Travolta et moi
One of the most exciting programs in the Melbourne International Film Festival of 1995 was a selection from a series of films commissioned for French TV, Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge.
directors were asked to come up with a memoir of their teen years, true to the
time and its feeling, if not exactly to true to every detail of the filmmaker's
particular autobiography. The only conditions that came with this commission is that each film had to use pop music from the period; it
had to have a party scene; and it had to employ a minimal amount of period
recreation. Chantal Akerman's Portrait of a Young Girl at the end of the '60s in
Patricia Mazuy's Travolta et moi (1994) caused something of a sensation in France. Mazuy was one of the filmmakers that the famous magazine Cahiers du cinéma included among the ten directors to watch in the '90s, alongside Jane Campion and Emir Kusturica. Travolta et moi is a rough movie, obviously quickly shot, but it packs an incredible wallop. (Mazuy's subsequent film, Saint-Cyr, 2000, emerged much later.)
I love American teen movies – films like Reckless (James Foley, 1984), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) and Say Anything … (Cameron Crowe, 1989). But French teen movies are something else again. They have a glum, desperate, nihilistic aura. They're full of a kind of casual teen promiscuity and amorality that can shock even me. The families in these films are morbidly dysfunctional and violent. Sex is always a rather messy and only a slight rite of passage into a cruel, predatory adult world. I'm thinking of films like 36 Fillette (Catherine Breillat, 1988), The Disenchanted (Benoit Jacquot, 1991) and The Sound and the Fury (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1993).
Yet, inside even the darkest of these French teen movies, there's an incredible spirit of resistance, of youthful, romantic ardour hurling itself against the strictures and unhappy endings of the adult world. When Akerman made her beautiful movie Nuit et jour (1991), she said she wanted to capture youth as a time of absolutes – where people live out, almost without thinking about it, absolute ideals of beauty, love, passion, honesty, and free thinking. This reminds me of a quote that I have always adored from the French film critic Robert Benayoun, who once said that "the normal qualities of youth are naiveté, idealism, humour, hatred of tradition, erotomania, a sense of injustice". (1)
Travolta et moi is a ferocious teen movie, plunging us headlong into the frustrations, desires and resistances of a sixteen year old girl, Christine (played by the remarkable Leslie Azoulai), roaring through two very eventful days of her caged-in existence. The film has an incredible, almost hallucinatory escalation of passion and obsession. At the start, Leslie meets and falls hard for the enigmatic, sullen, local lad Nicolas (Julien Guérin), a guy who can not only quote Nietzsche's philosophy verse and chapter but, as we later learn, can live it too. What Christine doesn't know is that Nicolas is only trying to lay her in order to win a bet. I've seen this cruel set-up in a few American teen movies, like Nancy Savoca's interesting film Dogfight (1991), but the pay-off you get at the end of Travolta et moi is really startling and confronting.
This is a realist, naturalist film in the best sense. Christine's moods and attachments swing wildly from elation to depression, fixing on one ideal guy and then another in the big party scene, as teenage emotions do. And the film is full of incredibly truthful observations of the suburban, daily grind in a ghastly, concrete '70s milieu – particularly a long, hilarious and captivating section where Christine's parents leave her to mind their cake shop, and she goes completely nuts in the process. Besides, what movie has given us such an intensely charged record of musical memories from the late '70s? – with these teenagers investing their hearts and souls in everything from The Bee Gees and Bob Dylan to Nina Hagen and The Clash.
© Adrian Martin June 1995