French documentary on gay seniors strikes timely chord

Sébastien Lifshitz’s “Les Invisibles”, a documentary about elderly gay French people, hits screens as France finds itself embroiled in debate over gay marriage and adoption. FRANCE 24 spoke to the director of an (unintentionally) topical film.


With a debate over a proposed law to allow gay marriage and adoption gripping France’s political class and spilling out into the country’s streets, a documentary to hit French screens this week packs a particularly topical punch.

Timely as it is, however, "Les Invisibles" (or "The Invisible Ones") barely alludes to the hot-button issues currently dominating newspaper headlines. Rather, director Sébastien Lifshitz offers a quietly touching, gently paced glimpse at elderly French gay men and lesbians who had to grapple with their sexuality long before it became part of the national conversation.

Born before World War II, many of them in conservative, traditionally Catholic rural regions, the people profiled in “Les Invisibles” tell personal stories of love, shame, sacrifice, and hard-won pride. The film avoids didacticism and sentimentality largely thanks to these bracing testimonies, peppered with wisecracks or candidly shared memories of forbidden encounters in the bedroom (or, in some cases, behind the haystacks).

Lifshitz has made a name for himself along the margins of the French movie industry with intimate gay-themed dramas like “Come Undone” (2000) and “Wild Side” (2004). But in its scope and ambition (the director blends interviews, archive footage, and images of pastoral beauty), “Les Invisibles” is a notable step forward in the 44-year-old’s career.

Here are highlights from our interview with Lifshitz. “Les Invisibles” is being released just a few months before French lawmakers are scheduled to debate legislation that would authorise gay marriage. Was it your intention to contribute to the public conversation about these issues?

Sébastien Lifshitz: “Les Invisibles” is about elderly gay people who have struggled to find happiness, so I guess in some way I’m participating in the conversation. Still, the movie is not really about these issues.

What I find terrible about the current debate [in France] is that it’s as if gay people have to prove themselves, to show they’re citizens like anyone else: stable, capable of raising children and maintaining a long-term relationship.

It’s 2012. Gay couples raising kids are a reality, and it’s the responsibility of politicians to take that into account and establish laws to protect both the children and the parents if one of the parents dies.

F24: Why don’t the people you interview in the film directly address the current debate over same-sex marriage and adoption in France?

S.L.: I didn’t want the film to be overtly political. My goal was to present life stories without pushing any message. Also, not all the people I interviewed had been involved in activism.

Generally, I don’t like this notion of a gay “community” that lives in one neighbourhood and thinks the same way. Gay people are individuals who live among others and want to participate in the construction and advancement of society. There is no such thing as a single gay destiny or identity. That’s what the film shows: totally different experiences.

F24: How does this older generation of French gay people view the current fight for equal marriage and adoption rights in France?

S.L.: What’s important to understand is that this older generation of gay people in France fought against the heterosexual, bourgeois model of French society with all their might. The fact that there are much younger gay couples today that are demanding the right to get married and adopt children is something the older gay generation understands, but does not want for themselves.

As Thérèse, one of the people interviewed in the film, says: “Marriage was like the plague.” For her, getting married meant following the example set by her parents, something she wanted more than anything to run away from. She ended up getting married and having four children, but she was bored to death with her husband and it took her years to extricate herself and finally find freedom.

One can love without being married. And marriage is not necessarily the purpose of love. But in terms of legal rights, I think the demands of the younger generation regarding marriage and adoption equality are totally legitimate.

F24: Several other countries – including some traditionally Catholic European and South American countries – have legalised gay marriage. Why do you think there is still such strong resistance in France, which has a reputation for being tolerant and open when it comes to matters of sexuality?

S.L.: I think that between the two World Wars, French social values and customs became much more liberal. People had this strong desire to live freely after the horrors of World War I. In the 1920s, gay night clubs and cafés starting opening, there was the emergence of gay literature, certain lesbians started adopting a more masculine style.

But all of that progress was stopped in its tracks by the economic crisis, the rise of fascism, and World War II. Historically, there have always been periods of tolerance followed by periods of regression.

Right now, it’s not French citizens who are conservative; it’s the political class. Opinion polls show that a majority of French people are in favour of gay marriage and adoption. It’s the ruling elite that has a problem with it. The important question is: why are French politicians so out of step with French society?

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