Director Anne Fontaine skillfully shares the moving journey and quest for identity of a young boy who is very different from his oppressive milieu. We are taken on an existential journey that starts as “a radical experience of exile” because “the poor, sad, gay child is totally out of place, is a stranger in his own home, within his own family.” The boy is Marvin Bijoux (played at age 14 by Jules Porier and then by Finnegan Oldfield as a young man) who has an immense amount in common with the adolescent protagonist of Edouard Louis’s shocking autobiographical novel and one of my favorite books of late, ‘The End of Eddy’, the bestseller from 2014 that was the trigger for the script written by Anne Fontaine and Pierre Trividic. They have deviated from the original by imagining his escape into a world that is larger than the small village he was born in.
Marvin lives in the Vosges Mountains, in a very humble social class where culture is non-existent and human interactions are rare and brusque when they occur. Marvin eats chips for dinner before switching on the television; his father (Grégory Gadebois) is constantly tinkering about while mostly thinking about his next drink, and Marvin, a delicate, sensitive and shy adolescent lives in a universe of “brutes” and who has been nicknamed “the skeleton” by his mother (Catherine Salée). Marvin shares a room with his younger brother and his older stepbrother. He is subjected to violent homophobic harassment at school, which makes him question his sexual identity even more when he finds out that his family is also asking questions of their own (“Why does he embarrass us like this with his faggot ways?”) and that for his father, homosexuality is “something degenerate, like a kind of mental illness.”
Marvin, nonetheless, finds a way out in the form of an improvisation course at school and the well-meaning support of the school principal (Catherine Mouchet). Selected in an audition for the theatre course at Epinal High School, he leaves his family and goes to boarding school. This is a turning point that will be followed by three other propitious meetings a few years later: with Abel (Vincent Macaigne), professor at the centre for dramatic arts in Nancy who takes him under his protective wing and introduces him to Paris, followed by Roland (Charles Berling) who opens the doors to a wealthy artistic world in which Marvin feels out of place but also where he meets a certain Isabelle Huppert who (in her own way) helps him to take his story to the stage. It is a performance where Marvin’s family is positively crucified, which has consequences on the life of the young man who has succeeded in creating a new identity by artistically expressing his own unease, while at the same time being fully aware of where he comes from.
Sophisticated editing alternates between the different eras of Marvin’s journey. Flash forwards, voice offs and texts written by the young man that explain past events. The actors give exceptional performances in a story of an “ugly duckling” and his “guardian angels”. But this is no fairy tale; it is a masterful and moving film that hits close to home for many.
If you have read “The End of Eddy” you know that it is a gut-wrenching account of growing up poor and gay in rural France. The book is so delicately diaristic, having been written by Louis when he was just 19, and before he became a literary superstar. Writer-director Anne Fontaine bypasses any attempt at faithfulness to her source material, cutting it into a million pieces and re-assembling the work like a postmodern collage. Fontaine’s cinematic histrionics are beautiful to watch but it is also as if the soul of Louis’s work has been diluted by the filmmaker’s need to reinvent not Marvin, but the literary lineage that makes the project so striking in the first place. Because of the film’s playing with temporality and style, the simplicity and of Louis’s prose is lost. We’re certainly not allowed to spend enough time with the film’s Marvin and suffer with him and this is what made “The End of Eddy” so real. made possible. Nonetheless this remains a gorgeous film in its own right.
The film is a frenzied back and forth between Marvin’s miserable (and realistically shot) childhood and his glamorous adulthood There is great visual pleasure in Fontaine’s mishandling of the material and since I have already twice reviewed the book, it is time to review the film as a film and not as a comparative. Fontaine aestheticizes the never-ending pain of childhood in which the queer child’s now-adult body is often only clothed by the theatrical lighting. We know it is not always like or even if it is ever like that.
What we do see is a coming of age and self-acceptance that is beautiful in its own right.