Film #262: Departure (2015)

departure-2015director: Andrew Steggall
language: English and French
length: 104 minutes
watched on: 20 Jan 2017

I heard about this movie last year, and like a lot of the other movies I’ve reviewed recently, it was one of my eagerly anticipated movies of the last year or two. I’d been waiting for the DVD price to go down a bit – eventually, I bought it when I went back home for New Year this time. As usual, good luck getting it released over here (it can be delivered internationally, though!).

Heaven knows I’ve watched enough gay coming-of-age stories in my life already, but I still fall for it very easily. But watching the trailer I could see a hint of something special there, and I liked the folk music accompaniment. Inadvertently, I’ve also completed a kind of trilogy of gay coming-of-age movies set in the rural south of France, this one following Being 17 and Summertime. In fact, the opening shots of this movie reminded me a lot of the latter film, and the imagery and composition was reminiscent of the former. Seasons are again very important to this film, and it provides the autumn counterpart to winter, spring and summer of the other two movies.

The story is about a mother and son, who go to their creaky old holiday home in the south of France to get ready to sell it. They have to pack up their old life, but neither really wants to. Then the son (Elliot) comes across a French guy (Clément), in that time-honored gay coming-of-age story way by seeing him naked from afar, followed by quickly approaching him and inducting him into the family’s life. Clément also awakens something in the mother, triggering a tense competition between mother and son. Such animosity was already developing between them, but it gets worse over the course of the movie.

Elliot is played by the very cute but very young-looking Alex Lawther, who’s already picked up a couple of accolades for his other work. His character is fundamentally bored, and he’s on the cusp of adulthood – a big theme of the movie is endings, with the autumn setting and the sale of the house, which ties into him leaving behind childhood. He’s got a poetic mind, and already seems to know his sexuality – he proudly announces at one point that all the French writers he knows are gay. He occasionally has fantasies that are reflected in strange magical realism or imaginary moments in the film – one of him as St Sebastian, and another later on with falling leaves indoors.

The mother, Beatrice, is superbly performed by Juliet Stevenson, and perfectly captures the feeling of a woman who feels abandoned by her husband and son, but is trying to put a very middle class brave face on it. She gets upset very easily and is obviously in emotional turmoil. I think she hit me closer to the bone than the other characters, as she reminded me a lot of my own mother in many ways, desperate to rekindle the childhood relationship she had with her son, yet very isolated and going through a lot of emotions all at once.

Ultimately the boy that they end up fighting over is window-dressing – the central conflict is between Elliot and her, him trying to be aloof and not so keen to be treated like a child, and her trying desperately to reconnect with him. Or he’s embarrassed by her in a typical teenager way and shocked that she’s trying to flirt with the French guy too. But we’re reminded at key moments that the French guy has real feelings too – too often they’re ignored by the main characters, causing upset and argument.

The sexual content in the movie weirded me out a bit – while it’s nothing explicit, of course, it’s showing Elliot masturbating off camera, and later finding a carrot as a conveniently-sized vegetable to … use on himself in bed (followed by one of the movie’s more comedic moments when his mother almost catches him and makes an inadvertent innuendo). I couldn’t quite take the movie seriously at these points. They’re important to the movie and its repressed atmosphere, but I just started laughing. I think it’s just because Elliot is still obviously a child, by the way he acts otherwise.

The movie is a lot of melodrama, overall, and there are a lot of overwrought images in it. Sometimes the themes can be shoved in viewers’ faces a little too forcefully – especially the whole theme of endings, constantly reinforced by the autumn imagery. The movie was treading the line between pretension and fine art for quite a lot of the runtime.

So I don’t think it’s a perfect movie by any means, but I was deeply moved by parts of it, I loved the imagery and cinematography, and I’m definitely going to be watching out for those actors again. And I couldn’t get the movie out of my head for a few days. Highly recommended.

Anyone else seen it?

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