Jérémie Elkaïm and Stéphane Rideau in Presque rien (2000)


(director/writer: Sébastien Lifshitz; screenwriter: Stéphane Bouquet; cinematographer: Pascal Poucet; editor: Yann Dedet; music: Perry Blake; cast: Jérémie Elkaïm (Mathieu), Stéphane Rideau (Cédric), Dominique Reymond (Mother), Marie Matheron (Annick, Aunt of Mathieu), Laetitia Legrix (Sarah, Sister of Mathieu), Nils Ohlund (Pierre), Réjane Kerdaffrec (Psychiatrist), Guy Houssier (Cédric’s father); Runtime: 97; Picture This! Entertainment; 2000-France)

“It is heartfelt, and is full of intense feelings and insights into love.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a well-presented debut film for writer/director Sébastien Lifshitz. The French film’s title, Presque Rien, means ‘almost nothing.’ While starting the story from the conclusion Lifshitz daringly experiments with fast-forwards and flashbacks, as the film shoots out of linear order for the span of a year and a half. The ghostly looking protagonist is heading back in the winter to his summer vacation resort after experiencing a troubling event and in one of the flash-forwards, we realize that he must have attempted to commit suicide because we see him being treated in a hospital with a tube down his mouth and then talking with a sympathetic psychiatrist. It is at times confusing to follow the events, but this risky technique of filmmaking makes you more alert to the character study and allows you time to think for yourself what is ailing the young hero rather than being forced-fed what it means. Knowing about the characters is perceived as more important than knowing the story line and how it is resolved. The uncertainty of the situation and what will happen to the stressed youngster seems to be an honest way of approaching this youthful identity problem pic, as the teenager is anxiously struggling to find his own way in the world and his own answers about love.

This is a hot summer love story where emotions and relationships are taken seriously, as only the French can take such things. It’s firstly a coming-of-age first love film about a slim, shy, sensitive teenager who has his first homosexual affair not realizing before this that he might be gay.

Mathieu (Elkaïm) is a teenager who travels with his dysfunctional Parisian family to their Brittany seacoast roomy summer house for the summer school holiday. His mother (Dominique Reymond) is a depressive pill-popper, most of the time bed-ridden because of her medication, who has never recovered from her latest child being born three years ago with cancer and dying. Sarah (Laetitia Legrix) is his bitchy glum younger sister, who laces her comments to her brother with poison. The father never accompanies them and is always away on business, and remains unseen throughout the story. This angers Mathieu greatly, who seems to crave love from his parents and instead finds living with them a cold and unbearable experience. The mother’s sister, Annick (Matheron), is the one who is strong enough to pull the family together. She acts as surrogate mother and is a nursemaid, friend, housekeeper, and cook to the family.

At the beach in Pornichet, a resort near Nantes, Mathieu and a handsome hunk named Cédric (Stephane Rideau, of the “Wild Reeds” & “Sitcom”) make eye contact and the older Cédric outstares the more introspective 18-year-old. They meet when Cédric aggressively follows him home; they become passionate after taking long walks. There are a lot of frontal nude shots and shots of their passionate lovemaking, but it is all done tastefully and is in no way pornographic. These sex scenes give the film life and energy as this slow-developing film is sometimes too slow and bleak, especially during the middle part. Though by the film’s end the discreteness and subtlety of the film should win you over to what it was trying to accomplish.

The story is framed around Eric Rohmer’s film turf, the beautiful Gallic western seacoast. Lifshitz shows in detail the everyday life of the family, and the pangs of Mathieu’s first love experience on himself and on the other family members. There are also the pressures he faces from the aggressive Cédric who wants him to be proud of their relationship and to tell his family about it, while Mathieu is affected with insecurities and is unsure of what to do.

In one brilliant mise en scéne Cédric and Mathieu are standing in the shallow water and the family is on the beach intently watching them, while the young lovers argue about whether Mathieu should be open about the relationship. We hear some of their conversation but not all, as the scene leaves us with a powerful image of what Mathieu is conflicted about.

The film spends a lot of time relating to how the family reacts to Mathieu’s affair. His sister is upset that she’s being neglected; Mathieu remains self-absorbed in his volatile relationship and can’t see anyone but himself; Annick is concerned that the family can’t sit down to dinner together; while, his mother is the only one in the house who excuses her husband for neglecting the family for his work and excuses herself for being depressed by saying it’s not permanent.

At the early time in the relationship Mathieu is interested in pursuing a university degree and becoming an architect. Cédric has already given up on fitting in to society. He has dropped-out of school, tried unsuccessfully being a male hustler, has worked for the last three years at a waffle stand on the beach, and plans in the fall to enroll in a computer course. Cédric has no curiosity about learning, but gets off on using his sexual energy to the fullest.

The film’s most trying moments are saved near the conclusion, when we see Mathieu alone in his family’s resort town and he’s trying to decide what to do with his life. He has accidently made contact with Pierre (Ohlund), a former boyfriend of Cédric’s, as the two walk together along the beach and Mathieu gently questions him about his relationship with Cédric. Mathieu’s emotional trauma over the suicide is apparently over, but we never learn why it happened. It’s left up in the air as to whether it was because of a lover’s spat, anxiety because of his homosexuality, or maybe because he has a family history of depression. This engaging, superbly acted film — where the two male leads are not just pretty faces, but they act in a very realistic way so that it seems they are not acting — ends on a note of caution as Mathieu ponders what has happened to him and is stuck deciding what his path will be. He sees how the unambitious gay local boys who dropped-out of school have settled for less interesting jobs, and seem to have settled for less than what he wants in life. This plays on his troubled mind as he sits on a sand dune deep in thought about continuing his relationship with Cédric, while the uninhibited Pierre plays freely with a dog on the wintry beach.

The film resonates with a truth of character story, and should be of interest to people of all sexual orientations. The innocent Mathieu is a universal-type, searching for answers about life that he still doesn’t know if he ever will find while he is suffering mostly from growing pains. Sébastien Lifshitz has created an original film from a conventional but credible coming-of-age story about lovers from opposite backgrounds. It is heartfelt, and is full of intense feelings and insights into love.