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Low-Hanging Forbidden Fruit

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (2016)

With her first feature, Eva Husson has set out her calling card to be France’s Catherine Hardwicke — which is a major compliment. She has made a movie which gets under the skin of what it’s like to be a teenager and doesn’t shy away from either the good or the bad. But Ms. Hardwicke is American. Ms. Husson has made a movie which right now could only have been made in France, which looks at how teenagers explore their sexuality. And in a major miracle she has done this without exploiting her actors.

All the kids go to the same ordinary high school on the south of France. Alex (Finnegan Oldfield, who, despite his name, works entirely in French) has been left on his own while his mother travels for work. He keeps a clean house and never misses school, but after a while his friend Nikita (Fred Hotier) has a row with his family and so moves in with him. One afternoon, they invite over two girls — best friends George (Marilyn Lima, who was discovered on Tumblr and can probably write her own ticket after this) and Laetitia (Daisy Broom, who shares a slouchy sexuality with Adèle Exarchopoulos and an accent with Brigitte Bardot) — to watch porn and mess around in the pool. Laetitia has a scooter and a single dad, and lives next door to Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre), who holds himself slightly apart. After a while Laetitia does something with Alex that they both know will upset George. When she finds out, Alex won’t talk to her; but George still comes around his house because Nikita is there, and the other kids who have started congregating there are her friends too. If they’d been more closely supervised, would it all have gone down the way it does? Maybe not. It probably would have been much worse.

The movie is shocking. It’s not that what the movie shows its young cast doing is shocking, since it’s hard to imagine anyone who lived through being a teenager him or herself being surprised at teenagers experimenting with drugs and sex. It’s the fact that the cast members allowed themselves to be filmed doing these things; not because of the physical actions, but because of how the movie focuses on the emotional impact of the physical actions. “Bang Gang’s” shock value comes from the sense of the audience being included in something private, in joining in with some middle-class French kids learning about themselves through sexual play. To call it a “gang” is not the correct sense of the word as we know it in the English-speaking world. What happens at Alex’s house is their own private club, where they have a private and safe space to explore each other’s bodies and what they like to do. And since the things they are doing are so extremely private, to see them on the screen is shocking.

Ms. Husson has been very careful to separate out the prurient from the sexual. The best example of this contrast is a scene where a character walks past some snogging girls and into a room with five people in it. On one side are three entirely nude girls, smoking and languidly dancing. On the other is a fully dressed girl sitting on a table, with a fully dressed boy kneeling in front of her with his face buried between her legs. The sex isn’t nude; and the nudity isn’t sexual. And the parts where sex is shown, the cinematography by Mattias Troelstrup is careful to ensure it’s not pornographic. This is a fine, fine line that most directors would not bother to walk. Think of how Larry Clark, Bernardo Bertolucci, Greg Mottola, Harmony Korine, Jason Reitman or Richard Kelly films his female teenage actors. Now think of how Ms. Hardwicke, Lone Scherfig, Gurinder Chadha, Andrea Arnold, Amy Heckerling or Marielle Heller does.

But that highlights another important cultural difference which means that, right now, this movie could only have been made in France. Everything the kids do is completely consensual. No one coerces or forces anyone to do anything. It’s all supposed to give each other pleasure It’s all supposed to be for fun. An American or British movie would end up with boys going too far and girls ending up in tears, but there’s not a whisper of this. (An American or British movie would also probably not have been so thoroughly white and/or heterosexual, but forgoing intersectionality is a weakness of French culture. It also, perhaps, was a pre-emptive choice to prevent some of the most obvious potential criticism.) There are consequences, of course, to what happens in the gang, but no punishment. Lessons get learned and the kids grow up. No one, not one of the adults around, wants them to be hurt. The only time a line is crossed is when a video is unwisely added to YouTube. The boy who posted the clip, not the girl it shows, is the one who is shunned; and the only violence in the film are Gabriel’s threats to him. That’s it. It’s almost impossible to imagine an American movie centering on pleasure, much less female pleasure, much less teenage female pleasure, this way (the lone recent magnificent exception of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was about one child, not a group, and also a period film). And, if that movie was made, it’s even more impossible right now to imagine it happening so respectfully.

If you want to watch porn, just watch some porn. “Bang Gang” is something else entirely. The trouble with the movie is that it’s easy to imagine a lot of people will be unable to tell the difference. It’s brave, clever, smart and fairly sexy; and there is copious nudity, including an end credit sequence most American blockbusters would rather commit suicide on camera rather than copy. No one is made to feel ashamed for his or her body or for working together to explore the things he or she is capable of. This makes this a very unusual and important film that smart teenagers will get their hands on. Let's hope they look past the nudity to think about the feelings the nudity creates, and how they can create safe spaces for their own sexuality, whatever that is, in their own lives.

One final thing: the repeated scenes of George traveling around her neighborhood at all hours on her skateboard are similar to those in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Isn’t it sad that in American culture, for a girl to move around in the world safely, she has to be a vampire. In France she can just be a girl.


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