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FILM: The French Kissers

Written by Marcus Campbell on October 27, 2009

Directed By Riad Sattouf
Starring: Vincent Lacoste, Anthony Sonigo, Alice Tremolières and Noémie Lvovsky

The French Kissers (Les Beaux Gosses, “The Handsome Guys”) is an outrageous French comedy that explores the unrestrained emotions, sexual frustrations and social inadequacy of kids during that beautiful and bizarre occasion known as adolescence. Usually famous as a graphic novelist, first time director/co-writer Riad Sattouf has raised a looking glass to the hilariously gross outpouring of repressed sexuality that will be familiar to audiences of any language. Awkward, unattractive, racially and culturally diverse teenagers are served up in a hormonally-charged fight for their identities that they believe will be decided in accordance with their level of physical intimacy. But of course sex is naturally withheld from them in this playfully cruel world where nothing else matters.

14 year old Hervé (Vincent Lacoste) is our ordinary protagonist, who suffers constant rejection from the female sex because of his lack of good looks, charm or any resemblance of good character. His partner in crime is the equally nauseating Camel (Anthony Sonigo), an Arabian heavy-metal enthusiast who sees himself as a ladies man who has yet to be appreciated. Their too-close (but completely heterosexual) friendship leads to all sorts of uncomfortable events that are usually kept off-screen in film, and relegated to privacy in reality. Never here though, where their casual ways turn our taboos into comedic brilliance. The film progresses when the beautiful classmate Aurore (Alice Tremolières) finds Hervé’s awkward selfishness attractive enough to date. What follows is a messy stop-start journey of violent French kissing, idiotic communication breakdowns and anatomical impropriety that will turn your stomach so far you just have to laugh.

While many critics have begun making crude comparisons to Hollywood teen-sex comedies, suggesting this film is the “French Superbad” or “American Pie of France”, such talk is unfair in light of its far superior local influences. The French Kissers studies the excessive actions of bored and frustrated youths in the same way Maurice Pialat did with her 1979 film Graduate First (Passe Ton Bac d’Abord) where the kids of France had very little interest in education or their future aside from the next romance or opportunity to lock lips. Riad Sattouf’s use of unprofessional actors comes from a long appreciation for François Truffaut’s  Small Change (L’Argent de poche, 1976) and the much earlier 1959 film The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups). What was important about these films of the French New Wave was that they sought to portray children, especially problematic adolescents, as realistically as possible by using strange and innovative techniques. The young, unprofessional actors of The French Kissers deliver realism in a way that only desensitised, pimpled teenagers could. Sattouf further chases realism by his filming style, using extreme close-ups that linger on his subjects just long enough for the audience to become exactly as uncomfortable as those on screen.

The outsider support characters of The French Kissers add so much depth to its beautiful world that they threaten to steal the limelight. Most are familiar but never too cliché, such as the handsome ladykiller Loïc, untouchable it-girl Laura, the poetic rock-and-roller Wulfran and his swooning emo-girl Jenifer. Hervé’s meddling and dysfunctional parents will remind you of the self-indulgent role models of the British TV drama Skins, especially his mother (Noemie Lvovsky), who tags along to a party and raves harder then any of the kids there. And of course, the angry black principle (Emmanuelle Devos) makes an appearance and the middle-school feel of the film is somehow completed. The distinctions and differences between the characters are amplified by the small-world of the teen’s group. Everyone are friends; they bump into each other frequently and keep up with every little detail of gossip. It is refreshing to see that no one in the group has to die for this story to have an impact. The stupidity of their relationship choices has inevitable heartbreaking ends but they do survive, skins get thinker and ultimately brains become a little less thick. The rebirth of Hervé in the final scene is the most serious moment of the film; his awkward emotional journey suddenly turns into the numb ritual of high school popularity he has been missing out on, a moment both moving and amusing.

The film premiered at Cannes to critical approval and put a sizable dent in Hollywood’s share of the French domestic market in the summer it was released. Interesting, considering its thin storyline prevents any of the moments of great profoundness that the French seem to revel in. But the passage of Hervé and his friends is simply a beautiful escape for anyone who is a fan of awkward laughs, first-time romance or the nostalgia of adolescence. The French Kissers is a completely French film that even haters of indulgent bourgeois French cinema or even international cinema will love. This is one to take a date to, where there’s the sure promise of laughs along with some point-scoring for being into chic, edgy French movies.

You will love this if: You have a sense of humour.

You will hate this if: Subtitles annoy you, or you don’t find body language funny.

The French Kissers opens December 26th in selected cinemas.

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