Youth (2013)

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A girl’s shaky coming of age, her famous father’s death

A short feature debut at only 75 minutes, Youth/Jeunesse is more or less 39-year-old Justine Malle’s much-delayed memoir of her father director Louis Malle’s last days and her shaky coming of age at twenty when he rapidly declined after being diagnosed with a brain-destroying virus. It’s also a homage to the Nouvelle Vague style, with its simple mise-en-scene, sweeping drives through the country, and rapid-fire notations of temporary romances, Youth has a classic simplicity and contains beautiful, touching moments perhaps worthy of the filmmaker’s illustrious father, but in important ways it also disappoints. It’s no coincidence perhaps that Juliette, Justine’s alter ego, is played by Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe and sister of Louis Garrel. They have things in common.

Esther embodies the protagonist’s mixture of defiance and immaturity up to a point. She has her brother’s strong Mediterranean face, if no quite his presence and charisma. The younger male leads being pretty generic, it says something that the best work may be by Didier Bezace, an actor who’s rarely even had serious talking roles in films. Though his on screen moments are few — this is still more about the girl — Bezace is touching and technically convincing in portraying the rapid physical and mental decline of her father. Whether he has the presence of Malle, however, is doubtful.

Juliette’s father is superficially so like Louis Malle he made a documentary in India (there is even an excerpt shown), and had two other children with different mothers. Malle died in California with Candice Bergan, however; this Papa’s current spouse is Portuguese and they live in the French countryside (the actual Malle estate is used). Juliette has an on-off relationship with a classmate, Benjamin (Émile Bertherat of LOL), who refuses to have sex with her when he learns she’s still a virgin (“I need things to be simple; if not it makes me nervous”), but then relents, for one time. Juliette seems to like his coldness and failure to make a fuss over the tragedy of her father’s impending demise, which she at first is in denial about, and then avoids being present for his very last days.

I have to concur with Screen Daily’s Dan Fainaru, who says the references to Iranian cinema and Eric Rohmer and to fashionable songs and to Leibnitz and Nietzsche and the shots of hip left bank cinemas like the Saint André des Arts and the Champollion (“Le Champo”) evoke a New Wave-ish flavour in a rapid catalogue without integrating them “into the fabric of the plot.” The director, who co-authored the script with Cécile Vargaftig, might have done better to keep things simpler and go into more depth. She may be ruthlessly honest in representing herself as unformed and a bit cowardly at twenty (a little step-sister seems better and more sensible at caring for her father), but this vague protagonist may not be the best lens through which to view these events.

Unfortunately this film is content to be more a series of sketches than the kind of searching and precocious work one has seen from Mia Hansen-Løve, the outstanding young French woman director, who is seven years younger. Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children, while not autobiographical, but based on the life of her mentor, the influential French producer Hubert Balsan, is a richer study both of a cinematic father figure and of a family.

Jeunesse has had showings in Italy (at Rome’s Alice nella città sidebar) and Denmark, and is included in the New Directors competition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (showing 1, 4, and 5 May 2013), where it was screened for this review. It opens in France 3 July.

Director: Justine Malle
Writers: Justine Malle, Cécile Vargaftig
Stars: Émile Bertherat, Didier Bezace, Esther Garrel
Runtime: 72 min
Country: France

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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