Past Love Haunts the present in Olivier Peyon’s Lie with Me

Director Olivier Peyon adapts author Philippe Besson’s 2017 “autofiction” ‘Arrête avec tes mensonges’ (translated as ‘Lie with Me’ in English by actor and writer Molly Ringwald). The film is about a middle-aged writer Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec) returning to his hometown Baussony, famed for its cognac production for its bicentenary. Lie with Me explores the connection to the author’s past, brought to vivid life in sequences set in the mid 1980s and his present as world-travelling and established openly gay author in the present.

Nostalgia is a heady drug, and Stéphane insists that it is not one he indulges in. Yet, his most famous novels have been about one young man and his indelible impact on both his sexual awakening as a gay man and the tragedy of perceived abandonment. Back in Baussony, a place he has not been in thirty-five-years, Stéphane has to reckon with his passionate affair with Thomas Andrieu (Julien De Saint Jean) and the class inequity and homophobia that pulled them apart. Thomas is his ‘amour passé’ and his ‘amour fantôme’ as he disappeared from his life at the age of seventeen only to consistently haunt him as the frisson of first love hangs above many with its heady world built only for two.

Stéphane has long resented the small region he grew up in. As a young gay man (played by Jéremy Gillet), he was forced to hide yet longed to be open. When he begins a romance (very business-like at the start) with Thomas his loneliness is alleviated as the two build a hidden paradise located in Stéphane’s bedroom and a picturesque salted lake that is their sanctuary. Thomas is a popular and intelligent student, but he knows he will never be able to be openly gay, unlike Stéphane, and his future is fixed as a farm worker. The future holds a promise for Stéphane who will finish his studies and leave his hometown whereas the future means years of serving his working-class family for Thomas. No matter how much the young men hope for freedom and the ability to truly be themselves without shame, only one will have the opportunity to achieve it.

In the present he encounters a young man riding a motorcycle that can only have belonged to one person. Indeed, the young man is Lucas Andrieu (Victor Belmondo) who appears to be casually in Stéphane’s orbit but is gradually revealed to be the reason Stéphane was invited to write about, and celebrate, the Cognac region. Lucas is piecing together the mystery of his recently deceased father who married his mother in Spain when they were very young, and only seemed to come to life in any way when Stéphane appeared on television or he was immersed in one of his novels. Truculent and distant, Thomas was a man that Lucas never knew, and he feels the only person who can tell him the truth about his father is Stéphane.

“All authors are liars,” Stéphane pleads with Lucas. Yet Stéphane has a habit of turning his personal life into grist for his novels. Lucas wants to know about Thomas, yet Stéphane feels it is not his place to tell him his father was a closeted bisexual who broke his heart in what he saw as a betrayal of their connection. Over the years Stéphane has become “A wonderful writer about love who is incapable of love” according to his many failed relationships. In part he blames and resents Thomas for disappearing from his life, but only through his interaction with Lucas he discovers that his first love never stopped caring for him and died because he was unable to live with the shame of his homosexual desires.

Lie with Me is part tragedy, part mystery, part examination of a life that could not be lived, and a story of discovery and reconciliation. Through Martin Rit’s polished cinematography the audience gains access to an intimate world of memories and a wider vista of the Cognac region. Even in a place where one felt stifled there are places that are precious and transformed to be a kingdom. A grimy abandoned swimming pool becomes a symbol of emotional and physical release, a set of bedrooms describes the people who inhabited them many years ago, a field of grapes becomes a metaphor for tradition and fruition.

There isn’t a single performance that can be faulted in Lie with Me. Both versions of Stéphane are authentic and brim with intelligence, heartbreak, and rebellion. Julien De Saint Jean as Thomas epitomises both the sensual beauty of a seventeen-year-old but also the terror of a teen who knows how easily his life can blow up. The chemistry between Julien De Saint Jean and Jéremy Gillet transcends the ‘forbidden love trope’ to be an affecting, often joyous, sexy, and tender depiction of falling hard for someone. Dancing wildly to French band Télèphone is as much an intimate moment as when the lovers trace each other’s faces or make love. The fraught relationship between the adult Stéphane (Guillaume de Tonquédec) and Lucas (Victor Belmondo, grandson of the great Jean-Paul Belmondo) is rendered by stunning work by both actors.

“You always write to someone to give back what they gave you. You write to make them present,” says Stéphane in an off-script speech directed towards Lucas. For Lucas and Stéphane, Thomas will always be present through his absence. A man who never overcame his shame to live his life the way he needed to but left enough of himself to ensure both Lucas and Stéphane understood who he was and what he desired in life even if they can only comprehend it through his suicide.

Lie with Me is a rich tapestry spun between two timelines which understands that absence can turn into perpetual presence. A delicate and emotionally rewarding piece of queer cinema which although melancholy, reveals that fictions are something people not only write but live. The breath of air expelled when finally revealing or understanding the truth is a sigh. The next step is to take the next breath and keep going honouring honesty and its cost and reward.

Director: Olivier Peyon

Cast: Guillaume de Tonquédec, Julien De Saint Jean, Victor Belmondo

Writers: Philippe Besson, Arthur Cahn, Olivier Peyon

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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