André Téchiné’s Changing Times is a small wonder—a chimera of poignant, tangled socio-politically charged ellipses with an atmosphere that affects a sense of musical healing. The story is light and fresh like a summer breeze, with music serving as a profound suture between scenes—as in the shots of a radio announcer, Cécile (Catherine Deneuve), rejecting the advances of a former lover, Antoine (Gérard Depardieu), their heartache communicated in the song by the great Angelique Kidjo she introduces to her listeners. The Beninese Kidjo’s musical influences are as multicultural as the Téchiné film’s characters, which include Cécile’s Moroccan doctor husband Nathan (Giblert Melki), their son Sami (Malik Zidi), the young man’s two lovers—wife Nadia (Lubna Azabal) and boyfriend Bilal (Nadem Rachati)—and Nadia’s nine-year-old son Said (Jabir Elomri) and identical twin sister (also Azabal).
“I have one wife, but several mistresses and cultures,” says Nathan to Antoine at one point. Such self-analysis may sound rehearsed, but it’s only because the film’s location, where time appears to stand still, affords the luxury of endless reflection. Téchiné’s actors play everything cool, evoking characters who’ve seriously thought about their relationships. If not thoroughly engaged with the racial upheavals of Tangiers—presented in flash-like shocks to the system—they are still cognizant of how race and sex affect their inner circle. Téchiné dramatizes the conflict between characters loosely and metaphysically, in whispers almost—which is to say, poetically. When Antoine nearly breaks his nose after running into a pane of glass, he vulnerably warns Nathan, perhaps fearing he’s close to death, that he’s going to soil himself. We can stand to learn from these characters, who risk embarrassment and self-exposure in order to facilitate emotional freedom.
There’s a greater range of emotional complexity in a single close-up from Changing Times—as in the shot of the queer Sami hugging his wife Nadia—than there is in all of Caché, another film about prickly French-Arab relations in which the metaphorical slaughter of an animal also figures. Unlike The English Patient or The Constant Gardener, the film doesn’t arrogantly set the romance-novel escapades of Western dopes against a backdrop of Third World oppression but uses the diversity of its characters as a jumping off point for a subtle disquisition on sex, race, and sexuality. In one scene, Cécile uses the point where Tangiers ends and the Straight of Gibraltar begins as a justification for why she can never love Antoine again. But he sees beyond borders, and as such believes in the possibility of total rapture. His philosophy could be that of the film’s ether-like vision of Tangiers, a place where people persevere because they look beneath the surface of things.