The French filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau have collaborated on a series of gay-themed movies; My Life on Ice was released after their charmingly offhand picaresque The Adventures of Félix (2000). It’s a freshly conceived coming-of-age movie about a Rouen teenager named Étienne (played by Jimmy Tavares), who skates competitively but whose latest obsession is making home movies with his video camera that chronicle his life. The French title is My vraie vie à Rouen (My True Life in Rouen); My Life on Ice isn’t much of an improvement, but it does suggest, rather clumsily, the idea that Étienne is in a fragile, on-the-brink state – that he’s being kept on ice until his real (adult) life begins. He uses his camera to record the transition, putting himself on it most of the time, though occasionally he focuses on his widowed mother, Caroline (Ariane Ascaride), who works at a bookstore, or his paternal grandmother (Hélène Surgère), who is eager to talk about his father (his mother is more reluctant), or his best friend Ludovic (Lucas Bonnifait), who has begun to experiment sexually, or his geography teacher, Laurent (Jonathan Zaccaï), who becomes Caroline’s lover. Étienne records his own daily life, and all the things that are important to him – like a visit to his father’s grave, which he professes is a meaningless excursion while the camera reveals what he isn’t willing to admit about his own emotions. Ducastel and Martineau manage to sustain the tentative, exploratory tone and unsophisticated visual style of the film. It has the feel of a student filmmaker’s continuing project, yet it never feels shoddy or clunky. The cinematographers, Mathieu Poirot-Delpech and Pierre Milton, fix it so the movie looks quite handsome but homemade. Ducastel and Martineau carry off the greater feat of allowing Étienne to tell his own present-tense story – without the benefit, say, of a distanced adult voice-over perspective (the usual solution) – that is, however, informed by their adult sensibility, their sense of what we need to know to understand this boy’s tale. The movie is a highly accomplished narrative trick.
If you’re familiar with Ducastel and Martineau’s other work, you can guess where the movie’s going, and even if you don’t, it doesn’t take long to guess that Étienne is going to figure out, during the year they cover, that he’s homosexual. But they’re both adroit and unconventional in presenting his process of self-discovery. His mother worries that he spends too much time alone, because he detests team sports and Ludo seems to be his only companion. When he skates, he’s completely focused on his own body, just as he is when he films himself, one body part at a time, or presents himself as a nude study (under dim lighting – the filmmakers aren’t exploitative). The skating interludes are lovely: we see how he improves, though he’s only intermittently graceful and his flourishes are sometimes heavy and unconvincing. When another boy (Nicolas Pontois) works out with him, Étienne’s lonely sport expands to admit a teammate, and he has a new camera subject too – that is, until his locker-room filmmaking becomes too voyeuristic for his friend’s taste.
Voyeurism is a convenient way for Étienne to enter a sexual landscape he doesn’t yet understand his own place in. He shoots his mother in her underwear, hiding the camera so she won’t know she’s being filmed, but she’s cannier than he gives her credit for (and she gets less worked up over it than we expect). He gets Ludo to talk about his girlfriends on camera (though there’s a limit to how much his friend will say), and when Ludo starts going out with one of their classmates, he trails along behind the at a school dance, until the girl says he’s creepy and sends him and pesky video-cam away. But Ludo doesn’t perceive anything untoward in Étienne’s curiosity. He assumes that if his friend hasn’t scored yet, it’s because he’s shy or hasn’t had the opportunity, and he’s a little puzzled when he tries to steer Étienne in the path of some girls and Étienne demurs. Ludo is so completely straight that it never occurs to him that his friend might have other, uninvestigated interests, and then, when Étienne tries to broach the subject, Ludo declares he doesn’t want to listen. Clearly Étienne is attracted to his friend, but it’s Laurent the teacher who fascinates him. Laurent occupies his camera before we’ve even registered who he is, and once he’s moved into the boy’s domestic life as well, Étienne takes every opportunity to film him – even sedentary, watching sports on TV, in a sweet little sequence that also includes Caroline. Sometimes, when he’s in a restless mood, Laurent gets fed up with being Étienne’s pet subject. He never finds out how far over the line the boy has gone – that he’s filmed Laurent and Caroline having sex outdoors while they’re on vacation (and we can see in this sequence that his focus is his mother’s lover’s body and not hers).
The movie hints once or twice that Laurent has a unacknowledged sexual interest in the boy, too, and it’s just as well that Ducastel and Martineau don’t follow through on that idea, which would unbalance the movie. The other plot point that remains something of a mystery is the implication that, when Laurent falls off a cliff during a race with Étienne, breaking his leg, it isn’t entirely an accident. We comprehend that the boy’s obsession with Laurent turns into annoyance, then anger, at him after his early thrill at having his favorite teacher join his family. But the notion that his anger might shift into violence feels melodramatic, and anyway, though Étienne himself suggests he had something to do with the accident, Laurent never does, and wouldn’t he know? (The scene itself, filmed in long shot, is ambiguous.) As with the hints about the teacher’s homoerotic impulses, Ducastel and Martineau seem to sense that this is a dead end so they fail to pursue it. In fact, it would make more dramatic sense to have the boy gradually lose interest in Laurent when he realizes – as we can certainly do – that he’s rather dull. That’s not precisely what happens, though, inevitably, Étienne moves on and, in the last minutes of the film, finds himself a lover.
When My Life on Ice stumbles, it does so honestly. The filmmakers are trying to do something very unusual, and they don’t want to make their hero’s home-movie chronicle feel forced or out of character. And somehow they never do; the flaws in the narrative aren’t exactly inconsistencies, so the uncertain adolescent point of view effectively covers them. The movie is small but substantial.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.