Since 2002, French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (b. 1970) has written and directed eleven feature-length films. Besides writing many children’s books, directing theater and opera, and penning film criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma, Honoré works in a variety of cinematic formats—from consumer-grade video to 16mm to digital cinema—and in a variety of contexts—from art cinema to what has been called “French extreme” to intelligent, star-driven entertainment to films for children to work that investigates the border between fiction and documentary, experimental and narrative. After attracting international attention with his second feature, an audacious adaptation of Georges Bataille’s novel My Mother starring Isabelle Huppert, Honoré embarked on a trilogy of films that established him as an auteur of note, with a role in contemporary cinema as a keen observer of 21st century France.
The films of this trilogy—In Paris, Love Songs and The Beautiful Person—share a number of actors but no overlapping narrative; each is an independent film about three things (according to Honoré himself): “a look at Paris, a look at French cinema, and a look at the sentimental [i.e., ‘emotional’] portrait of youth.” Each also involves a number of original songs by Honoré’s associate, composer Alex Beaupain. The trilogy places Honoré squarely in French film history, in which the two most obvious poles are those New Wave directors fascinated by musicals: Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy.
The emphasis on youth in the trilogy, and throughout Honoré’s films before and after, allows him to investigate the malleability of human attachments, whether familial, platonic or sexual. At their core, and yet to varying degrees, his films explore the concept and transformation of family. “I invent all kinds of families,” Honoré tells us; “as a result, it can seem to be an attack on family values.” Most strikingly, the director places significant weight on the mother-child relationship as it intersects with Eros and Thanatos, sexual desire and death. In fact, like Cocteau and Demy before him (and Freud, for that matter), Honoré’s films occasionally dip their toes into the fraught emotional terrain where the familial, the platonic and the sexual blur and entangle.
This is to say that Honoré is not afraid to provoke. Two of his most recent films, Man at Bath and Metamorphoses, are filled with the kind of abundant nudity and narrative discursivity not seen since Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” in the early 1970s. His work is unapologetically that of a queer auteur, reveling not just in male nudity and gay male desire but also lesbianism, bisexuality, and good old-fashioned sexual fluidity, with the more recent films insistent on a multicultural context. At the same time, Honoré’s work brings cultural milestones from various pasts (Bataille, La princesse de Clèves, Ovid) into the present, thus insisting on history as both ballast and inspiration, proposing a provocative view of Europe’s precarious present.
Introductory text and film notes written by David Pendleton in collaboration with David Gerstner, co-author of Christophe Honoré: An Introduction (Wayne State University Press, 2015). He will co-moderate the discussions with Christophe Honoré on March 5 and 6.
Presented in collaboration with the Institut Français, Unifrance, the Consulate of France in Boston, and Wicked Queer: the Boston LGBT Film Festival.
Special thanks: David Gerstner—Department of Media Culture, City University of New York, College of Staten Island; Mathieu Fournet, Amélie Garin-Davet—Film, TV & New Media Department, Cultural Services of the French Embassy; Lola Furel—Films Pelleas; Adeline Monzier—Unifrance; Emmanuelle Marchand—the French Consulate of Boston; James Nadeau—Wicked Queer.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet
France 2008, 35mm, color, 97 min. French with English subtitles
For the third film of the trilogy, Honoré again (after Ma mère) updates a French novel from the past—this time, the 17th century classic The Princess of Cleves. This tale of love, courtly intrigue, infidelity and death is updated to a contemporary Parisian high school setting. When a new student arrives, she sets off a flurry of conjecture and flirtation. Less reliant on music than the other films in the trilogy, The Beautiful Person finds Honoré making an observation about woman’s desire and the tricky paths of cultural constraint she must navigate to identify a place in the world, as well as a point about the ability of the past to speak to us through art, imagination and, yes, desire. Print courtesy IFC Films.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Clotilde Hesme
France 2007, 35mm, color, 91 min. French with English subtitles
The middle film of the trilogy begins with a ménage-à-trois suspended by tragedy, and then turns into an examination of the power of grief to remake a circle of friends and loved ones. While Honoré’s films often delight in music and dance, Love Songs and its later counterpart, Beloved,come closest to being true musicals, synthesizing their maker’s interest in Godard and Demy, the twin godfathers of the modern French musical. By insisting on using the (mostly) untrained voices of his cast, Honoré keeps the numbers grounded in a way Demy did not. Meanwhile, these numbers—while sometimes shaded with ambivalence—are wholehearted in a manner that separates them from the knowing ironies of Godard’s use of popular song and dance. Created in response to a friend’s death, Honoré and his longstanding collaborator, composer Alex Beaupain, made this film to work through their mourning process. In many ways, the film is a musical autobiography in which the malleability of sexuality, love and desire is challenged by the fixed inevitability of death. Print courtesy IFC Films.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Amira Akili, Sébastien Hirel, Mélodie Richard
France 2014, DCP, color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
