Departure -in conversation with Andrew Steggall and Juliet Stevenson
By Angela Elliott
Not so much a ‘coming out’ as a ‘coming of age’ story, Departure is a multi-facetted film that picks at the bones of a family’s secrets. From pretentious fifteen-year-old Elliot (Alex Lawther, who played the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) to his sexually repressed mother, Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson), from the languidly sexual Clément (Phénix Brossard) to Elliot’s control freak of a father, Philip (Finbar Lynch), each remains isolated in their own version of hell. Beatrice and Philip’s relationship has broken down to the point of no return and they are in the process of selling their holiday home in France. Their son Elliot is coming to terms with his sexuality, and his buddy/love interest, Clément, has a mother who is dying of cancer in faraway Paris. All this is eked out over 109 minutes, although it has to be said, it feels much longer.
The first images on the screen: the black night, the forest that appears and disappears in the car’s headlights, the arrival at the house, and the dream of things to come – all these are beautifully poetic, if slightly confusing, and serve to draw you into another world. Stevenson says it was the ‘most beautiful script’ she had ever read and that it was very French, this, despite it being made by British debut feature director, Andrew Steggall. She goes on to explain, “I love the combination of being it being pragmatic and quite poetic. So there are masturbation scenes and then there’s use of the moon and water, and all those kind of wonderful symbols are threaded throughout the film”. Stegall explains it as being inspired by Dvorak’s opera Russalka. “Many people know the story of the water nymph who longs to be human so she can be embraced by the prince who’s hunting the deer in the forest with his bow and arrow. She exists in water and she sings to the moon to make the prince know she loves him.”
As packed with metaphor and symbolism as it is, the one I didn’t work out until the end, was that of the deer. Elliot and Beatrice are driving to their French holiday home in deepest Languedoc, when they bump over something in the road. There is an assumption that it’s a deer and that it might be injured and dying, but, despite continued references, the deer remains unseen throughout the film. For me, it was only when Steggall said he was a fan of Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that a lightbulb went on: Diana bathing in the secret pool, the transformation of Actaeon into a deer, the hunter becoming the hunted. I’m a sucker for the way all stories are underwritten by archetypes, whether or not the author intends it.
Given the opening scenes, with their focus on Elliot and his exploration of his sexuality, it’s easy to be lured into thinking this is all about him. He’s annoying in that way teenagers often are; everything revolves around him and he thinks he’s so worldly-wise, whilst also being incredibly naïve. The interaction between mother and son is a fragile dance. He wants to pull away and she needs to mother him, albeit with some emotional distance. Stevenson says it was hard not to let her own experience of parenting get in the way of the role. “I’m so conscious of all the themes in this film, of the need to let go of your children… that very delicate balance that all parents will know about… absolutely needing you to not to be on their radar and you dodge and weave on that tightrope all the time.” Stegall wouldn’t let her reach out physically to Lawther – no maternal pats on the shoulder or hugs. Stevenson says, “he was right to make me resist all that. It’s important that Beatrice is cut off, that she isn’t able to be tactile. She’s locked in her own private longing for sensuality, unable to achieve it, or find it, or even give herself the right to it. It’s not me, but it’s her.” As Beatrice’s story unfolds we discover the reason for her distance. It would be wrong to give the game away, but suffice to say that a majorly traumatic experience, way back in her past, underpins her very being. Once she understands the impact of this event, she starts to loosen up, to rebel and become more in, and of, herself.
The father, Philip, appears half way through the film. His presence sets up an interesting family dynamic. Gradually, we work out that all is not well with this man. Stegall says, “he’s really a victim of his own need to control things” that and, “there’s a big part of his back story which meant that being gay simply wasn’t an option.” Philip’s arrival signals a change in Elliot from the pretentious, narcissistic child to an unhappy and confused young adult, acutely aware that the stability of his childhood world is about to fall apart and that maybe, just maybe, it hasn’t got anything to do with him. Steggall wanted to address a moment in his childhood when he was “suddenly struck by the possibility that my parents had complicated internal life that I had previously not allowed myself to imagine they had... I understood also that becoming an adult wouldn’t result in some kind of epic freedom… this was going to be with me forever, this desire to be loved and to need people. So that was my little epiphany. That was an idea I wanted to explore dramatically.”
Elliot’s love interest is the French boy, Clément, whom he glimpses by the forbidden reservoir. Clément knows and kind of doesn’t know that he’s the object of the younger boy’s fantasy. As to his own desires, Clément pays Beatrice just that little bit too much attention - in that way that young adult men sometimes do with older women, when they hope it will come to something, but know it probably won’t. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Elliot, who now ups the ante, with his more overt attempts at wooing Clément. Stevenson understands that this is a film that will be welcomed by the LGBT community, but isn’t sure that it’s about coming out, as much as about a child entering that terrifying journey of emerging sexuality, with the attendant fear that your parents will find out. For Steggall, he says Beatrice knew all along that Elliot was gay.
Stevenson tells us of the rare joy she experienced working with these two young men. “I love it because, with the best will in the world and the greatest of respect to my own generation, many of whom are wonderful, there is something wonderful about working with young actors like this because they’ve accrued nothing, they’ve accrue no habits, no mannerisms. They come so fresh and their talent ascends naked when they have it, as Alex and Phénix do, in spades.” She says she learned a lot from Brossard - the ease he possesses with himself and the camera, and comments that Lawther is destined to be a big star. “He doesn’t have to reach for it. It’s just there. He’s a little Stradivarius.”
The story is convoluted and heart-rending, but it’s not all angst. Brian Fawcett’s cinematography is stunning, ably aided by the fabulous French countryside, which presses in on all sides. There is a real sense of being lost in time and a yearning for a simpler life. Steggall was careful to set it in a valley where there’s no wifi and poor mobile signals. He didn’t want the modern world to interrupt. “If you live in central London and you’re young, being gay may seem an easy thing to come to terms with, with liberal parents. That’s not the case all around the country and that’s not the case in other countries, and it wasn’t the case for me in my world when I was 15 in 1995… there’s a timeless quality, which for a certain demographic audience will create a nostalgic feel.”
All in all then, this is a beautifully shot, character-driven film where almost every viewer can relate to one or other of the characters, either because they went through the same kind of thing, or because it brings up long-forgotten memories. Certainly, it’s an insightful and thought-provoking piece.
THE FINISH – The Progress of a Murder Uncovered
By Angela Elliott, published by Crux Publishing
It is 1769 and these are violent times. Prostitute, Kitty Ives, takes a man to her bed and wakes to find him dead. Fearing the gallows, so begins Kitty’s quest to uncover the identity of the murderer.
The Finish is the first in the Venus Squared series, comprising four books: The Finish, The Surety, The Debt, and The Trade.
About the Author
Angela Elliott has written for film and TV. Her first book, Some Strange Scent of Death, was published in 2005.
Follow Angela Elliott on Twitter