In writer-director André Téchiné’s strangely moving love story, Changing Times, the middle-aged Antoine (Gérard Depardieu) confesses how he longs one day to reunite with his first love, Cécile (Catherine Deneuve). But he wants to wait till she’s grown older, after her children have left the roost. Then, like a gallant knight, Antoine wants to show up at her door and save his beloved Cécile from the impending loneliness of her twilight years, after which they will live happily ever after, together. He describes how that moment of reunion will be like a resurrection for Cécile, a reawakening to the beauties and joys of living. Truly, it is only by burying the past, by shucking off the garb of one’s institutional roles–wife, husband, son, sibling, friend–and reawakening to our own true feelings can we hope to have any happiness in love and life.
Antoine arrives in the port city of Tangiers under the pretext of overseeing the construction of a television facility for a French media company. But his real motive is that Tangiers is where Cécile lives. While Antoine has struggled to get over her, Cécile has succeeded most assiduously in repressing her past with him. She’s now married to a Moroccan doctor, Nathan (Gilbert Melki), a charming, amiable man who makes no qualms about his womanizing.
On the outside, Cécile seems a woman completely content and composed: She has an orderly home life with Nathan, and enjoys her day job as a d.j. playing French pop songs at a Moroccan radio station. Yet her composure is brittle. Deneuve keeps her face taut, her delivery straightforward, matter-of-fact; Cécile is the kind of woman for whom a tragic emotional breakdown is just waiting to happen.
The damage Antoine weathers, meanwhile, is largely physical, beginning with a nose-first smash into a glass wall as he tries to flee a busy supermarket where he’s just spotted Cécile. Nathan, the dutiful doctor, comes to his aid, and, just like that, Antoine has entered Cécile’s domestic fold. In their awkward first meetings, during with the precipitously frank Antoine sets forth his feelings for Cécile , Téchiné is sure to reap both humor and a bittersweet pathos as the woman pulls away from him with a businesslike insistence.
When Cécile’s son Sami (Malik Zidi), his Moroccan-born girlfriend Madia (Lubna Azabal), and their 9-year-old son drop in from Paris, all sorts of cats are let out of the bag. Madia’s in Tangiers to reconcile with her long-estranged twin sister Aicha (also played by Azabal) who’s stayed behind in their family village looking after their aging, ailing parents. Sami’s agenda involves reviving an old love affair with a young Morroccan man. His closeted homosexuality dovetails nicely with the rest of Téchiné’s framework built around disconnected interpersonal ties–a gallery of people who, out of guilt, shame or the fear of loneliness can’t face the truth about themselves, let alone admit it to each other.
If Cécile’s supposed to be uptight, she’s got nothing on Madia’s sister, Aicha–a woman not so much devout as insistent about her Muslim orthodoxy. Aicha refuses to see Nadia, for whom she obviously still bears anger for unspoken past grievances, and fears she’d contaminate her religious purity by consorting with a Westernized Muslim woman. While Nadia slips into a drug-induced stupor, It’s like that in the world Téchiné’s creates in Changing Times: No one is willing to put down their self-ordained guards for reasons of self-preservation.
I realize all of this sounds like heavy melodrama, an entanglement of pretentious gestures, but Changing Times is surprisingly sweet, simple, straightforward. Whatever thematic high-handedness Téchiné can be charged with (he’s French after all; they can’t help it), you can’t fault him on the purity of his storytelling nor his admirably expressive cinematic style. Antoine’s emotional conundrum finds a perfect parallel in the nervy, touch-and-go shooting and editing rhythms, which are offset by the quieter, more measured rhythms found in Cécile’s scenes. Finally, the performances are uniformly excellent, but this is Deneuve and Depardieu’s show all the way. The screen legends turn in gorgeous, guileless performances here, and it’s a pleasure to be party to their often lovely scenes together. Buriel and resurrection, literal and figurative, are inevitable for Antoine and Cécile. Both pay their separate price, but, once the debris is cleared, the resurrection that Antoine speaks of is, nonetheless, sweet reward.
Directed by: André Téchiné
Written by: André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot, Pascal Bonitzer
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Gilbert Melki, Lubna Azabal, Malik Zidi, Tanya Lopert, Jabir Elomri, Nabila Baraka, Nadem Rachati