Genre purists may chafe at the expectations subverted in Unforgivable, a layered, character-driven drama with the aura of a sunny Venetian noir that never quite bursts into full-blown mayhem. Adapting a popular novel by Philippe Djian (whose fiction also inspired the fevered '80s hit Betty Blue), director André Téchiné and co-scenarist Mehdi Ben Attia build a network of relationships among the five principal characters—parents and children, mates, lovers old and new, client and detective—that channels anguish, ambitions, and resentments. As in his recent successes, The Witnesses and Changing Times, Téchiné observes with an egalitarian eye, attending to criminals and deceptively refined artists, to expose for his audience the passions and turbulence that fill them all with desperation, doubt, and surprising reserves of strength.
Unfolding over several seasons, Téchiné's narrative web spins out from the quick-flowering love of successful, sexagenarian crime writer Francis (André Dussollier, reliably empathetic but flinty) and Judith, a somewhat younger model turned real-estate broker he marries and lives with in the house on Sant'Erasmo island she found for him. (That she's embodied by Carole Bouquet, still as singularly striking as when she was a youthful beauty for Buñuel and James Bond, but now fully capable of conveying an experienced woman's unsettled feelings about her past, makes for a rich, wonderfully resonant pairing of actor and role.) Francis's writing becomes blocked, and he gazes repeatedly at Judith through binoculars as doubts about her fidelity surface, but the complications that plague him aren't solely connubial; his grown daughter (Mélanie Thierry) has gone without a trace, perhaps by running off with an aristocratic drug dealer, leaving her child behind on Sant'Erasmo. Francis engages Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), an eccentric private investigator and onetime lover of Judith's, on the disappearance case, and eventually displaces his fatherly concerns (and anger) onto Anna Maria's problem child, a newly liberated, volatile ex-con (Mauro Conte as another of Téchiné's lost boys).
As always, the director's style is fluid and crucially subjective, following characters down alleys or canals, his frame regularly fading to black, and whiting out in moments of emotional trauma. The movie's Venice, as shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch, is one where danger and mystery are seamlessly woven into the beauty of the canals and piazzas. Occasionally its metaphors are a bit heavy-handed, as with Judith's periodic nosebleeds initiated by receiving purely psychological blows from Francis, but Téchiné's vibrant work with actors and defiantly unconventional dramatic arcs fill Unforgivable with an organic insistence against lazy assumptions and for watchful engagement. (When a character seemingly speaks for the audience by saying to Judith, “I hear you're a femme fatale,” the blunt reply is “No.”) Téchiné's latest humanist drama is not among his very best, but his accumulation of unexpected, occasionally punishing detail, including a father's humiliation via video message and a sudden act of animal cruelty, makes for a characteristically curious probing of its inhabitants' hearts and minds.