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CANNES – Sebastien Lifshitz’s contemplative documentary, Les Invisibles, is an engagingly meandering reflection by a cross-section of older French gay men and lesbians on their youth in the shadows, their path to living openly, and the serenity they have achieved over the course of their lives. Beautifully shot, with a real coziness to the interviews and some gorgeous pastoral imagery to punctuate them, the film becomes slightly repetitive at two hours and could stand to lose as much as 30 minutes. But it’s uplifting and smart enough to be of interest to festivals and DVD labels receptive to gay-themed programming.
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There’s an abundance of historical documentation in film and literature on pre-Stonewall gay life in America. But European stories from places beyond the gay capitals are less well known. Lifshitz eschews Paris for subjects who live in the countryside or regional towns, and their perspectives differ significantly from those of the usual historical witnesses from, say, New York or Berlin. The most notable distinction is that their coming-out process seems to have been generally less linked to a collective movement than to a personal journey.
This is not the familiar celebration of heroic pioneers who fought their way out of the margins and broke down barriers for subsequent generations. While discrimination is certainly acknowledged, what’s most disarming about Les Invisibles is the absence of victimhood. Instead, it’s a more uncommon view of lives lived, often with difficulty, compromise and loneliness, but ultimately with a joyous sense of self-discovery that is equally inspiring and perhaps even militant. If there’s a unifying theme to the stories of the eleven men and women here – all of them over 70 – it’s that each individual has his or her unique road away from denial and secrecy toward personal freedom.
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Information about the subjects’ present-day situations tends to be observed rather than related. One male couple run some kind of bird sanctuary; another man has herded goats all his life; a lesbian couple makes goat cheese on a farm in an idyllic location; another woman vigorously embraced her sexuality after years of marriage and raising children; a male couple who connected late in life attend to each other’s needs in myriad tiny ways as they grow more infirm.
There’s grace and delicacy in the way Lifshitz shares these details, aided by Antoine Parouty’s composed camerawork and by elegant music choices. The director clearly has a knack for putting his interviewees at ease; all of them speak with absolute candor about their lives, their comments ranging freely across romantic, familial, sexual, political, philosophical and intellectual lines.
Their recollections of the past, naturally, provide the most absorbing stories, supported by fascinating photographic records and archival footage. A clip of a very cool-looking underground gay club in what appears to be the 1960s or ‘70s is a gem, replete with now-laughably condemnatory commentary from a Brit TV reporter.
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The goatherd’s tales of his horny bisexual exploits, cruising by the river, and of the cues to be found in farm life for erotic exploration are funny. Likewise, another man’s tour of his photo gallery of past boyfriends, illustrating that he’s always been relationship-dependent, with a weakness for gray-haired older guys.
One subject’s account of her experiences in the women’s movement, for a time running a clandestine abortion clinic, is among the richest narratives. No less so is the life of a well-heeled Marseilles man who grew up with an autocratic father and passive mother, and for years knowingly repressed his sexuality. His account of the agonizing embarrassment of showering after gym class at Catholic school is unexpectedly moving. Other subjects also were raised to consider sex as something unwholesome, entering into marriages simply because that’s what was expected of them.
Lifshitz has made a number of dramatic features, the best known of them 2004’s Wild Side. That no doubt contributes to his success here at expanding the scope of these portraits beyond what’s spoken. Even when the actual period of self-acceptance is not described, the picture is clear. That this is achieved without the slightest didacticism is what makes the film such a rewarding experience. Tightening it further would increase its chances of exposure.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)
Production companies: Zadig Films, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Sylicone
Director: Sebastien Lifshitz
Producer: Bruno Nahon
Director of photography: Antoine Parouty
Editors: Tina Baz, Pauline Gaillard
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 116 minutes
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