Literate, intelligent and a model of accomplished European filmmaking, Unforgivable showcases the kind of emotional complexity that is all but gone from the screen these days. The interplay between its characters is so intricate that the very nature of the film seems to change, more than once, as we watch it.
Directed by France’s veteran André Téchiné and co-written by him from a novel by Philippe Dijan, Unforgivable starts as an adult romance but quickly becomes a thriller. It then takes an unexpected turn toward bleakness before transitioning into something altogether different.
To do something this psychologically involved requires not just an accomplished director (Wild Reeds and The Girl on the Train are among Téchiné’s best-known works) but also actors up to the task, and Unforgivable has what it needs in French stars André Dussollier and Carole Bouquet. Plus there’s Italy’s Adriana Asti, a luminary as far back as 1964's Before the Revolution, a sequence from which is inserted in this film.
What’s at stake in Unforgivable is an exploration of the unknowability of the human heart, a look at the inexplicable, often painful things people do to each other, especially — like children to parents, lovers to each other — to those they care most about.
It’s not surprising that Unforgivable has a thriller element, because its protagonist, Francis (Dussolier), is a French writer who’s done so well with them that he’s become known as "the king of neo-Gothic thrillers."
Francis is introduced in Venice, where he wants to temporarily relocate to write his next book. Judith (Bouquet) is a French-born real estate agent he consults who makes an immediate impression. So immediate that before the afternoon is over, he impulsively asks her to move in with him, and she eventually agrees.
Following Judith’s advice, Francis rents a house not in the touristic heart of Venice but on the remote island of Sant ‘Erasmo, accessible only by boat. (Taking a similar tack, cinematographer Julien Hirsch has concentrated on deftly providing unexpected looks at a very familiar city.)
Unforgivable cuts almost immediately to 18 months later, when the happy couple welcomes a visit from Alice (Melanie Thierry), Francis’ adult daughter from an earlier marriage, and her daughter.
Though Alice seems friendly enough, there is an edge to everything she says, almost as if making trouble is second nature to her. She soon proceeds to do exactly that: Leaving her daughter behind, Alice promptly disappears.
Francis assumes Alice is with Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), the wastrel son of an aristocratic family, but the young man denies it. What is undeniable is that his daughter’s disappearance is a serpent that worms its way into Francis’ and Judith’s previously happy lives.
Frustrated, worried, unable to sleep, Francis hires Anna Maria (Asti), a local private detective who happens to be an earlier lover of Judith’s, to try to find out where his daughter is.
Unable to leave well enough alone, the obsessive, suddenly jealous Francis also ends up hiring Anna Maria’s reprobate ex-con son Jeremie (Mauro Conte) to follow Judith, to see where she is going and, more to the point, to find out whether she is seeing anyone on the side. It’s no wonder that Judith says at one point, "The better I know you, the less I know who you are."
If any of this sounds familiar, rest assured it is not. Téchiné is a restless director, a fastidious storyteller who is not interested in what less adventurous movies have to say about human relationships. He wants to dig deeper, even if the results aren’t always clear.
Helping the director enormously is co-star Bouquet, who is exceptionally good as a woman of mystery almost despite herself. With an air of coolness projected through profound blue eyes, Bouquet as Judith projects a combination of independence and unknowability that both attracts and frustrates Dussollier’s Francis. This is the way people are, Unforgivable says, and we’d better get used to it.