A new work from French filmmaker Andre Techine is always a source of pleasure, if not necessarily excitement. His latest feature, "Changing Times," fits easily into that pattern.
Techine, a director for more than 30 years, is best known in this country for 1995's "Wild Reeds." His philosophy is a classical one, his directing style fluid, and his interest is in character more than plot or pyrotechnics.
Techine is also known for his work with actresses, particularly Catherine Deneuve. "Changing Times" is their fourth film together, and when fellow Gallic veteran Gerard Depardieu joins her for their seventh career collaboration, the first since 1980's "The Last Metro," it gives this film something of the air of a college reunion for aging French legends.
"Changing Times," co-written by Techine, Laurent Guyot and Pascal Bonitzer, does not flee from the advancing age of its stars. Instead, it makes it the focus of its story of the difficulty people have making, sustaining and reviving emotional connections.
Depardieu plays Antoine, a successful construction supervisor who travels around the globe making sure buildings get put up on schedule. "Changing Times" finds him in Tangier, in the north of Morocco, but his reasons for being there are not exclusively professional.
Tangier, it turns out, is also the home of Cecile (Deneuve), the first and only great love of Antoine's life. It's been more than 30 years since they split up, but Antoine, who never married, has apparently never stopped thinking about her for a single minute of a single day.
If Antoine's life is pared down and devoid of human contact, Cecile's is complicated enough to make her perpetually irritable. She is the host of a radio show, married to Nathan, a Moroccan doctor (Gilbert Melki), and has a grown son named Sami (Malik Zidi), who makes his home in Paris but has returned to Tangier with complications of his own.
Sami arrives with Nadia, the Moroccan woman he lives with, and her son, but he is equally interested in rekindling an earlier gay relationship. Nadia, in turn, has a problematic relationship with a more traditional twin sister named Aicha she hasn't seen in six years. (Nadia and Aicha are smartly played by the same actress, "Paradise Now's" Lubna Azabal.)
Though Techine doesn't deal with it in a heavy-handed way, his film is also interested in exploring what it is like to live in a city where cultures collide, a city where McDonald's and traditional sorcery both do a thriving business practically side by side.
But while "Changing Times" has the ability to create textured characters as well as this kind of ambience, it isn't necessarily able to give its people involving things to do. With much of the film taken up detailing who the characters are, the plotting feels desultory by comparison.
Adding to the problem is the reality that, despite all the films they've made together, Deneuve and Depardieu don't manage to create any kind of convincing interpersonal chemistry for their characters. As a result, his obsession with her feels creepier than it is supposed to, less like timeless love and more like humorless stalking. When someone says to him, "You can't possess someone without causing harm," it sounds like good advice.
Despite its weaknesses, "Changing Times" ("Les Temps Qui Changent" in French) is always watchable and even poignant from time to time. What it is never going to be is the grand passion of anyone's moviegoing life.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Released by Koch Lorber Films. Director Andre Techine. Screenplay Andre Techine, Laurent Guyot, Pascal Bonitzer. Producer Paulo Branco. Director of photography Julien Hirsch. Editor Martine Giordano.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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