Film Reviews

Lie with Me

Published October 13, 2023
By the way, Stéphane, there was something I wanted to ask you about about Dad...

As a title, Lie with Me is almost too tricky. The original French title of both Philippe Besson’s best-selling novel and Olivier Peyon’s screen adaptation was: Arrête avec tes mensonges – “Stop with your Lies”. There’s a significant difference: Stop with your lies is an order, while Lie with Me invites complicity. It seems as if you, dear viewer, are being asked to participate in someone else’s falsehoods, or cuddle up to the speaker.

It hardly needs pointing out that fiction is always a kind of lie, a wilful making-up of stories that discern patterns in the disorderly events of life. In this film, successful novelist, Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec), recalls his mother telling him to stop with the lies when he was dreaming up his earliest stories. As we get to know Stéphane we’ll discover how heavily his fiction relies on the true events of his past.

In the small town in the Cognac region of France, where he was born, Stéphane is a celebrity, but he hasn’t been back for 35 years. He has returned at the invitation of a famous distillery, who have invited him to be guest speaker at a banquet. They are thrilled at hosting a famous author, even if he happens to be unashamedly gay. In the most genial fashion, the boss, Monsieur Dejean (Pierre-Alain Chapuis), tells his guest of honour that he had reservations about inviting a gay writer but ovecame them because his wife is a fan.

It’s only the first of several scenes in which Stéphane’s sexual preferences create awkward moments for him or for others. There’s no ambiguity about why he had to leave this town, nor why he has come back. Drawn by the lure of a handsome payment, he feels uncomfortable from the moment he arrives, as he is haunted by memories of his final year at school.

Stéphane is both disturbed and excited when he meets a young employee of the company named Lucas Andrieu (Victor Belmondo), son of the schoolfriend who had been his first love. As we discover in regular flashbacks, Thomas Andrieu (Julien de Saint-Jean) demanded that they keep their affair a secret, not even speaking to Stéphane in public. As the only son of a farmer, he was resigned to spending his life in this town and could not afford a scandal. A popular boy, Thomas had a girlfriend and claimed to be bisexual.

This was not the case for the young Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet), who knew immediately that he was gay and was going be a writer. What began as an occasional sexual encounter turned into a love affair. When it ended as abruptly as it began, Stéphane felt an unappeasable sense of loss. For the rest of his literary career, he has named lead characters “Thomas”, and drawn on the emotional impact of these early experiences.

When Victor tells Stéphane that Thomas is dead, it’s a devastating moment. He will learn that Thomas collected his books and watched him avidly on TV. As his emotions grow more fraught, and the flashbacks more frequent, Stéphane doesn’t know how much he should conceal or reveal to Victor. How could he ever explain the passion he felt for the young man’s father?

The story gets more complicated when Stéphane finds that Thomas was a reserved, distant parent who eventually committed suicide. He also begins to realise that Victor is concealing his own secrets.

Following films such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), Call Me by Your Name (2017), or Supernova (2020), Lie with Me is another example of a same-sex love story told in a manner that encourages a universal empathy. It’s a tale of infatuation and loss, of the way one youthful encounter can echo throughout an entire lifetime – especially if the subject is a novelist prone to reflecting on his own history and psychology.

It’s in the nature of these films that they go out of their way to normalise the characters, avoiding the campery and clichés that used to be standard features of the way openly gay figures were depicted. Peyon follows the blueprint, showing Stéphane as a conservative, bourgeois personality, who chastises himself when he refers to his sexuality in an unguarded manner.

One curiosity is that Victor Belmondo is the grandson of the late French heartthrob, Jean-Paul Belmondo, sharing the same long nose and fleshy lips. However, he’s yet to develop any of the flamboyance of his famous papi. A second curious fact is that Besson’s autobiographical novel was translated into English by another screen heartthrob, Molly Ringwald, whom you may remember from The Breakfast Club (1985) or Pretty in Pink (1986).

There are so many “lies” in this film they become difficult to disentangle. Thomas seems to have spent his life perpetuating a lie about who he really was, making wife and child suffer because of his unwillingess to confront the truth. Stéphane has made a fetish of his teenage affair, using it to fuel his literary imagination, but he must have known that first loves rarely survive. If his memories of Thomas have persisted it’s not only due to a lack of that overworked concept – “closure”, but because they have provided a well of emotional experiences that have helped him construct lives on the page.

Stéphane is told by one of his fans: “Nobody captures romantic ruins better than you.” By this stage, the successful novelist is incapable of separating fact from fiction. His own origin story is his greatest creation, and the long-delayed return to his hometown offers the opportunity to add another chapter to the tale. His great challenge this time is to come up with a happy ending.





Lie with Me

Directed by Olivier Peyon

Written by Philippe Besson, Arthur Cahn & Olivier Peyon

Starring: Guillaume de Tonquédec, Victor Belmondo, Guilaine Londez, Jérémy Gillet, Julien De Saint Jean, Pierre-Alain Chapuis, Marilou Gallais, Cyril Couton

France, MA 15+, 98 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 October, 2023