“This Special Friendship” (“Les amitiés particulières”)
A Tender Relationship
Released in 1964, “This Special Relationship” was years ahead of its time in the way that it tells of the tender relationship between a twelve-year-old boy and the 16-year-old upperclassman that is the object of his desire while the two of them are in the rigid atmosphere of a Jesuit run school in the 1920s. The film is based on Roger Peyrefitte’s biographical book. Peyrefitte studied in religious schools during his childhood, lived older/younger male-to-male love with a fan of his book, and outed many homosexual celebrities of his time.
The special friendship that is featured in this heartbreaking film, takes place at a time and place when certain thoughts or doings were deemed very wrong. The twenties fostered an environment in which purity was very important. The relationship between the two is beautiful and, at the same time, gut-wrenching. At times, one may question the protagonists’ motives, but, above all, it is a strong tale of friendship and the outside forces that can disrupt it.
Francis Lacombrade as Georges and Didier Haudepin as Alexandre are both fantastic in their roles, most notably Didier as Alexandre. It is beautifully shot by in black and white and that adds so much to the feeling of the time and place.
Viewers who are not disposed to regard homosexual affection as very tender and spiritual will find themselves having a hard time getting into the film. I remember seeing it when it first came out and I was stunned by what I saw.
Jean Delannoy directed this very solemn story of a loving attachment between a boy about 16 and a younger one, around 12 and it is told straight out with no apologies. It does not sensationalize relationships that might be played for voyeurs or gigglers in this permissive age. The closest to personal contact between any of the characters that we see is when the two principal youngsters cut their forearms and have sips of each other’s blood, or when they come together in a haystack while smoking cigarettes.
The relationship is abstract in suggesting three or four active or passive relationships, including one between an always-nosy teacher and an evidently blandly submissive boy. The quality of the attachments between any of the participants must be surmised from exchanges of long, adoring looks between them or smiles and hand-wavings across rooms.
The initially tangled fabric of furtive relationships and secret tattlings by the 16-year-old new boy, before he makes his rapturous attachment with the younger lad, soon becomes clandestine meetings and joyous intrigues between the two, until they are suddenly discovered by an elderly father whose dubious achievement it is to separate them. This leads to Alexandre’s heartbreak and a melodramatic tragedy.
Mr. Delannoy, in his fashion, has done a commendable job of making us feel the rigid ritualism and chilly atmosphere of a high-toned Catholic school. The austerity and inflexibility of the fathers are positive elements in the picture, and Michel Bouquet’s performance in the role of the father who gets caught in his room with a pupil is interestingly oblique and subdued.
The conclusion seems to be that such attachments should not be discouraged in boarding schools—that boys have as much right to fall in love with one another, as they have to fall in love with girls.
For us today, pedophile means stalker, assassin, assailant, or, as the media loves to call them molesters. One should watch this with an open mind and understand that what happens has happened for centuries and will happen ever after, until the human race disappears. This is not a defense of pedophiles who are criminals. This is about love— loving and being loved. Georges loves Alexandre and Alexandre is absolutely in love with him, despite the age gap (at that age, the gap is even more pronounced). Alexandre makes Georges swear his love forever, his “special friendship”, and writes him touching letters that only lovers can write. They simply can’t help not loving each other, despite all that is in their way.
Today, Georges would be seen as a pedophile, a stalker, a child molester who would never, ever molest a child… a stalker that is stalked by his prey because… he loves him. This bond grows so strong that is shared with close friends that encourage this relationship.
The two boys develop their friendship in spite of the rules of the fathers who are dead set against this sort of thing happening at their school. Not that there is anything sensual about the relationship, just a few chaste kisses and poems with Georges describing Alexandre as his “bijoux”. There is a touching scene in the movie with the two boys hidden in a haystack lying besides each other, sharing the joy of their company and a stolen cigarette. But then there is tragedy as there always was in films of this kind until recently.
The Church and its rules against too much affection between schoolboys plays a major role in the story as one of the antagonists. We are left wondering just how well both stories might have turned out if the boys had been left alone to share their friendships.
The film and the book it is based on were very bold gestures for their time, describing an earlier generation and environment which were even more strait-laced.
The story is one of those, that any sensible male youth, can find himself over the tragedy that it brings with. The ending makes us sad and somewhat disgusted that there are those who refuse to accept that a true, special friendship can exist and they therefore interfere because of their self-pity. We do not see people like that, they hide and lurk and destroy lives. They want us to believe like they do and we will not. Peyrefitte was a gay activist and a writer and this is part of his legacy to us. How sad that it had to end like this. We all deserve better.