Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s “Forever Young” is a fictionalised account of her time at Les Amandiers, a prestigious acting school in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris. As well as drawing on her own memories of student-dom in the mid-1980s, she and her co-writers, Noémie Nvovsky and Agnes De Sacy, interviewed other people who studied alongside her, and so their tragedy-tinged comedy drama, which is in Competition at Cannes, should have all the unruly specificity of real life.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. It’s always watchable, and it has a distinctively grainy, intimate look, but the vague, generic characters and incidents are the kind of thing you might scribble on the back of an envelope without having done any research at all. If you’ve ever seen a film about performing arts students – the sort of people who are going to live forever and who are going to learn how to fly (high) – then you’ll have seen it all before.
Like all of said films, “Forever Young” begins with audition scenes – and it does have some fun sequences in which the histrionic would-be thesps bare their souls (and in one case, breasts) for the amused grown-ups. Then comes the scene in which the hopefuls learn which of them have been accepted as students, and which of them declare that they didn’t want to go to Les Amandiers, anyway. And then it’s time to cut between bog-standard rehearsals and personal traumas as the students get to work on the end-of-term show – Chekhov’s “Platonov” – which will conclude the film.
And, boy, there are personal traumas. In fact, the characters don’t have much else except personal traumas. There are 12 students in the class, the central one being Stella (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), whom Bruni Tedeschi says is based on her. You certainly can’t accuse her of false modesty: Stella is a gifted, sincere, angel-faced blonde who lives in a mansion (complete with butler) and is propositioned by two fellow students before term has even started.
One of these is Etienne (Sofiane Bennacer), a scowling unshaven guy who blows off classes so he can buy heroin. You might assume there would be more to his character than that, but you would be wrong. Etienne’s job in the film is to be the doomed bad boy who swaggers around in an overcoat and overdoses in restaurant toilets, just as Stella’s job is to be the saintly girlfriend who stands by him, anyway. Bizarrely, she doesn’t seem to have any strong feelings about heroin use – or anything else, for that matter. Apparently devoid of friends, relatives, and hobbies which aren’t related to drugs and acting, neither Stella nor Etienne becomes more interesting or rounded as “Forever Young” goes on.
Still, they both get more to do than their poor, underwritten classmates. For instance, Franck (Noham Edje) is a married 19-year-old who learns that his wife has AIDS just after she has given birth to their baby daughter. But that is the beginning and end of his story.
Similarly, Adele (Clara Bretheau) is introduced as a wildly confident woman who believes that acting is all about revealing yourself, and who demonstrates this belief by flipping up her skirt to reveal her underwear-free buttocks. She is set up as Stella’s life-changing new best friend, but after that flashing introduction, she is reduced to a face in the background. If she or her classmates have any hopes or dreams for their future careers, we don’t hear them.
To be fair, there are some specifics in “Forever Young” which have the tang of genuine experience, but they’re all connected to how miserable it was to study at Les Amandiers was in 1986. Notwithstanding a few outbursts of youthful exuberance, there doesn’t seem to have been much to it except AIDS diagnoses, unwanted pregnancies, violent scuffles, and an astonishing amount of smoking. (Mind you, this is France we’re talking about, so maybe that hasn’t changed.)
Patrice Chéreau, the directing legend known to film buffs as the maker of “La Reine Margot”, “Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train”, and “Intimacy”, was a teacher at the school, and is played here by Louis Garrel (Bruni Tedeschi’s former partner). His frowning, wincing concentration in rehearsals is endearing, but he is also a cocaine fiend who yells abuse at his long-suffering assistant and pounces on any male student who is foolish enough to sit next to him.
Maybe this would have been worthwhile if “Forever Young” had been intended as a cautionary tale, or a condemnation of the abuses committed by theatre folk in the pre-Me Too era. But all of its misdeeds are presented in a fuzzily romantic light. That’s showbiz, it seems. Chéreau is given an earnest speech about how important acting is, and while Bruni Tedeschi fails to convey that importance to the viewer, she appears to go along with his assessment. The result is that “Forever Young” is a strange beast. It’s a fondly nostalgic chronicle which nonetheless makes the world it is chronicling seem absolutely dreadful.