Les Invisibles does more than you’d expect of a documentary about elderly gay and lesbian people. I went into this film anticipating a series of interesting stories about individual lives, but this is a film that offers far more.
Sébastien Lifshitz has imposed a true director’s conception of mood and theme to this film, which could have been little more than a set of talking-head interviews. From the opening shot of a bird being helped to emerge from its shell, the director emphasises a connection with nature. As I describe it, the image seems too obvious in its symbolism: most of the interviewees also faced difficulty in emerging from the shell of conformity, and felt like their lives only truly began when they met people like themselves, who enabled them to embrace their sexuality. Yet the film’s opening image does not feel contrived: the whole process of the bird being born is so delicate that ideas of symbolism are pushed aside by the intensity. As the film goes on, the audience won’t be able to ignore the frequency of more contemplative shots of animals: the country dwellers’ goats, dogs and exotic birds, and the urbanites’ connection with pigeons and house cats. While one of the interviewees directly compares the sexual practices of goats and humans, the director’s own comparison feels more generalised, almost ineffable: combined with his lyrical shots of the French countryside, Lifshitz’s shots of animals evoke the profound calm, peace, innocence and dignity of nature, untouched by the rules and hypocrisy of man.
For many of the interviewees, all born between World Wars I and II, what was most difficult for them growing up was that nobody was openly gay. People were fully aware that homosexuality existed; people practiced it, secretly: the real taboo was talking about it. This imposed silence had profound consequences for young gays and lesbians in France at that time (and, of course, continues to afflict many around the world today). As children and teenagers, they felt different, but any adults they spoke to about their sexual preferences told them that they would grow out of these feelings. In reality, as one of the interviewees put it, the ‘polymorphous’ sexuality as described by Freud is gradually driven out of us by our parents, as they bring us up to conform to heterosexual norms. As gays and lesbians were generally forced to hide their identity, some of the interviewees grew up feeling ashamed of their feelings; unable to meet people like themselves until later in life, some felt that they missed out on their youth entirely. To replace love, passion and a sense of belonging, a few of the men explained how they turned to alcohol or withdrew from the wider world.
The cultural liberalisation of the 1960s was a turning point for many. A man who had been closeted all his life inadvertently became the poster boy for gay rights when a centrefold in a weekend magazine showed him embracing another man. A 40-year-old mother of four, recently divorced, took part in the women’s movement in the late 1960s, and found fulfilment in same-sex relationships. For the 21st-century viewer, the archive footage of street protests for gay and women’s rights underline the distance between that moment and the present: a gay man reclines in the nude on a car bonnet; women proclaim their solidarity and independence, singing, shouting and dancing in the streets, free of bras and makeup, while elderly ladies look on approvingly and say that abortion is great. In a discussion at the dinner table, the late-blooming lesbian’s grown-up children observe that people are becoming more private about their personal lives nowadays, perhaps feeling that it is no longer politically necessary to let everyone know about their sexual preferences. I’d point out, also, that it is easy to forget how recently women gained access to reliable contraception, and how access to abortion continues to be dangerous for many women in the world, or restricted even in some developed countries. What seems clear, though, is that by the 1960s, deep-rooted oppression required a radical response: after centuries of subterfuge and suffering, gay people could embrace their sexuality freely and openly, while women demanded respect, equality and control over their own wombs.
While it raises many interesting questions, and balances melancholy with humour, Les Invisibles is not a perfectly-judged documentary. There are several moments where the interviewees’ anecdotes seem a little dull, drawn-out or unnecessary. The film really comes into its own when the speakers begin to relate their personal stories to changes which were taking place in society. It may have been an incidental effect of the editing, but I found that the female interviewees tended to exude a greater sense of empowerment and contentment; they were also generally better at articulating the connection between their own lives and the wider world. The men, by contrast, seemed more caught up in the particularities of their own lives, and some continued to focus on their wasted youth rather than the self-realisation they had achieved later in life. There was a good mix of interviewees, however, incorporating not just men and women, urbanites and country-dwellers, homosexuals and bisexuals, but even the oppressed and the irrepressible. There is the goatherd who has happily had a string of relationships with men and women throughout his life, but without ever feeling the need to settle down with any of them. Meanwhile, one of the lesbians joyfully reports that being gay is in her DNA: she always felt sure about her sexuality, and pursued every opportunity with glee. Looking back on her life, she feels utterly fulfilled, yet her story remains fascinating because she relates how she dealt with certain conundrums and challenges, such as loving her mother exactly as she is, in spite of her homophobia, or learning how to adapt to old age.
Les Invisibles may be uneven in parts, but it offers a thought-provoking and ultimately life-affirming exploration of, on the one hand, prejudice and oppression, and on the irrepressible other, demanding the right to be different and, most importantly, to be oneself. It is a question that continues to have resonance, around the world, for anyone who doesn’t fit the standard mould.
Les Invisibles is screening at London’s ICA until the 23rd of July and at Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français until the 27th of July.