Putting the stories of nine venerable gay men and women under the spotlight, Sébastien Lifshitz’s Les Invisibles pays homage to love, self-fulfilment and revolution.
Vive La Révolution by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After touching fictional features of souls at sea in Wild Side and Going South, Sébastien Lifshitz returns to documentary with Les Invisibles and nine enriching portraits of retired gay men and women recounting their life stories and struggles. Through family photos, talking head interviews, archive footage, chansons and meditative glimpses of their daily routines, Les Invisibles offers an immediate intimacy into the lives of Pierre and Yann, Bernard and Jacques, Pierrot, Thérèse, Christian, Monique, Elisabeth and Catherine. Their individual life stories are traced back through their awakening sexuality, both its darkest moments and happiest moments. And there are common threads that unite their stories, not only in their testimonies, but also picked out in the goats they tend, the shorts they wear or the tenderness with which they look after each other, Bernard and Jacques dressing each other awkwardly in socks and braces. The story of a fight now largely forgotten and its militants, Les Invisibles gives gay liberation a very human face.
Pierre and Yann live and work together breeding tropical birds. Between them both Catholic and communist, they describe their struggle against institutional homophobia and even being treated by a psychiatrist for being gay. Bernard and Jacques potter around Jacques’ Marseilles apartment, making tea and getting dressed. They met when Jacques (who has had a series of long-term relationships with distinguished silver foxes) posted a lonely hearts ad to which Bernard (who had previously had a wife and five children) responded. Pierrot is a goat farmer who’s been with both men and women, never wanting to settle down but keeping himself young with amorous adventures in the fields or on the river bank. Obedient and naive, Thérèse got married only to find herself a bored housewife – before discovering her homosexuality in her forties and becoming involved with feminist, abortion and gay rights movements. Christian, also Catholic (and deeply closeted) escaped to Africa to hide from himself, but became inadvertently the poster boy for the gay liberation movement when he was outed to his parents in a photo in Paris Match. There’s Catherine and Elisabeth, who were discriminated against at work for being lesbian, but after negotiating a handsome pay-off started a goat farm on the Albion Plateau, Elisabeth going on to become the local mayor. And finally, Monique, a straight-talking ‘girl who likes girls’ who browbeat all those around her, with the single exception of her mother, into accepting her simply for who she is.
Playing out to Juliette Gréco’s husky rendition of Le Monsieur Et Le Jeune Homme, Sébastien Lifshitz’s Les Invisibles throws down a gauntlet to the modern generation to pick up the aspirations and achievements of gay liberation where the old guard left off, emphatically intoning from Guy Béart’s lyrics “Where are we?” and “Where have we come to?” And with gay marriage firmly on the agenda across the globe, (a fact Lifshitz alludes to in a scene in which Pierre and Yann stumble upon a chapel in the forest – the perfect place to get married) the fight for gay rights continues, the struggles of these septuagenarians just the landmark opening sortie in the ongoing battle for equality. Their very personal stories recount the ignorance and hatred they lived through, standing up to discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties, but also their own very personal struggles with themselves, too late, lazy or lacking in self-confidence to take on the Establishment. But like the fledgling parrot Pierre chips out of an egg, while their coming out often needed a bit of a kickstart – occurring later in life and only after overcoming hurdles such as marriage, escape and alcoholism – Pierre, Yann, Bernard, Jacques, Pierrot, Thérèse, Christian, Monique, Elisabeth and Catherine all became trailblazers in their own ways.
It’s their stories that take centre-stage, and there are similarities – Pierre is perhaps the only one to hide away in alcoholism (drinking a lot to quench the emotional desert within), but his flight to Adélie Land in the South Pole to escape the sordid world of gay love (cruising in public parks and urinals) is echoed in Christian, Bernard and Thérèse’s stories. Christian, also unable to accept who he was and who found his taste for life waning, fled to Africa to work as an aid worker, but became sidetracked and tantalised by ever-naked men. These are stories of a bygone age, but nevertheless ones that reverberate with the closeted across the decades – as Christian, filled with adolescent Catholic fervour to pray away the sin, describes a lasting incapacity for intimacy due to his inability to shower without getting an erection. It’s a kind of naivety that crosses many of the interviewees’ testimonies preventing them from challenging the status quo, putting instead their lives on hold, and giving up all hope of love.
There is however also an undertow across their stories of insouciance and fight. Pierrot sees sexuality in terms of the goats he tends – it’s nature that decides who mates with whom and whether it be for procreation and pleasure. For him, homosexuality is just a question of taste – like the gratifying pleasure of drinking wine, with little moral or social importance. For Monique, it’s just as simple – venturing out of the shadows to proclaim herself gay and shocking people with her honesty. But her life isn’t so much a political battle for liberation but a series of conquests of women she once loved – militant, but for deeply personal reasons. The only person she is unable to come out to is her mother, her anchor to (a heterosexual) reality. But like the family home at Auxy Juranville station with its walls that bear witness to memories of Monique’s family and their love, these are deeply personal and emotive anchors, object with a soul which mingle with our own souls and force us to love. In the words of Lamartine.
It’s a material echo of Lifshitz’s film, the station bearing witness to love just as Les Invisibles is testament to the groundbreaking loves of the film’s talking heads. The homophobia of the archive footage Lifshitz unearths, (such as the video report of a lesbian club in the Sixties in which the women are unable to mask their “underlying sadness” or the Paris Match article which rails against the gay men and women who are no longer hiding day or night) is in stark contrast to the epic intimacy of their portraits as his interviewees go about their daily business and the simple honesty of their stories. More than just a documentary about gay rights and a testament to the courage of the men and women fighting for their right to love, Les Invisibles is a film about lasting revolutions – both personal and political. But unlike the galvanising furnaces of gay liberation in the US, such as We Were Here, Vito or Stonewall Uprising, Les Invisibles is a documentary much more on the human scale – pieced together out of individual portraits of love in a dark time.
Les Invisibles is released on 12th July 2013 in the UK