On the surface, DEPARTURE (released in 2015) is a summertime coming of age movie. The screenplay also falls into the broad category of film and television productions about repressed English people. It is far more than either of these. I appreciated how emotional and sexual repression in the story are intelligently explored by writer and director Andrew Steggall. In different ways, the three British and one French main characters struggle to be free of emotional pain each has been carrying prior to the start of the story.
DEPARTURE takes place in the South of France, where young teenager and aspiring writer Elliot (sensitively played by Alex Lawther) roams the countryside and village near his family’s summer home, carrying his journal and jotting down words whenever inspiration strikes. These are his final days in this house, which his parents are selling due to their marriage dissolving. Elliot and his mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) slowly, reluctantly begin to pack up and selectively dispose of the contents of the quaint, though somewhat cavernous dwelling. Lingering indoor and outdoor camera shots underscore the pensive, wistful mood throughout the movie.
Elliot’s father Philip (Finbar Lynch) spends the first part of the film being away on business. When we viewers do finally meet him, it soon becomes apparent that he is gay, having married a woman and fathered a child in hopes of avoiding his true orientation.
To get some space from his mother’s depression and their mutually sad, imminent closing of a large chapter in family life, Elliot initiates a friendship with the slightly older Clement (Phenix Brossard). The English boy initially spies the lithe teen swimming in the nearby reservoir. A triangle of sexual tension gradually ensues, with both mother and son longing for the attentions of Clement. The movie’s focus is largely on Elliot, who is coming into his sexuality. He does his best to sublimate libido and other powerful feelings by writing, yet he grows bolder in pursuing affection from Clement whenever possible.
Symbolism arises here and there, such as when Beatrice possibly (not at all for certain) runs over a deer while driving in a stormy night at the beginning of the story. Elliot spends the rest of the movie preoccupied with finding and burying this unseen roadkill. I could not help but think that the phantom deer is representative of Elliot’s parents’ dead marriage and the childhood he longs for both continuance of and closure over. Like the possibly dead deer whose existence is never confirmed, Elliot’s family life, now nonexistent as he had previously experienced it, was based on a false abstraction of love between his parents rather than something actual for them. In a sense, Beatrice kills off her own denial and avoidance of the truth about her sham marriage, though it still takes her a while into the narrative to finally face this reality. Hence, this nighttime incident is also a foreshadowing of what soon comes to a head for Elliot’s family. Her closeted, uptight husband Philip lived and perpetrated a lie in a heterosexual union, with the summer home purchased as both a distracting and distancing way of maintaining some common, primary pursuit (real estate purchases) between he and Beatrice. The remotely located house embodies the isolation and subsequent loneliness Elliot and his parents each feel.
A dead bird the protagonist comes across in the woods symbolizes the actual death of his innocent childhood from within the context of his parents’ illusion of love for each other and the risky transition into adulthood, including sexuality, he now faces. (Consequently, there is no need for Elliot to find the killed deer, but, not surprisingly, he doesn’t figure this out right away.) To at least drive the particular points home regarding adulthood and sexuality, Elliot plucks a few feathers from the small carcass and places them in his hair. He soon spots Clement up ahead as the older boy strips down for a swim. In a brief solitary reverie, Elliot plays with the idea of being seen like a bird showing its plumage to display beauty, physical maturity, and confidence, and also, likely, in hopes of getting attention from a possible mate. However, he soon thinks better of wearing this added decor and removes the feathers for when Clement actually sees him. Actor Alex Lawther’s soulful eyes, thoughtful facial expressions, and deliberating movements powerfully relay so much pent-up adolescent passion.
A prescient, recurring dream image of Elliot floating naked underwater feels haunting to watch. The question is whether he will be drowned by his deep emotions and desire or learn to swim in life like all of us adults with a libido and intermittently intense feeling states must do. His gift of the ability to creatively write about feelings and observations hints at the hope we viewers can hold for him as he navigates a maturing, complex psyche.
As a gay man who was once a teenager, I certainly related to Elliot and the very limited options presented to him for sexual exploration with another male. Clement spends a lot of time trying to fix an old motorcycle to then drive on to Paris, where we eventually learn his ailing mother lies dying in hospital. He has basically been exiled to stay with an aunt in the country due to anger management issues, stemming from the helplessness he feels over his mother’s plight and his father’s lack of patience and understanding. He smokes cigarettes and sometimes wears a leather jacket, effectively portraying the trope of the angry loner male youth, though without seeming like a cliche. His mixed response to Elliot is painful yet believable to watch. On one hand, Clement clearly enjoys the admiration and desire from the younger peer, who welcomes his assistance with packing up the house and keeping Elliot company in the woods. On the other, the older boy’s internalized homophobia is expressed in his name-calling and insults, including of Elliot’s being a poet. Yet, the French boy flirts and displays himself just enough to help maintain some sexual tension between them. I found myself thinking how the protagonist could and will eventually do better with finding worthwhile, reciprocating love interests, his intelligence and sensibilities far more sophisticated than Clement’s. However, the intrigue of discovering sexual desire and pursuit of its fulfillment moves the narrative effectively along even with– and because of– the limitations presented for the English lad and, by extension, his suffering parents. The mother and father relay how repression, denial and avoidance are inevitably ineffective against hiding from the truth in matters of the heart and body.
I was surprised to learn that Alex Lawther was around eighteen years of age when he starred in this film. Casting older actors to play younger is common, of course, because wisdom and good acting ability often come with age. But, Lawther looks and acts so uncannily youthful (yet like an old soul) here that I thought he was surely no more than fifteen.
DEPARTURE is layered in meaning, cinematically beautiful, and superbly acted. The pacing is often a bit slow and ponderous, but not overly so. There were just enough emotionally and sexually charged interactions between the actors to sustain my interest throughout, which was also helped along by the movie’s intriguing visual appeal. The Southern French countryside and village setting come across as other main characters. And Lawther’s often subtle but rich range of facial and body expressions are quite riveting. I enjoyed this gem of a screenplay overall in spite of finding myself painfully empathizing with all four central players’ sexual and emotional frustrations, sadness, and anguish, especially Elliot’s and Beatrice’s respectively. But, I think we fellow human viewers are supposed to feel all this right along with them and glean some knowledge and beauty from out of the suffering wherever we can, like Elliot wisely strives to do.