Being 17: Sexual Awakening and Race in the Hautes-Pyrénées
by Kate Hearst.
A renaissance of teen films about sexuality has energized French cinema in recent years with works by Abdellatif Kechiche, Céline Sciamma, and Katell Quillevere, among others. Now, in Being 17, veteran filmmaker André Téchiné brings his unique sensibility to examine the complex inter-play of sexual awakening and race between two teenage boys growing up in the mountains of the Hautes-Pyrénées.
Téchiné revisits the world of adolescence contemplated in Wild Reeds (1994). In that autobiographically-inspired film, set in the 1950s during the Algerian war, a group of four teens navigate their sexual explorations. Being 17 observes the lives of two seventeen-year-olds boys, as they “come of age,” grappling with sexuality, school, family crises, against the backdrop of contemporary racism and postcolonial warfare. While both films examine sexuality in stunningly intimate and poetical ways, Being 17 captures a deeper humanism between his protagonists than in Wild Reeds.
We first meet Damien and Tomas as they are both the last picks of their school’s basketball teams. Few words are spoken and Téchiné’s camera invites us to observe how the boys interact among their peers. Damien is a white teen who sports an earring, and Tomas, handsome and dark-skinned, is the adopted boy of a middle-aged couple living on a remote farm. He is a loner and has an attitude of defiance toward fellow students. Instead of bonding, we see these two outcasts fight each other in the school’s courtyard before leaving for their respective homes. We see Damien picked up by his mother in a car, while Tomas is seen taking a bus and then walking miles in the snow to his home high up in the mountains.
Set in the Haute-Pyrénées, Téchiné makes visible a part of France rarely seen in films today with its sublime quality of light and landscape. We watch as Tomas feeds and cares for dairy cows. In the middle of the night, Tomas hikes alone to a nearby lake and plunges into icy winter water. Téchiné’s style allows us to observe and draw our own conclusions about these behaviors. Is Tomas escaping his adopted family or testing himself? The ambiguities draw us further in.
Meanwhile, Damien has the leisure to be a studious teen interested in the poetry of Rimbaud and novels by Faulkner. We watch as Damien makes dinner for himself and his mother Marianne, a local doctor. The two spend the evening “Skyping” with his father Nathan, a fighter pilot on a mission abroad.
The story takes a curious turn when Marianne pays a house call on Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has a bad cough. Marianne pushes Christine to take a pregnancy test, and they learn that she is indeed pregnant. Marianne decides to invite Tomas to live at her home which is much closer to school, while Christine is in the hospital. A reluctant Tomas is given little choice and moves in with Damien and his mother. Physical combat between the two boys continues, as they battle their way around each other. Téchiné allows us to observe the boys’ relationship up close as it becomes haltingly intimate. Eventually, external crises and transformations in both Tomas’ and Damien’s lives bring them together finally in a bond stronger than a mere flirtation.
Téchiné collaborated in the writing of this film with thirty-something filmmaker Céline Sciamma, whose own observations of adolescence became the well-received trilogy: Waterlilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). Both Téchiné and Sciamma examine teenhood from vantage points that shed light on the persistence of underlying postcolonial struggles.
Ultimately, Being 17 is not just a “first love” story, but a profound journey toward a lifelong love and friendship emerging between two teens, one white and one bi-racial, as they navigate their adult selves in contemporary France.
Kate Hearst teaches film history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and is writing a book on the films of Barbara Kopple.