Cruel and usual punishments
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 20, 2012
In the watchable, well-acted “Unforgivable,” it’s hard to know which of the drama’s several main characters its ambiguous title applies to, or for exactly what conduct. Aside from the callous -- and, quite frankly, shocking -- killing of a dog by a minor character late in the film, there’s no action for which a drop of mercy cannot be found, though bad behavior abounds. (Hint: As rendered in the original French, the title is “Impardonnables,” a plural that suggests that more than one person -- and maybe everyone -- is guilty of something.)
Directed by Andre Techine (“The Girl on the Train”), who wrote the script with Mehdi Ben Attia based on Philippe Djian’s 2009 “Unforgivable: A Novel,” the film revolves around the disappearance of Alice (Melanie Thierry), a young Frenchwoman who vanishes while visiting her elderly father, Francis (Andre Dussollier), and his new, much younger bride, Judith (Carole Bouquet), at their rented home near Venice.
As mysteries go, this isn’t much of one. The most likely explanation is that the unhappily married woman simply ran off with a drug-dealing Italian playboy (Andrea Pergolesi) with whom, the film suggests, she has dallied before.
The obviousness of the situation doesn’t stop her father from hiring a private eye (Adriana Asti), who also happens to be his wife’s former lover. Francis, a successful crime novelist, has an overactive imagination. He also hires the investigator’s ex-con son (Mauro Conte) to tail Judith, who Francis imagines is cheating on him (just as he used to cheat on Alice’s mother).
The manner in which Judith lives up to her jealous husband’s suspicions is not how he, or we, would expect. The film is full of such little surprises, though it’s hardly a thriller. People hurt each other, repeatedly, in ways that are both cruel and uncomfortably common.
The eventual revelation of Alice’s whereabouts is not, as it turns out, the true subject of the film. Rather, Techine is more interested in the deeper mystery of human relationships -- between parents and children, between spouses, between lovers and their exes.
Much of what happens is shown from Francis’s point of view. He sees the world through a variety of lenses: the binoculars he uses to spy on Judith; the magnifying glass through which he examines his Italian art books; the camera by which he gathers architectural and other details of Venice for his next novel. Techine watches the characters of “Unforgivable” in a similarly clinical way, as a forensic scientist would.
The drawback to this storytelling approach is its detachment. Dussollier, Bouquet and the rest of the cast work hard to render their characters as flawed yet fully dimensional human beings. But the way Techine holds them up to the film’s unforgiving light, they sometimes seem less like people than like insects in a jar.
Contains obscenity, violence, animal cruelty and sexuality. In French, Italian, German and English with English subtitles.