From the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004), metamorphosis is a constant theme in modern queer culture, perhaps because of the transformational force of same-sex desire in a society in which it remains taboo. Honoré’s contribution turns to one of the foundational texts of Western literature: Ovid’s Metamorphoses,a compilation of mythological tales of (mostly heterosexual) encounters between mismatched gods and mortals. This cinematic odyssey follows a constantly shifting cast of characters through a set of episodes in which, given their supernatural nature, anything at all might happen. So characters love, kill, flee. Casting young unknowns as gods and mortals alike, Honoré parallels the subversive nature of Ovid’s text, wherein gods are often challenged, and even bested, by the mortals they seek to rule. At the same time, Honoré maintains what we might call Ovid’s amoralism—filming the idyllic moments in the same calm, detailed fashion as he does the sudden moments of cruelty, murder or sexual violence. The film is about the beauty of bodies in movement and about the beauty of the landscape. If Honoré makes this film now, it is because he wants to reconnect us to all of this beauty, and also to the myth. DCP courtesy Monument Releasing.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With François Sagat, Omar Ben Sellem, Chiara Mastroianni
France 2010, digital video, color, 72 min. French and English with English subtitles
The sudden and uncertain rupture in the relationship between a young filmmaker and his boyfriend provides the narrative framework for Man at Bath, one of Honoré’s most experimental features. Featuring gay French porn star François Sagat and shot on location in Gennevilliers (a banlieue, or suburb, of Paris) and New York, the film scrambles expectations about both cinematic and pornographic depictions of friendship, sex and love. It is no coincidence that the film centers itself in the banlieue,where the cultures of immigrants and people of color flourish (and where homosexuality is not generally a cinematic focus for “gay” directors). Alternating quasi-documentary sequences shot on consumer-grade digital video with more obviously fictional episodes, Man at Bath is as audacious as it is perversely seductive.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Tanel Derard, Olivier Dubois, Jacob Lyon
France 2008, 35mm, b/w, 15 min. In French
A rumpled, out-of-shape, middle-aged man on the prowl watches four attractive young men play tennis. Aware that desiring eyes are directed toward them, the boys remove their shirts to display youthful, muscular bodies, setting off a contest of wills that belongs as much in the bull ring as on a tennis court. Provocative and tantalizingly homoerotic, Hôtel Kuntz questions the force of fantasy when confronted with a stubbornly imperfect reality. Print courtesy Les Film d'Ici.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Ludivine Sagnier
France 2011, 35mm, color, 135 min. French and Czech with English subtitles
With its Alex Beaupain songs and ensemble cast, some consider this film to be the fourth installment in the queer trilogy. Produced with Gaumont’s resources, Beloved brings together Catherine Deneuve with her daughter Chiara Mastroianni. The film is indeed a vehicle for strong performances that showcase Beaupain’s lively score. Yet it is also a film that delves further into Honoré’s examination of mothers and daughters and the place they hold in contemporary Europe. Hopping back and forth between the 1960s and today, and thus paralleling the love lives of mother and daughter as young women, Beloved queries, beneath its bright surface, the troubled and troubling space that mothers occupy in late capitalism, wherein they are ideologically forced into constraining Madonna/whore dichotomies. Print courtesy IFC Films.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Romain Duris, Louis Garrel, Alice Butaud
France 2006, 35mm, color, 92 min. French with English subtitles
The film that launched Honoré’s “trilogy,” Dans Paris draws on the director’s interest in rethinking family relations with a concentration on the city’s own participation in that dynamic. Indeed, Paris is a central character for this and Honoré’s two subsequent films, Les Chansons d’amour and La Belle personne. Dans Paris pursues a family at once in disintegration and transformation, focusing on two brothers, one a womanizer and the other suffering from a breakup. After the shock of Ma mère, Dans Paris is striking for its charm, but it also shows Honoré continuing his audacious experiments in adapting film form to narrative, here using direct address and characters who suddenly burst into song. It is a brilliant film for its approach to narrative in concert with its use of cinematic form. Print courtesy IFC Films.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes
France 2004, 35mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles
Honoré’s third feature film is perhaps his most controversial. Some objected to the film’s staging of Georges Bataille’s unsettling posthumous novel of polymorphous perversity and barely repressed incest in the sunny resorts of today’s Canary Islands. At the same time, Ma mère is one of Honoré’s most complex explorations of sexuality, with its story of a mother whose libertinism leads her adolescent son ambiguously towards freedom, corruption or both. Shooting on 16mm, and thus infusing his brightly colored images with grain, Honoré also keeps the spectator unsettled with jump cuts, handheld camera work and jarring reframings as the film’s plot devolves towards a very Bataillean juxtaposition of sex and death. “I didn’t at all want to do a ‘for-real thing,’” Honoré explains, “rather, I wanted to evoke a sexualized atmosphere, to build it, to put it on stage.” Ma mère is the cinema of abstract desire at work in the unconscious. Print courtesy Le Bureau Films.
Directed by Christophe Honoré. With Yaniss Lespert, Pierre Mignard, Marie Bunel
France 2002, digital video, color, 88 min. French with English subtitles
Parallel to his filmmaking, Honoré has maintained an active career as an author of books for children, young adults and families. (His most recent film, Les malheurs de Sophie , is for children.) Fittingly then, his first feature film is an adaptation, made for French television, of one such novel. Ten-year-old Pascal overhears a family discussion in which beloved older brother Léo reveals that he is HIV-positive, only to have his parents declare that the news must be kept from the family’s youngest member. Unlike an American “afterschool special,” the focus is not the family’s struggle with homophobia but rather on Pascal’s wrestling with the knowledge that he is supposed not to have and, therefore, cannot discuss. Close to Leo is a very straightforward, even simple film, but one about a complex subject: the awakening of a preadolescent consciousness of death. The film anticipates the importance of family—and of rethinking the family—in Honoré’s subsequent work.