Reinventing Marvin (Marvin ou la belle éducation)

France (2017) Dir. Anne Fontaine

It’s tough being yourself in a world unforgiving and prejudiced against certain groups or lifestyles that you may fit in with that don’t adhere to convention. But, what if you were given an opportunity to hide that side of you away or maybe even dispense with them for good – would you take it? 

Marvin Bijou (Finnegan Oldfield) is a young actor who happens to be gay. All his life he had been subject to bullying and torment both at home and at school until a new head teacher Ms. Clément (Catherine Mouchet) recognises Marvin’s artistic leanings and sets him on a path to a new life through acting.

Having been accepted into drama school in Paris, Marvin is quick to leave his former life behind, making new friends – including sugar daddy Roland (Charles Berling) – and becoming comfortable with his sexuality. As Marvin starts to make serious progress in the arts, he chooses to change his name to Martin Clement but before he can banish his past completely he must face up to it first.

The legendary Kenneth Williams often told how his strict Methodist father forbade him from becoming an actor because he didn’t want his son associating with “those poofters” (oh, how little he knew) and should get a manly job instead. I mention this because they are times in Reinventing Marvin when it seems to be trying to equate the theatre with homosexuality like natural and exclusive bedfellows.

Of course, this isn’t the obvious intention of Anne Fontaine and Pierre Trividic but it is curious that practically everyone Marvin comes into contact with involved in the arts (with one notable exception which we’ll get to later) is gay. Certainly, it plays a huge part in Marvin no longer being persecuted for his homosexuality, but is narratively lazy to contain his entire acting experiences within a singular community.

Despite no public credit, the story is said to be inspired by the 2014 autobiographical novel The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis about his life from poverty to success as a tormented gay man. Even with reading Louis’ novel it’s not difficult to imagine where the similarities might be from the basic plot outline, though for a coming-of-age drama there are certain plot beats that are universal.

Switching liberally from the modern day to the past and often without warning to cause maximum confusion, Marvin’s tale feels somewhat typical as the bullied boy escaping a hopeless existence to succeed in his chosen vocation – the homosexual facet being its unique twist in the early days.

Young Marvin (Jules Porier) is a small, pallid child with few friends thus a regular target for the bullies who already seem to be aware of his sexual preferences before Marvin does. Ironically, they berate him for being a “faggot” yet demand sexual favours from him; one boy goes as far as paint Marvin’s lips with a red marker pen before forcing him to pleasure him, but Marvin manages to escape.

At home, Marvin’s older half-brother Gérald (Yannick Morzelle) tries to attack him just for “looking” like he might be gay, whilst his portly, loutish father Dany (Grégory Gadebois) tells Marvin homosexuality is a mental disease. His mother Odile (Catherine Salée) is barely any better, trying to show sympathy but is just as much as a slatternly mess.

Dany is a curious character – a loud bear of a man with a penchant for not wearing trousers yet is surprisingly fragile. When Gérald goes nuts and hits him, Dany doesn’t retaliate but cowers whilst Odile holds her stepson back. Later, as Marvin leaves for Paris, Dany tells him not to fight back if his mugged, just hand over everything and walk away.

No wonder Marvin is confused. But now in Paris he is the plaything for rich Roland and has a mentor in gay dramatist Abel (Vincent Macaigne), but most of all, he has a celeb patron in the one and only Isabelle Huppert! Presumably the reason most of us watch this film, La Huppert plays herself, taking an interest in Marvin and helping him hit the big time.

This is where the script starts to stumble a little as Marvin enjoys a steady and problem free trajectory to success with only the spectre of his past being the main thorn in his side. He writes a play based on his life with Huppert playing his mother that is a huge hit (or pretentious twaddle depending on your tastes) which Marvin believes validates him but upsets his family since they don’t recognise his “truth”.

It’s really the flashback sequence that tell the most compelling and credible story whilst the Paris years feel more like fantasy than reality. The flitting back and forth between timelines becomes disruptive when the story’s chronology isn’t adhered to, only working on occasion in framing a particular moment or loose thread.

Also, the performances are better in the past segments too, with youngster Jules Porier proving a future star in his debut. Whether being a sullen daydreamer, cheeky scamp, or shaking in fear for his life, there is nary a scene where Porier’s innate sense of nuance and depth doesn’t command every frame. Sadly, Finnegan Oldfield as the older Marvin is devoid of Porier’s charisma and warmth, rendering Marvin as no longer affable.

Grégory Gadebois conveys another change in personality by taking Dany from a boorish brute to a responsible and genuine chap in the later scenes but even in her few moments of screen time, Isabelle Huppert’s presence is enough to give the film a taste of the gravitas it sorely needs, and could have had with a focused script and less obtuse approach to the storytelling.

Reinventing Marvin has a lot going for it but Anne Fontaine, a usually capable director, seems unable to bring its best elements together to make the coherent and profound work it could have been. Engaging enough but lacking heart and substance.