It’s easier to love someone in your head and dream about them, than to deal with them on a daily basis.
— Cécile (Catherine Deneuve), Changing Times
I don’t have the strength to see you. I’m afraid it will hurt me. I need to learn how to live without you.
— Aïcha (Lubna Azabal), Changing Times
Tangiers, the present. Antoine Lavau, (Gérard Depardieu) a successful Parisian businessman, arrives to oversee the construction of a broadcasting station in the Free Zone. It is intended as a rival to Aljazeera and will serve all North Africa promoting moderate Islam. He has engineered this assignment to coincide with an attempt to woo old flame Cécile (Catherine Deneuve) whom he has pined after for 30 years and recently tracked down. She is resistant to his initial advances and cynical of his motivations, saying, “I have the feeling that after all these years he came to find me in Tangiers to claim what he is owed.”
Cécile is now a married radio-show host and mother of an adult son. Cécile’s husband Nathan (Gilbert Melki) has had multiple affairs, is plagued with financial woes and is keen to accept a doctoring post in Casablanca despite Cécile’s resistance. Her son, Sami, visiting from Paris, is a closet homosexual who has committed himself to a woman, Nadia (Lubna Azabal), and her son, yet maintains contact with his male lover Bilal (Nadem Rachati). Responding to Bilal’s question as to why he persists with this fraudulent relationship, Sami responds simply with, “I need her.” Nadia hails from Morocco, though now resides with Sami in France. She has left her twin-sister Aïcha (also played by Lubna Azabal) in Tangiers to care for their elderly parents. Aïcha is a devout Muslim who has had to resort to working in McDonalds to support her family and refuses to see Nadia on her arrival home.
André Tèchiné’s ambitious ensemble drama concerns itself with familial and romantic bonds which have become frayed or broken, and the new partnerships that offer the chance of salvation. Its title, Changing Times, can be interpreted both optimistically in terms of a perceived cultural acceptance that facilitates the bringing together of disparate peoples and disregards the taboo to help forge previously unthinkable unions (Sami and his gay lover Bilal; the burgeoning relationship between the Jewish Nathan and Muslim Aïcha) and pessimistically relates to the question of whether some relationships, which are seemingly of great importance, are beyond repair (should Antoine and Cécile, and Aïcha and Nadia stay parted?).
At the centre of the story and allocated the most screen-time is Antoine’s pursuit of Cécile. He is an enthusiastic naïf, chasing his dream (of her) as if he has been held in that earlier time, while she has inevitably moved on. On arrival at Tangiers airport he states, “I am not a tourist. I am a traveller.” as if such expressions still hold glamour and adventure for him. When wads of bills spill from his coat during a chance encounter with Cécile’s destitute husband, the impression given is not of a man lauding his wealth but of a childlike individual for whom money is unmanageable. Cécile, by contrast, is worn-out and reticent. Perceptive enough to realise that her son is gay; she has never spoken to him about it. She is described as a feminist who takes pride in her low-paid work because it provides independence; yet allows her husband’s affairs. As Nathan says of her, “The law of silence. As always.”
Antoine and Cécile’s first encounter for 30 years, though not played for laughs, is an unmitigated almost comic disaster. Startled by her unexpected presence in a supermarket and denied the opportunity to manage the situation to best effect he hurries into a plate-glass window, only to damage his nose and lose both his spectacles and control of his bowels. He views her from the floor where he has fallen; as he gropes desperately for his glasses in an attempt to salvage the moment by being able, at the very least, to return her recognition.
In his most brazenly romantic act, Antoine impulsively bursts into the radio station’s offices whilst Cécile is mid-broadcast. Taken aback, she reacts furiously, and with uncharacteristic vigour she throws him out. Defeated, Antoine resolves to leave Tangiers. However his departure in this sequence liberates Cécile’s true feelings; he has reignited a passion in her, which she must strive to conceal. Free from his scrutiny she is more exhibiting and we can see she is in pain. Age has made Deneuve seem more immediate.
Carlos Fuentes once observed of a younger Deneuve that she is, “constantly looking outside the confines of the screen”. Here, when she casts her undirected gaze outward, it feels interpretable and more connected to the movie’s world. The intervening years have transformed this fey ethereal actress into someone relatable, her tough, pragmatism and determined resistance in this role paradoxically softens her because it makes her real; the enigma no more.
Working with her on Belle de Jour, director Luis Bunuel described Deneuve as, “very beautiful, reserved and strange.” Her beauty is still apparent but tarnished by an aging process captured on celluloid. Her reservation now takes the form of the functional stoicism necessary to conceal inappropriate emotion. Though she hides this from Antoine, we are privy (and privileged) to it in fleeting glimpses and it is all the more heartbreaking on sight because it feels like we are about to witness the release of 40 years of emotion.
Both actors benefit from the audience’s familiarity with their previous roles. For example, Depardieu’s romantic Antoine is Cyrano de Bergerac transposed to modern times; formidably successful in his chosen profession, yet yearning hopelessly for his one true love. Deprived of Cyrano’s handsome younger man to hide behind, his vulnerability is exposed. They share a similar reliance on their ability as a wordsmith or poet: Antoine says of his perceived failure, “as I feared I didn’t find the words to convince you”, as if Cécile, as Roxane once did, would find herself enchanted by his eloquence.
Through the supporting storylines Tèchiné considers the damage that people inflict on one another under the guise of consideration. Nadia’s sister Aicha refuses to see her, insisting that twins should be kept apart for the sake of each other’s sanity, though her resentment at being saddled with the burden of responsibility seems the more likely motivation. Cécile’s son Sami insists that his lover Bilal is, “just a fling” and tells Nadia, “You’re the most important thing, seriously” (he will later repeat this assertion of “seriously”; rendering his follow up statement even more hollow). Nadia clings to him and replies, “Sometimes I think I’m ruining your life.” There is ample warmth in this unconventional set-up between two people who have just ‘made-do’ but Tèchiné leaves us in no doubt; it will never be enough.
Changing Times is a triumph because it consistently rings true. It benefits from uncomplicated but resonant dialogue which consistently matches the performances for authenticity. The beautiful cinematography complements its emotional sweep. It is gripping, thoughtful and concise (wrapping up an ensemble piece in 100 minutes is pretty speedy) and if some of the periphery plot strands suffer from a lack of adequate exploration, it’s because the relationship between Antoine and Cécile is so uniquely moving that it demands our focus.
The extras are modest. Best is an enjoyably frank and occasionally insightful interview with an amiable but nervous Gilbert Melki, who plays Nathan. His on the set anecdotes and discussion of the film-making process make up for his lack of memorable observations regarding the work itself. Conspicuously, and disappointingly, absent are any contributions from the major stars (Tèchiné, Deneuve, Depardieu). Otherwise, it’s a Koch Lorber trailer reel (consisting of 6 trailers), link to Koch Lorber online and the original theatrical trailer for this feature.