident on the building site and is in a coma. We do not know how long this lasts but Cecile visits him and informs him that she separated from Natan and in the process of moving and storing furniture. The film ends with Antoine opening his eyes and a close-up on their clasped hands.
It is difficult for me to assess the film objectively. I find it difficult to accept certain pronouncements of French critics: “Antoine is like a helpless child, his fidelity is commendable and touching. Cecile is virile, frustrated. Subplots are superfluous etc… “. I find Antoine’s love manipulative and controlling, I cannot believe that Cécile, an independent woman would go back to an oppressive relationship. I think that the star status of the two main protagonists clouds all the other strands and subtle details of mise-en-scene that permit different connotations. The film makes sense only if one goes beyond the cliché of the undying love for a woman and sees in the characters, their relationships, the cinematography, an attempt at expressing the economic and social changes of a town. Gay love is treated with a delicate touch, conflicts between people of different culture are accurately depicted. And finally time passing is inscribed both in people’s lives and the environment.
* Said does not speak his mother’s language Arabic but French
**Contrast Antoine the man from Paris with a global agenda and Cecile who accedes to local radio requests.
*** This image of a big house empty most of the year, guarded by fierce dogs and looked after by a caretaker, deserves on its own further discussion.