Two very different boyhoods intersect in André Téchiné’s Being 17. Tom (Corentin Fila) is a loner and bad student with a difficult life, alienated from his family for being adopted and from his farming community for being black. His classmate, Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), is passionate about academics, has an emotionally stable family and a comfortable home, being the son of the town’s only doctor, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain). Tom commits the most gratuitous acts of bullying against Damien at school, such as extending his leg to trip him over, or sucker-punching him in the face. But Damien doesn’t play the victim; he plays along with the bullying, as he becomes increasingly fascinated by Tom’s aggression. It’s as if Damien understands violence to be Tom’s only language, and his bullying a call for help, or rather, a call for love.
In a somewhat unconvincing narrative twist, Marianne invites Tom to live with her family so he can get his grades up and his mother can recover her ailing health. Even more farfetched, he accepts the offer and the boys are forced to live under the same roof. It turns out cohabitation is a quick route for turning enemies into lovers. Not that Téchiné gives us that right away. Instead, Being 17, mimicking the psychic functioning of its main characters, delays consummation of anything other than antagonism as much as it can.
As in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, everyone is suddenly seduced by their new guest, including Marianne, whose military husband is presently deployed. Perhaps it’s Tom’s aloofness, or his mystery. Maybe it’s his muscles, and his blackness. Damien is particularly transfixed in a scene where Tom takes off his clothes in the middle of a snowy winter and dives into a lake. “I need to know if I’m attracted to guys or just to you,” he eventually tells him. Téchiné never gives us a definite answer, for Being 17 inhabits that cloudy line separating, or failing to separate, what one wants from what one doesn’t.
The film explores the rapport between masculine boys in an unprecedented way, respecting its nuances, complications, and contradictions. Téchiné approaches his subjects with the same delicate queerness of Wild Reeds, doing justice to the closeness between repulsion and desire, difference and sameness, heterosexuality and homosexuality. To call this film, or its characters, gay would be to miss its point entirely. This is a film about desire in its most realistic instability. Masculinity here is simply a drive, not a commitment to specific objects of desire with specific genitalia. Damien and Tom are still marred by man’s inability to relate to each other with sincerity and affect. And no matter how much they start giving in to the erotics of their combat, their communication remains awkward, fraught with anxiety and dread. Except for their bodies. Their bodies know exactly what to do.