“Il est beau” is a French expression that’s tossed around easily, but has in fact more profound implications than you’d expect based on its English translation (“he’s cute”). Not only is the phrase lacking a commonly used feminine equivalent (I’ll spare you the rich vocabulary French boys use to affectionately describe their love interests), but the word ‘beau’ transcends the notion of mere good looks and can be used to express a more general desirability. It is, however, not an extendible concept, in the sense that it’s linked to quite the rigid archetype (often lampooned in Rohmer films): the tall, dark and handsome-type who’s only sensitive in an unspoken way, knows how to change a tire and never resorts to pseudo-intellectual verbal peacocking in order to assert his dominance, relying on animal-like body language instead.
“Il est beau” is uttered somewhere in the beginning of André Téchiné’s teenage angst fable Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17) by middle aged doctor Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) after she meets the adopted son of one of her patients, Thomas (Corentin Fila), the dark-skinned, rugged, amiable farmboy who experiments with bovine painkillers as a cheap Paracetamol alternative on his sick mother while attempting a transfer to the Advanced BAC S program. Every day, this working class hero leaves his snug wooden cabin to embark on a two-hour commune across the snowy Pyrenees in order to reach school. Once there, his engineered indifference is mistaken for teenage rebellion by the incompetent administration. When Thomas faces suspension for slacking off, Marianne’s typicallyFrench instinct of handling small interpersonal conflicts like a heated political debate comes into play (and we’re reminded of the abysmal Entre les Murs (2008)) as she decides to take him into her own house – saving him the trouble of a daily two hour hike – where she will tutor the boy and occasionally feel up his dreamy, farm-sculpted pecs.
While the film may portray Marianne simply as a naïve do-gooder, Quand on a 17 ans also partly works as a modern day Teorema; a tale of middle class ennui that’s stirred up by an ‘exotic’ looking outsider who is filmed as a sex object from first frame in. Thomas makes a fine addition to Marianne’s family, which consists of her husband – a pilot stationed somewhere in the Middle-East – and her son Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), who feels an unexplained animosity towards his playground chum. If Thomas is the embodiment of ‘beau’, the a contrario definition ‘moche’ (which has equally serious implications, meaning not only ‘ugly’, but ‘bad’, ‘worthless’ and ‘failed to reach the higher echelons of social hierarchy’) fits Damien quite nicely: a sloucher, rodent-faced momma’s boy who enjoys going mano a mano with his crewcut ex-military neighbour. His excuse is that he wants to cultivate self-defense, which may infact be an indication he’s in emotional distress (he’s probably struggling with his sexuality, co-writer Céline Sciamma adds). The arrival of Thomas creates a testosterone induced Arms Race between the boys, but Thomas quickly gains the upper hand in the household, facilitated by hubby’s absence (he’s mostly seen as a static entity on Skype conversations, reduced to a digital family photo) and Damien’s overall inferiority. The three of them form a Rebel Without a Cause-style improvised family, Thomas the Dad, Marianne the Mom and Damien the Child (who’ll gladly wear an apron to whoop up some gratin dauphinoise for his new parents).
The constant jousting between the young lads reveals an unmistakeable sexual tension (because physical combat is the only socially accepted initiation ritual for gay love, co-writer Céline Sciamma adds) and the film deals with all the typical insecurities of the age where the hormonal bouillabaisse reaches its boiling point. But while the Rimbaud poem to which the title refers cleverly mocks the way trivial adolescent flings are often romanticized in hindsight, Quand on a 17 ans wallows in sentimental reminiscence. Thomas is portrayed as a guardian angel (not unlike the Nathan character is Téchiné’s equally schmaltzy La Fille du RER), the Pyrenees serving as his Mount Olivet and the idyllic countryside backdrop of majestic mountains and endless lakes adds unnecessary grandeur to this puppy love story, making the film something of an LGBT-arthouse remake of My Girl. Apart from the delightfully offbeat moment where Damien comes out of the closet by making Thomas drive him to some random Grindr hook-up, the film fails to acknowledge the chaotic, elusive nature of teenage lust and delivers a nice story with some solid performances instead, making Quand on a 17ans a shoe-in for the next year’s César awards, quality label for ‘un beau film’.