After watching director Guillaume Brac’s Tonnerre, you might be inclined to make the distinction between forgettable works of art that are pleasurable because they entertain, and unforgettable works of art that are at once pleasurable and disturbing. I would place Tonnerre in the second category precisely because it is a film that seems to know a lot.
What does it seem to know? That there is no sharp boundary between sanity and insanity, love and obsession, or even a healthy relationship between two people of very different ages and an unhealthy one. That often the application of labels is the only thing the only thing that determines these things one way or the other. That sometimes the application of labels isn’t what determines these things one way or the other, but rather causes events that do determine them one way or the other. That people are free because they can do what they will, but they are not – so to speak – “free+” because they cannot will what they will. That all people – however revolting their behavior – can be sympathized with when the chain of events that led up to their being what they are is understood.
The narrative is set in the present day in the French town of Tonnerre. We follow Maxime (Vincent Macaigne), a thirty-something musician living with his father, and his burgeoning relationship with Mélodie (Solène Rigot), a local teenager. The development of the relationship is filmed in such a way that initially it’s hard not to feel a kind of warmth toward both characters. But insidiously, indiscernibly, the relationship shifts from something clearly happiness-conducive for both of them to something more distressing. It becomes one in which Maxime desires to possess Mélodie. The absence of visible black-and-white boundaries is reflected – beautifully – in the grayness of the weather.
There are as many funny moments in Tonnerre as there are upsetting ones. To comment impressionistically, it feels as though the camera sympathizes with all the characters. Like many good pieces of art, the film manages to assemble the characters’ different linguistic systems and ways of seeing the world, show their causal interrelations and make each seem at the very least comprehensible and often (and this is troubling, precisely by virtue of their inconsistency) plausible. At one moment, we might be inclined to sympathize with a character when he describes another with an incriminating word, and then the next, we sympathize with the other’s denial of that attribution, as when Ivan (Jonas Bloquet) calls Maxime a “pedophile.”
If nothing else, Tonnerre is an excellent example of how to relate form and content with great competence, but I think it may also move you.