Unforgivable is a roundelay of obstinacy and desire, where lives are lived on their own terms, fiercely.
A writer of historical potboiler novels, Francis (André Dussollier), arrives in Venice determined to do research for his next book. As Unforgivable (Impardonnables) begins, we see that although he is well advanced in years, Francis is a fierce competitor for just about anything, and so has no nervousness about making overtures to his much younger real estate agent. Judith (Carole Bouquet), an ex-model who seems initially to be well past foolish fancies, turns out to be susceptible to his charms. In short order, Francis is set up in a characterful old villa on the picturesque island of Sant'Erasmo, just across the water from Venice, with Judith as his helpful and chic wife.
Based on a Philippe Djian novel originally set on the Basque coast, André Téchiné's maddening, engrossing anti-thriller right away establishes that Francis is essentially a bastard, self-absorbed and careless. As such, he occasions Téchiné's own meditation on creativity. It’s a rare thing for a filmmaker to be so at ease letting his story unfold with so few recognizable conventions or hooks and yet still mold a taut drama. The director and his protagonist appear similarly determined to explore their creative impulses, no matter the consequences. In fact, this seems an apt description of how everybody acts in the movie, a roundelay of obstinacy and desire where lives are lived on their own terms, fiercely.
Just so, a number of characters pop in and out of Francis' view, making him look almost serially distracted. His daughter Alice (Melanie Thierry) appears just long enough to go running off with Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), the dissolute drug-dealing scion of a crumbled local aristocratic clan. Francis impetuously hires Judith's former lover Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), a private detective, to find her, even though it doesn’t seem as though he’s all that worried about her. In one of the film’s more curious developments, Francis also becomes close to obsessed with Anna Maria’s son Jérémie (Mauro Conte), a petty crook and generally wasted youth just out of prison who looks due to be going back anytime soon.
The script (which Téchiné co-wrote with Mehdi Ben Attia) suggests that Francis is transferring his thwarted parental ambitions from the missing Alice to the more proximate Jérémie. But that explanation doesn’t quite explain the depth of Francis' infatuation. It’s possible that he's experiencing an extreme form of writer’s block, distracting himself by focusing on the boy. At the same time, he’s also starting to resent and lie to his wife, who deals with some of that aggression by pursuing her own extramarital agenda with a kind of adolescent vigor and lack of interest in consequences.
Throughout these plot turns and changing relationships, Téchiné and cinematographer Julien Hirsch shoot the island with stylized flair, so that the action is given the polished sheen of high-toned international drama. But even as the camera swoops along in lushly choreographed tracking shots that take full advantage of the ravishing scenery, the drama unfolds slowly, inviting us to anticipate events without a clear promise of resolution. The film offers several confrontations and yet few conclusions, mysteries without answers.
As the writer, Francis is obviously the center of this drama about self-invention. He seems to spend his time avoiding work -- there has rarely been a film about writing that involves so little of it -- and yet this seems to be his best way forward. Only by crafting and demolishing these extraneous obstacles (his impossible daughter, his younger wife, his prodigal adopted son) does he seem able to create. Téchiné’s highly observant and richly realized film operates in a similar fashion, avoiding drama in order to build it.