Forever Young Review: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s drama school drama

Cannes: The filmmaker-actress’s semi-autobiographical look at a muscular French drama school eschews bigger questions for more pressing emotions.

Aspiring actress Stella (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) turns on the waterworks and rips open her blouse to cap a performance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute. She ends her audition for France’s most prestigious theater school with a question from the jury. As he puffs on a cigarette and speaks the opening lines of dialogue written specifically for this film, an inscrutable judge looks at the naïve and asks, “Do you think an actress has to be an exhibitionist?”

In this opening we find the linchpin of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Forever Young. Bruni Tedeschi poses the same question to the audience and to herself – with the Stella character providing a clear analogue for the director – and prances around a definitive answer, bringing out an autobiographical portrait that you somehow know less about the subject at hand leaves, and a study of actors, warts, and all that offers little insight into the artistic process. Only despite (or perhaps thanks to) these contradictions is “Forever Young” Bruni Tedeschi’s strongest work yet, channeling her spirited performance style and lively screen presence through an on-screen language that questions if nostalgia really is all it is.

It’s 1985 and all the kids are crying out for a break. As a growing clique of young French actors in their early twenties (played by young French actors in their early twenties) gather en masse around the Théâtre des Amandiers just outside Paris, it seems as if the break could be found inside. And for the lucky twelve picked out of forty, it went on for a second round, cut off by the wave of exuberant young things nervously preparing for auditions by dousing themselves in ketchup for lack of more elaborate stage makeup and could very well secure a place in a prestigious school.

Joining Stella at school is the headstrong redhead Adèle (Clara Bretheau), a sadly underused character based on Bruni Tedeschi’s own classmate Eva Ionesco; soon-to-be-pregnant Camille (“Benedetta” scene thief and “Mektoub, My Love” survivor Alexia Chardard), who promised to drop off the child with her parents and get right back on with the show; and an unnamed bartender who didn’t make it but decides to stay for all the fun, played by “Spring Blossom” star Suzanne Lindon. As fate would have it, the latter character’s bad luck benefits the film overall, as any further screen time for Lindon’s unnamed server would have created quite a large conflict of interest for the Cannes jury, led by the actress’ father.

The film’s earliest – and strongest – act follows no particular perspective as it follows the classroom practices and fluid group dynamics of this twelve-person class. After all, there is no “I” in the troupe, and Bruni Tedeschi’s impatient camera adeptly tracks an interconnected network where sexuality is fluid, drug use is rampant and personal boundaries are nonexistent. So when a student’s partner (off-screen) tests positive for HIV, the climate of fear and insecurity impacts every student in the school.

Your fear is palpable and felt strongly. While “Forever Young” certainly lives up to its title, reveling in the everlasting appeal of feeling serene and beautiful and blessed with life, Bruni Tedeschi is also adamant about the context of her own youthful devotion. Nowhere is this more evident than with the theater’s artistic director, Patrice Chéreau (played by Louis Garrel). The French opera, theater and film director best known for his films ‘Queen Margot’ and ‘Intimacy’ and who was once President of the Cannes Jury (he bestowed ‘Elephant’ on Gus Van Sants, if you were the Palme d’Or asks), Chéreau oversaw the very real school this film is set in and directed Bruni Tedeschi in the 1987 film Hotel de France while she was a student there.

From the point of view of his former pupil, this Chéreau is neither a demanding disciplinarian nor a benevolent mentor; He’s mostly just another kid using his status as top dog to feel young forever while foisting himself on any student he wants. What makes Chéreau a genius? What is behind the social license to exploit those under his supervision? The film never bothers to say it — but doesn’t really call it out. Rather than imposing contemporary reading, Bruni Tedeschi and co-writers Noémie Lvovsky and Agnès de Sacy explore this remote world from inside a school that stunts growth.

Seen in a certain light, the film’s complete disinterest in the basics of what makes an actor scans as a feature rather than a flaw. The students accepted into this self-reinforcing hierarchy were chosen because they already had the goods; When you’re part of France’s most vocal squad, doesn’t that prove your worth? We are the best because we are here; We’re here because we’re the best, so why think about it when there’s a party to be had and no possible consequences to be felt?

“Forever Young” loses a step while moving to pierce that particular bubble. A larger world exists where the drugs used on campus lead to an addiction that will haunt you home. And as Stella’s troubled relationship with the bad boy Etienne (Sofiane Bennacer) overtakes almost every other element as the film progresses, she also moves into a much more conventional and entirely predictable register. Like the young actors they are, Stella and Etienne fill standard roles that we’ve seen many better versions of, and exude a substitute quality that’s inscribed in the script. A late scene triggers the fake giggles at its worst emotional point, as the brooding Etienne repeatedly yells his girlfriend’s name as the film plays to the rafters and asks, “Doesn’t he remind you of someone?”

But a little ham is always a part of the show, especially from an actor whose performances vary wildly. Watching Bruni Tedeschi grapple with her own questions is a worthy spectacle in itself. With previous films pushing the emotional and self-revealing dial well in one direction, it’s interesting to see the filmmaker recalibrate himself onstage. Almost four decades after her training, she continues to search and grow.

grade B-

Forever Young premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the US.

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Chris Estrada

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