DON’T TELL ME THE BOY WAS MAD/Une Histoire de Fou (Robert Guédigian, France, 2015, International Panorama)
Robert Guédigian has had a long career, making many highly enjoyable and satisfying films, many with his wife and muse ArianeAscaride, as well as Jean-Pierre Darrousin. Many are set in Marseilles, and the situations reflect his own background, his father’s life as a worker on the Marseilles docks, and his own strongly left political views. As well his family’s Armenian ancestry – a low key element in many of his films until this new film.
The English title comes from a song one of the characters sings in the course of the film. The original French title is starker – Une histoire de fou , a story of madness. In the story to come, it’s not just a boy who is mad, but maybe it’s a whole situation, everyone, every institution, every nation may be deserving of the epithet of “madness”.
The new film has some familiar Guédigian characteristics. Much of it is located in Marseilles, Ascaride is again the mother in a family with basic working class roots – even if her husband runs a small, ethnically flavoured grocery in a strong working class part of Marseilles.
But Guédigian’s Armenian ancestry is also strongly to the fore here. The film opens in 1921 with a long prologue, covering the assassination in Berlin that year of the Turkish ambassador, by an Armenian Soghomon Tehlirian. In sepia monochrome, we view Tehlirian’s trial, and sensational acquittal. This coverage is an effective way of communicating much of the horror of the Armenian genocide. Didactic, yes – but it’s also dramatically appropriate, and convincing, and never feels just preaching for the sake of it.
Then the film leaps to the 1980s, and the home of a family of Armenian ancestry. Most of their community were born after the genocide, in exile, but the bitterness of the event is part of their identity, and Tehlirian is still a poster boy for the young men. This new generation, itself now several generations removed from the atrocities, feels the world must be reminded that, despite Turkish denials for generations, did take place and has never been atoned for. How do you wake up the world? Maintaining the memory? Church services? Of violent activism?
We follow a cell of young men, who choose violent demonstrations – understandable, when you see how the French government seems complicit with the Turkish government in silencing information, and use the French police against what could have been peaceful demonstrations. But justifiable? The best way? A way without “side effects”?
Ascaride’s politicised son Aram is involved in an attack on the Turkish ambassador’s car in Paris. Gilles Tessier a young cyclist who has the misfortune to be nearby in seriously injured. Aram flees to Lebanon. And Ascaride reaches out to the cyclist who has been injured by her son’s actions. This could have been a dramatically clumsy, over-deliberated piece of plotting, but it works. It works brilliantly, partly due to the power of the performances. Humanity and humility, insight and warmth permeate both these actors.
But it also works because it is also a means of addressing many significant themes, on the topic of actions people take to remind the world of grievances. What are the justifications of terrorism? Is it always, or sometimes, or never justified? What are the impacts of such acts – not just on intended victims, but bystanders – and your own family? How important is this collateral damage in weighing up an action?
This is perhaps Guédigian’s most complex film. His humanity is still movingly present, but the way it addresses the Armenian genocide itself is impressive. And add to that the complexity of the questions that he raises about terrorism, ethnic grievances, international complicities in often perpetuating rather than healing these grievances, and so much more.