Director: Christophe Honoré (France). Year of Release: 2022
Lucas is 17 and goes to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere (aka Chambery in rural South-West France). He is gay and in an active sexual relationship. From his opening monologue (which we later find out is part of a therapy session), he is pretty, self-obsessed and a bit of a pseud. The amount with which you’ll get on with Lucas for the rest of the film depends a lot on your general attitude to self-regarding pseudy 17-year old boarding school boys.
Lucas’s father pays him a rare visit, and drives him through the countryside, telling him that if he doesn’t pay attention at school, he’ll end up being a self-hating dentist who spends his time despising his unfulfilled life. Just like his father. As they encounter an oncoming car on a bend, the car is driven off the road. Neither of them is hurt, but Lucas – in his 17-year old, pseudy way – has a premonition of imminent death.
The next morning, Lucas is woken in the middle of the night by someone beating on his bedroom door. It is his old neighbour, and various relatives are also there, including his cousin. His brother Quentin (whose name sounds less nerdy when it is pronounced in French) has come back from Paris. It seems that dad has had another car accident, but this time he’s in intensive care. It is only after they have returned to the family home that they tell Lucas that dad died immediately.
Lucas reacts like a man possessed. I’m not sure how much sympathy we’re supposed to have for him at this stage – one reviewer noted that centering the film “around the loss of a parent gives it a grim familiarity that endears its central character to the viewer.” It probably says more about my basic insensitivity that my immediate reaction was that Lucas was being a bit – a lot – of a drama queen. When they stuck a hypodermic full of anaesthetic in his neck, I sighed with relief.
As Lucas is reacting a bit intensely to his father’s death, Quentin takes him to his flat in the Big Capital. The trouble is, Quentin has a life to live as an aspiring artist. He tells his kid brother to stay out of the flat during the daytime, which Lucas does by walking rainy Parisian streets, visiting churches to discuss resurrection with the duty priest, and hooking up for casual sex encounters. Although the scenes look sordid and miserable, Lucas’s voiceover says how much he enjoyed them.
One day, Lucas returns home early and catches Quentin’s flatmate Lilio sleeping with a man for money. Lilio is struggling to make a living as an artist. As he is Black, exhibitors are only interested in using his works in exhibitions of African art, even though he tells them that he is actually Italian. After discovering Lilio and his visitor, Lucas rushes out but waits outside and confronts the man on the ground floor, offering to take Lilio’s place in their transactions.
Der Gymnasiast is all about the relationships between the family members, which is exactly where it doesn’t work for me. I am sure that the loss of a parent can be a deeply traumatic experience in a young person’s life, especially if the parent themself is relatively young. Critics who have experienced similar trauma have reacted with much more empathy than I could. I just never had the same dependency on family, so literally cannot understand this response. I know, my bad.
Lucas and Quentin spend half their time fighting and half their time hugging. Lukas is convinced that their father was ashamed that he was gay, but Quentin reassures him that dad loved him deeply. Again, I can see the point of reference for young insecure gay men who were craving from recognition from their fathers and brothers. This is a scene which will speak to many people very directly. But there are just so many ways in which it does not remotely reflect my own life.
Nonetheless, there are some moments of dealing with grief which speak even to a callous monster like myself. The insistence on choosing the entirely inappropriate song OMD’s Electricity to remember their family show how the associations which you build up with someone do not necessarily follow a logical pattern. Lucas and Quentin know that they should choose a song which is more fitting to the occasion, but this is not how our minds work.
Der Gymnasiast also stars Juliette Binoche doing whatever it is that Juliette Binoche always does spectacularly. She plays Isabelle, the boys’ mother, who visibly worries about whether her boys will survive in the cruel world, while urging them to spread their wings as her time is over. When Lucas confronts his mother with his theory that dad committed suicide, Binoche’s face deflating in real time is an acting masterclass.
I’m pretty sure that this is a “it’s not me, it’s you” film. I am quite aware of the various reasons why I should enjoy Der Gymnasiast, but it just didn’t connect with me on any level. Where many would find if moving, for me it was unduly sentimental. During atmospheric languors, I caught myself checking my watch and wondering whether we could leave the cinema soon. The acting was good enough for it to be not an entirely wasted journey, but I just never quite got it. Sorry.