A reliable and often hypnotic manufacturer of U.S.-releasable French cinema, André Téchiné seemed on a humanistic cutting edge in the ’90s—the structurally unpredictable Wild Reeds (1994) and Les Voleurs (1996) still offer catch-your-breath moments of suspended poetry. But if the title, knee-jerk cast, pop-song intro, and schmaltzy plotline of his new film Changing Times is any indication, he’s now the French mainstream, the premier Gallic pilot of high-toned soap opera. Téchiné has always been an electric image maker, but his narratives are prone to diffusion or cliché, and there may not be a single propulsively written story in his 30-year filmography.
Which may be beside the point, because Téchiné is all about texture, and Changing Times is soil-rich with thoughtful messiness, from the autumnal angst darkening the exhausted visage of star Gérard Depardieu to the stormy evocation of postcolonial life. Set in Tangier almost entirely among bourgeois French émigrés, Téchiné’s film obsessively detours, often just visually, toward the background of the still oppressed Arab poor, day workers, refugees, rampant Euro-development (Depardieu plays a mega-site construction manager), and pious Muslim women forced to work the counter at a Moroccan McDonald’s. These contemplations almost form a second movie, upstaged by the dramatics caused by Depardieu’s unhappy suit, who is actually in the country to woo Catherine Deneuve’s aging radio host, for whom he’s held a candle for 30 years.
His motivations are only gradually revealed, but meanwhile the mix is complicated by Deneuve’s bi son (Malik Zidi), who returns from Paris with a tetchy Arab girlfriend (Lubna Azabal) and a young son of his own, and who is rather more interested in a Moroccan boyfriend (Nadem Rachati). Addiction, Islamic propriety versus blood ties, infidelity, marital turbulence—the screenplay (co-written with Laurent Guyot and Rivette-and-Ruiz vet Pascal Bonitzer) tries but fails to knit its multitude of ideas together. The implicit political statement encroaching on nearly every shot and every character never coalesces—the hero’s mission of the heart is genuine, and his beleaguered role as a corporate bulldozer seems beside the primary romantic point. We, in any case, are as unconvinced by his lovelorn saga as Deneuve’s skeptical pragmatist—that is, until a romance paperback deus ex machina shoots the film’s lifelike credibility out of the water.