Opening 3 Nov 2022
Menschliche Dinge is about a sexual encounter between a young man and an even younger woman, an encounter that she believes is rape, and that he believes is consensual. It’s a difficult and intense film to watch, not because there’s any graphic depiction of the acts involved – there isn’t, although there’s plenty of discussion of them – but because of director Yvan Attal’s insistent focus on the ambiguity of the encounter. It’s long and feels even longer, bogged down by scenes that drag on, a side plot that feels gratuitous, and flashbacks to the night in question that both do and don’t work to show the different perspectives. Yet, despite its flaws, Menschliche Dinge is a film that succeeds at demonstrating how differently two people can experience the same thing and how difficult it can be to know the “truth” when sex and consent are concerned.
Alex Farel (Ben Attal, the director’s son) is a privileged young French man. He’s studying at Stanford, and flies home to Paris for a ceremony to honor his father, Jean Farel (Pierre Arditi), a renowned journalist being awarded the Legion of Honour. His mother Claire Farel (Charlotte Gainsbourg, wife of the director and mother of the young male lead), has left Jean in the recent past and is now living with her new partner, Adam, a literature professor (Mathieu Kassovitz). Claire is a feminist writer, and early in the film she appears on a radio program arguing fiercely against another French intellectual about a horrific case of rape, with Claire insisting that there’s no equivocating when sexual violence is involved; the perpetrator is guilty, full stop. Alex arrives home to his father’s apartment, where only the housekeeper is there to greet him – Jean is far too busy working and chasing younger women to welcome his son. The director spends time showing us how beautiful Jean’s apartment is – a grand classic Paris apartment with a Steinway piano – as much to demonstrate Alex’s milieu as to play up the contrast with the apartment Claire now shares with Adam. At their place, which is more modest but filled with books and a lesser-brand piano that Alex plays masterfully, Alex meets Adam’s 17-year-old daughter Mila (Suzanne Jouannet). Mila is living with her father and Claire to distance herself from her mother Valérie’s (Audrey Dana) increasing move towards Jewish orthodoxy. At Adam and Claire’s urging, Alex takes Mila along with him to a party hosted by his elite high school classmates. The next morning Alex is awoken by police officers who inform him that Mila has filed rape charges against him.
The rest of the film painstakingly examines the ways in which so many of the lives involved are affected, the various reactions of the young people and their parents, and the cumulative destruction of the trauma. Much of this is captured in the rape trial, in long courtroom scenes. Because Yvan Attal spends so much time setting up the differences between Alex and Mila’s backgrounds and their parents’ attitudes – contrasts of class and secular intellectualism versus religious fervor, as well as generational attitudes towards misogyny and sexuality – there is very little subtlety in the film as a whole, especially when the theoretical becomes specifically personal. Which makes the way that Attal captures the devastating inconclusiveness of the trial and the unknowability of the events stand out as a successful depiction of ambiguity. This isn’t a perfect film by far, but it’s one of the most effective I’ve seen addressing issues of consent and self-awareness around sex, and how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go. (Diana Schnelle)