What I find most resonant and precious about nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s literature is the preciseness of his aesthetic in juxtaposing realism with romanticism, retaining a certain adherence to the classical form even as it is applied to the exposition of more progressive ideals of social commentary. It is through this framework that, in hindsight, Eugène Green seems ideally suited to interpret Flaubert’s La Première éducation sentimentale (the first version of L’Éducation sentimentale), re-adapting the themes of first love, the intoxication of desire, and failed ideological revolution (that culminated in the Revolution of 1848) to the May 68 generation through a chronicle of the parallel lives of a pair of childhood friends, the pragmatic Henri (Alexis Loret) and idealistic Jules (Adrien Michaux) as they leave their bucolic, rural hometown to separately pursue their baccalaureate – and real world – educations. Combining the baroque formalism and frontality often associated with Manoel de Oliveira’s cinema (which the filmmaker subsequently subverts by breaking the fourth wall address, often through voiceover reading of letters) with the muted expression and disembodied framing of Robert Bresson (most notably, in recurring establishing shots of the character’s feet) more commonly associated with modernist cinema, Green’s cinema is also an idiosyncratic fusion of classicism with the immediacy of social critique, creating a sublime aesthetic that is equally atemporal and contemporary, archaic and modern.
An early episode chronicling Henri and Jules’ ill-fated rendezvous with a beautiful, but hermetic bohemian “savage” (Anna Bielecka) who lives on the outskirts of town provides an insight into (and inevitably defines) the young men’s integral characters, as the friends decide to seek out the woman with the intent of losing their virginities before embarking on their higher academic studies. Disappointed by their thwarted coupling, Henri sees the failed union as an uncompleted, requisite milestone in his process of maturation. In contrast, Jules savors the seeming poetry of the unrequited encounter as a wistful reminder of life’s possibility, rationalizing that “maybe it’s better that way, everything remains to be done.” Sent off to the prestigious boarding school of August Renaud (Claude Merlin), an educator with exacting, and decidedly conservative, ideas for molding the future leaders of France, Henri is immediately attracted to Renaud’s enigmatic, yet soulful younger wife, Émilie (Christelle Prot), a relationship that will also inevitably connect her to Jules through exchanged letters that the best friends would write to each other, often in lieu of meeting face to face on their brief holidays, leading to a profound – yet intranscendably distant – intimacy between Émilie and Jules that will forever bind the two strangers together.
Along with illustrating Green’s affinity with the aesthetics of Bresson, it also interesting to note that a similar sense of abstract metaphysicality pervades the film, a dislocated spirituality that is revealed through Jules’ explicative insistence on the necessity for an overarching, universal order in the creation – and appreciation – of art and beauty during a class recitation of Paul Verlaine’s poetry, and subsequently, in his extended sojourn at a Greek monastery after completing his undergraduate studies, where writes to Henri that he can hear his own voice “and perhaps something else” (a contemplative image that is subsequently connected to a sparsely decorated nativity scene in Émilie’s room at Christmas time); Henri’s impulsive, nocturnal epiphany to travel to Rome with Jules on their summer vacation after seeing a sunlit church; and Émilie’s fateful encounter with an escaped convict (perhaps also alluding to Bresson’s A Man Escaped) with stigmata-like wounds in search of a sign that would help him “find the end of evil”. In the characters’ solitary quests to reconcile the corporeal with the spiritual – to define and give form to the inarticulable – Toutes le nuits thematically convergences to a seemingly mundane tutorial instruction once offered by Émilie to a young Henri that “the most important things we do, we do alone”, a sentiment that Jules repeats during a conversation with a child near the end of the film – a poignant and enduring realization of the isolation of unrequited love, the ache of longing, and the impossibility of happiness.
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