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‘The Wounded Man’: Dark Night, Lost Soul

In its unflinching depiction of a French teenager’s violent gay awakening, this 1983 film is among Patrice Chéreau’s most confrontational works.

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By J. Hoberman

The radical director Patrice Chéreau was a triple-threat who earned praise and courted controversy with his risk-taking plays, operas and films. In its unflinching depiction of a French teenager’s gay awakening, “The Wounded Man” is among his most confrontational works.

The film, which premiered in Cannes in 1983 and was released in the United States two years later, has a mainly underground reputation (unmentioned in Chéreau’s 2013 New York Times obituary) and so its current revival at Anthology Film Archives is something of an event.

Set in a drab provincial city in France that, by the movie’s end, resembles a vast public loo, “The Wounded Man” signals its vanguard ambitions at the onset. The first head-on shot of a worn hausfrau packing a suitcase might have been lifted from “Jeanne Dielman”; a blast from avant-garde jazz artist Albert Ayler’s sax heralds Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and his family racing for a bus to the train station from which his younger sister will leave for her student vacation.

Leaving his family in the waiting room, Henri begins furtively cruising in the crowded terminal without exactly being sure of just what it is that he wants. His characteristic move is to stare, recoil, run and return. Dashing about like a mouse in a maze, he attracts the attention of Bosmans, a well-dressed, middle-aged masochist (Roland Bertin) who may be a doctor, and Jean, a charismatic roughneck (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) who gratifies Bosmans by beating him up in a toilet stall and seemingly pimps for the station’s abundant young hustlers.

Bosmans and Henri are both obsessed with Jean, although Bosmans has a yen for Henri as well. Given the rough and tumble — physical as well as psychic — they absorb, any one of them could be the title character. All three are ruled by impulse but only Bosmans is the slightest bit introspective: “There are things you have to do to regret them later on,” he explains. Jean sets up Henri as bait in one appalling scene. He also brings him home to his long-suffering girlfriend (Lisa Kreuzer) after which Henri pilfers Jean’s outfit and begins living in the station.

According to a profile of Chéreau published in The New York Times before the movie’s American release, “The Wounded Man” was inspired by Jean Genet’s quasi-autobiographical book “The Thief’s Journal.” Its obsessive characters, abrupt transitions, abstract narrative and hyper-naturalistic attention to detail also recall the French nouvelle romans of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The movie is both stylized and visceral. “The Wounded Man” has nearly as much nudity (all of it male) and graphic sex as “Intimacy,” Chéreau’s “kitchen sink” riff on the anonymous coupling of “Last Tango in Paris.” Still, the careful framing of frenzied activity gives the movie a measure of detachment. (Janet Maslin’s Times review found it “solemn to a fault” and consequently “laced with a certain amount of inadvertent comedy.”)

Appearing a couple of years into the AIDS epidemic, “The Wounded Man” was criticized both for its violence and its tormented vision of gay love. Henri’s approach-avoidance ballet inevitably climaxes in a dance of death. Chéreau’s willingness to plumb that abyss mirrors that of his protagonist.

The Wounded Man

Jan. 5-12, Anthology Film Archives, Manhattan; anthologyfilmarchives.org.

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