Director Sébastien Lifshitz is best known for his gay-related dramas (most notably Presque Rien and Plein Sud), but he has also produced documentaries at regular intervals (including one on fellow director Claire Denis). This latest documentary is about how the “invisible people” of the title – homosexual women and men born between the two world wars in France – lived before changing attitudes post-1968 began to make it easier for sexual minorities to live if not openly, at least with greater freedom. The result is a vivid and vital piece of social history.
Drawing upon a range of people from very different backgrounds, Lifshitz allows his now-elderly subjects to speak for themselves. Their life stories have astonishing similarities, reflecting their battle against conservative moral attitudes, and they all emerge with great dignity and with what seems to be inner happiness.
Although the most affecting case studies are those of couples still together (like the lesbian couple who moved from Paris to the middle of nowhere 40 years ago to start a goat farm and who are clearly still deeply in love, or the two men in Marseilles who met very late in life), Lifshitz is careful to include gay people who are not in relationships, most notably an 83-year-old shepherd who has never wished to live with anyone but who still derives great pleasure from occasional sex with other men; it would be hard to imagine anyone more completely at ease with himself.
We meet some individuals who were at the forefront of gay liberation, including one poor soul who was unwittingly outed to his parents after appearing on the front cover of Paris Match dressed in leather at a gay convention. But most of the film’s subjects are people who have quietly lived their lives far away from the more liberal space of a city like Paris.
Many, inevitably, had previously been married. I was touched by the story of a woman who had married while still young and had had several children (we see innumerable photos and home movies of her in her traditional role as wife and mother), but who only felt true fulfillment when she came out in her 40s. It was especially moving to see her today, sharing a meal with her adult children, who appear to be fully supportive of her.
This excellent (if slightly overlong) documentary should be obligatory viewing, not least for younger gay people who take acceptance of their sexuality for granted and for all opponents of gay marriage.