French Miniseries ‘Proud’ Follows a Family During Crucial Moments for LGBTQ Rights
The three-part French miniseries Fiertés, released in the United States as Proud in select cities’ virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee, tells one family’s story over 30 years against the backdrop of three important gay rights decisions in France. It’s a microcosm of struggle where the personal is very much political, and politics are gummed up in some very ugly — and unfortunately still relevant — human behavior.
We’re introduced to 17-year-old Victor (Benjamin Neighbor) in 1981, just as the left is coming to power in France, where they will decriminalize homosexuality and declassify it as a mental illness. He works on a construction site with his father Charles (Frédérik Pierrot), the construction crew, and his friend Selim (Sami Outalbali). Charles is a liberal who backs François Mitterand and progressive ideas, yet when he discovers his son on the construction site as he’s about to pleasure Selim, the ingrained homophobia of prior generations paralyzes him. He uses a flimsy excuse to fire Selim from his job, outs the young Arab to his traditional father when confronted about the termination, and unwittingly sends Victor into the arms of an older man, Serge (Stanislas Nordey), whom Charles threatens to prosecute for statutory rape if he doesn’t leave the 17-year-old boy alone.
For the French miniseries’ episodes set in 1999, as the government granted civil unions to homosexual couples, and 2013, when same-sex marriage was legalized, the role of Victor is taken over by Samuel Theis. The subjects covered include gay adoption, AIDS, open relationships, sustaining life in a closet, and how the sins of the father come home to roost with the son.
It’s a lot to process over three episodes (the entire film runs a little over two-and-a-half hours), and occasionally its ambitions outstrip its reach, but it does the long lineage of French naturalism, well, proud, by giving us three-dimensional human beings of every stripe. Both Charles and Victor are stubborn and unforgiving, and though our sympathies naturally gravitate towards Victor, the director Phillipe Faucon never allows us to dismiss the father as merely a villain.
“We are in something that is about fiction, narrative,” the director has said of his French miniseries. “So for us it was the primordial thing to make characters exist, to make exist what brought them together and to make exist the way in which romantic feelings brought them together. And to show how these feelings could be confronted with ideas, prejudices, visions of society. The way it could happen and what it said. And so that’s what we set out to tell. That is to say, it was first a question of making characters exist in their intimacy and in the way in which this intimate could be confronted with social prejudices.”
Faucon guides his performers with a steady hand. Neighbor is a perfect match with Theis as Victor — you can see how the youthful rebel could become the successful architect (and how he carries into his adulthood the sting of his progressive father’s contradictory views on homosexuality). The wide-eyed carnality of the young Victor blooms into a smoldering, confident sexiness that Theis wears with casual ease.
Pierrot as Charles must know that fundamentally his character is a bigot, but he doesn’t back down from it. What makes it difficult to watch is that he’s convinced he’s approaching Victor from a place of love. Wrongheaded and righteous is a bad combo, and though as a character he experiences the most change, he also does the most damage.
Proud isn’t perfect. Conceptually, it’s solid — three episodes against historical changes that helped shape the gay rights movement is a great idea — yet that concept can feel forced or programmatic. Serge, who initially seems to be a minor character, becomes the sustaining love of Victor’s life. The interplay between the actors is delicate and precise. Yet Serge’s HIV-positive status in the second and third episodes, while absolutely plausible considering the time frame, doesn’t seem necessary. It distracts more than it adds to the drama. And though one of the reasons I love French naturalism is its refusal to kowtow to Hollywood conventions of drama, there were big moments that could have used just a little bit of grandstanding. When Victor confronts Charles at the end of an invasive, unsuccessful adoption process, his anger is sharp and impactful, though it isn’t enough. And when one of the major characters dies — guess who? — Victor’s emotional response is muted to the point of non-existence. The event doesn’t give justice to the life that came before it. It feels glossed over.
These aren’t debilitating flaws; long form narratives usually falter or sag somewhere along the way. It’s just that Proud gives us so much more than what we’re used to that we expect — no, demand — perfection. That we don’t get it is more about the perfidies of life as it’s actually lived than it is about art, naturalistic or otherwise.