"Un for the Road"
The title character in the new French comedy-drama, The Adventures of Felix, is not a cartoon feline, but an unemployed, gay Frenchman of Arab descent. Felix is a generally carefree fellow who gets pleasure out of the simple things in life, like watching soap operas when he’s not spending time with his lover, Daniel. But Felix’s life changes after he discovers letters written by his biological father—a man he has never met and about whom he knows very little—while cleaning out his late mother’s cottage. In the hope of finally meeting him face-to-face, Felix sets out on foot to his father’s house in Marseille. The adventures that ensue during Felix’s trek through the French countryside are the focus of this entertaining, light-hearted character study, which takes an insightful look at one man’s search for his identity.
Despite being unemployed and HIV positive, which requires him to begin each day with an AIDS “cocktail,” Felix acts as if he has not a care in the world. But as a result of his Oedipal journey and his contact with the people he encounters along the way, he’s forced to confront the anger he feels toward his father for abandoning him, and the fear and shame he feels, living as an outsider in a predominantly straight, Caucasian world.
The road-trip-as-metaphor is by now a familiar narrative device for dramatizing a character’s existential search for his or her identity. The fact that Felix is gay and HIV positive is not even a new twist: both issues have been addressed in the context of a road movie, most notably in Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992) and Herb Ross’s Boys on the Side (1995). But in the case of Felix, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (who co-wrote and co-directed) address serious issues like AIDS, racism, and xenophobia, yet never resort to nihilism (like Araki) or emotional manipulation (like Ross). Instead, the film’s occasional shifts in tone are motivated by the occasional shifts in Felix’s mood, as he is forced to take a closer at himself and confront his fears. Fortunately, the film’s melodramatic moments are restricted to the soap opera that Felix avidly watches each morning, which serves as an amusing counterpoint to the film’s unsentimental, even-handed approach to Felix’s plight. And as in their previous film, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (1998), a musical about a woman who falls in love with an HIV positive man, Ducastel and Martineau once again successfully utilize the conventions of an American film genre (in this case, the road movie) as the means for their protagonist’s self-exploration.
Felix is comprised of a series of vignettes, each introducing a new character who temporarily becomes part of Felix’s imaginary family. Each episode begins with an intertitle that establishes, from Felix’s perspective, his relationship with the individual he is about encounter (“My Little Brother,” “My Grandmother,” “My Cousin,” and “My Sister”). While the dynamics between Felix and each family member are familiar (his “little brother” looks up to him; his “grandmother” offers advice based on her years of experience; he flies a kite with his “cousin”; and he bickers with his “sister”; etc.), they also reflect a more modern world. His contact with each i on some level sexually charged: his brother tries to seduce him; his grandmother gazes at his naked body; he and his “cousin” make love in the woods; and he and his “sister” share a hotel bed.
As he gets closer to his final destination, it becomes increasingly clear that Felix is far from the perfect protagonist. Selfish and stubborn, he thinks nothing of stealing a car to impress a teenaged admirer, cheating on his boyfriend, or lashing out at a driver for taking a wrong turn. And when he is the only witness to a murder, he is afraid to come forward. Piece by piece, Ducastel and Martineau slowly chip away at Felix’s ostensibly happy-go-lucky demeanor to reveal how his self-hatred makes him assume the worst about other people and prevents him from doing the right thing.
As Felix, Bouajilla, who had a supporting role in the 1998 thriller, The Seige (1998), is terrific. Naturalistic and understated, his performance is reminiscent of the non-professional actors who appeared in the Italian neo-realist films of the 1940s, such as The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine. Yet, his professional skills are evident in the scenes in which his emotions take a sudden 360 degree turn, resulting in a sudden emotional outburst. Like the miles of French countryside through which Felix hitchhikes, The Adventures of Felix may seem all too familiar on the surface. But underneath its somewhat light-hearted, subdued exterior, is a thought-provoking and well-crafted film.