Quid pro quo, kinship and coming out

BEIRUT: Who is Guillaume? He is a young man who tries to take on the identity of his mother, who likes to dress up as Empress Sissi (Elizabeth of Austria), who is having difficulties with his father and who would have preferred to be a girl.

These answers constitute just a few of the many ways to summarize the César-winning film “Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table!” Titled in English “Me, Myself and Mum,” the film is currently screening in Beirut theaters.

This film is so much more than what such a brief summary suggests, however. Hovering somewhere between a one-man show and a feature film, actor and director Guillaume Gallienne opens the door to his personal life in the film, which draws upon the real-life experiences of the actor and his mother (also played by Gallienne), although precisely what is fact and what fiction remains undisclosed throughout.

Gallienne has acted in many plays and has been a member of the La Comédie-Française company since 1998. Through performances in adaptations of works by playwrights including Jean Racine, William Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht and Molière, he has built a reputation as an outstanding actor.

His award-winning debut film is a complex and sensitive portrayal of Guillaume’s mother, referred to simply as “Maman.” Her name is concealed both to protect her privacy and as a means to emphasize the intrinsic relation between Gallienne in his dual role.

Maman is discrete about her personal life. She smokes a lot, and has been “in a bad mood since I was born,” as Guillaume says in the voice-over. She sometimes refers to her son as “ma chérie” (“my darling,” with the French feminine suffix), suggesting that she sees Guillaume as a girl hidden in a man’s body.

It is from here that Guillaume’s confusion stems. He tries his best to do everything just like his mother. Imitating the way she walks, talks and breathes develops into an obsession, and she becomes both an object of admiration and the source of doubts about Guillaume’s sexuality.

The cooking lady, along with Guillaume’s grandmother, and even his father all mistake his voice for that of his mother.

“Nothing should be denied, nothing should be usurped,” Guillaume’s grandmother says, encouraging him to develop some autonomy.

Everyone in his family is convinced that Guillaume is, well, gay, but he sees his orientation differently.

“I am not gay,” he says, “since I am a girl who is attracted by another boy.”

One of his aunts tells him that he cannot be sure he is not gay if he has not tried to be, further exacerbating his confusion. On a quest for identity, he tries to have intimate relations with men, but is always afraid or finds himself feeling that the experience is not what he truly wants. He nevertheless plays with his sexual ambiguity to avoid doing his military service, something that shocks military psychiatrists.

To this blend of reality and fiction, Gallienne adds humor, sarcasm and emotion, displaying the range of his talent as an actor and director.

The movie is filled with comic scenes. Speaking impeccable English, Guillaume is sent to a boarding school in England after having been sent to one in France. Making friends with his sport-centric schoolmates is not easy, due to his feminine mannerisms.

“Aside from cricket, rowing and rugby, [England] was wonderful!” he says.

When Guillaume’s mother is not around, she appears frequently in his imagination as a harsh and bad-tempered woman.

“Cry! You’ll pee less,” her apparition tells him when he succumbs to tears in his psychiatrist’s office.

Guillaume’s eccentric mother does give him insight how to listen to, observe and understand women, however. “Women’s biggest difference [to men] is in the way they breathe,” Guillaume observes.

“It is softer, more variable, less linear and less homogenous. It varies all the time.”

His mother implicitly strips her son of his maleness each time she refers to “les garçons et Guillaume” (the boys and Guillaume). Over the course of the film, however, Guillaume begins to feel more comfortable in his own skin, developing a sense of his own identity.

Gallienne’s first movie as a director is a breath of fresh air that viewers are sure to enjoy watching again and again.

“Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table!” is screening at Metropolis Cinema Sofil, Empire Premiere, Grand ABC and ABC Dbayeh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 20, 2014, on page 16.




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