Veteran French director André Téchiné’s (‘Wild Reeds,’ ‘Les Voleurs’) Unforgivable is a deceptively nuanced story that skirts the edges of a crime thriller, without ever cracking the European art film mold. Though richly shot (against the decaying backdrop of Venice, Italy) and thoughtfully directed, the characters’ various volatilities are so precisely orchestrated that they can seem disconnected from real experience. But the ensemble story of love and betrayal is never less than involving, and as the genre façade steadily drops away, Téchiné reveals a deeper fascination with how relationships — family and otherwise — can unravel to the point where “nothing’s where it should be.”
Téchiné’s opening visual metaphor stands in for the psychological and emotional baggage his characters bring to the drama: A tiny tugboat lugs a massive behemoth of a ship into the Venetian harbor. Also arriving in Venice is aging French crime writer Francis (André Dussolier, who naturally hints at an aberrance that suits the role) — the press calls him “the king of neo-Gothic thrillers”— who is looking for a change of scenery to knock out his next bestseller. By chance he meets enigmatic Judith (Carole Bouquet, Bunuel’s former ‘Obscure Object of Desire’): an appraiser of fine art, ex-model, and world-hopping, gender-indifferent, boyish-looking icon of beauty now parked behind a desk in a banal real estate office (perhaps Téchiné’s commentary on the state of contemporary culture?). With total lack of ceremony, he hits on her while sloppily blowing his nose. There’s no romance in their meeting, as if for him their mutual attraction and eventual marriage is just a formality.
When Francis’ reckless actress daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry) goes missing, he suspects the involvement of a dope-dealing young Italian aristocrat she’s been sleeping with. But it’s not long before Francis discovers that Alice may not be the only woman in his life the sleazy scion is on intimate terms with …
The elements of a pulp thriller are all there: A missing blonde, an eccentric private detective, a snooping ex-con, secret infidelities, and hardboiled dialogue: “You’re one of those people who should have wings to keep clear of the filth. There’s a lot of filth down here, and I don’t have wings.”
But the noir-ish hints are just a knowing tease from Téchiné. He’s really interested in how his characters grapple with, and even “refuse … [their] marital, family, and social bonds,” and instead, sometimes self-destructively, “plunge into the unknown.”
An unnerving scene involving a sex tape clearly distinguishes Téchiné’s aims from those of routine genre. The tape isn’t used for cheap titillation or to give the plot a predictable “ransom” twist; instead, it’s used to explore the brutal violations of those basic personal and “social bonds” that the internet era’s compulsive self-recording may inevitably lead to.
Often skipping ahead in time, the story mimics a lesser genre movie’s strained attempts to keep up with a novelistic plot (‘Unforgivable’ is based on a book by Philippe Dijan). But Téchiné’s sudden temporal leaps are driven less by plot twists, and more by the characters’ twisting attitudes towards each other, their contradictory behaviors, the constant spikes and plummets of desire and aversion.