News Column

'Suzanne': life devoid of mythology or moralizing

June 29, 2013

YellowBrix

June 29--BEIRUT -- A backstage camera follows a gaggle of youngsters in sequined dresses as they giggle through preparations for a primary school performance, a Rockettes-style floorshow for prepubescent girls. In the audience, a video camera-toting dad and his little daughter laugh and record the proceedings.

The object of their attention in the melee is another little blonde. She finishes her routine with a tottering laugh. Then her expression abruptly topples into desolation, as incongruous as the sequins and the glitter.

It can be ambiguous, the relationship between a young father and a daughter. In myth -- where daughters tend to be lascivious and their dads virtuous but dim -- such stories play out tragically. Adonis' young mother Myrrha, for instance, metamorphosed into a tree before giving birth to him.

The gelatinous ambivalence of father-daughter bonds can also be disclosed discreetly, the sordid details of human frailty left unspoken in favor of resilience and survival.

It's this sort of supple storytelling that marks "Suzanne" (2013), the sophomore feature of French filmmaker Katell Quillevere.

The film commences in the later 1980s with the story with Nicolas (Francois Damiens), a trucker living with his two little girls in working-class southern France. His wife Irene died a couple of years before, in her 30s, leaving him to raise his kids, Maria and Suzanne, alone. It's obvious this labor perplexes him a bit.

The opening movement introduces the motif of the family visit to Irene's grave, Nicolas' smouldering grief and his intimate rapport with his daughters. One evening, a daughter plays back a woman's phone message to him. The voice's amorous desire is obvious, if unspoken. Nicolas stares at the machine, his face a mask of regret.

The story flashes forward to the girls' adolescence. Suzanne (Sara Forestier) is now in high school, while Maria (Adele Haenel) lives in Marseille. (The two sisters' ages are ill defined. Haenel is several years younger than Forestier but, because Haenel and the child actor playing her younger self are both taller than the ones portraying Suzanne, Maria seems older.)

Maria comes into town for a visit, then goes again. A short time later Suzanne's teacher informs Nicolas that his daughter is pregnant. There is no discussion of who the father might be -- a few young men literally walk through one scene while Maria is visiting but the girls seem more interested in tomboyish teasing than intercourse.

Back home, Nicolas demands to know why Suzanne wants to keep the baby. "Because I feel like it," she replies. Her father's answer is to slap her energetically on the face, which compels her to go set the supper table.

By the time Quillevere provides male characters to compete with Nicolas, Suzanne's pregnancy has become a fully formed little boy named Charlie. Mother and daughter still live with dad and she works at the same company as him as well.

The boys appear during one of Maria's visits. One of them, Vince, becomes Maria's casual boyfriend. The other, a pouty Marseillais named Julien (Paul Hamy), takes a shine to Suzanne. The feeling is mutual, and Suzanne soon decides to abandon her job and move to Marseille to be with him.

Julien's entirely too good-looking and devil-may-care to be anything but bad news, of course. The balance of the plot concerns itself with where Suzanne's adventures with him lead.

At first the story is told from the perspective of the people Suzanne leaves behind. When she reappears, in dire straits and without Julien, the camera is drawn back to her, following Suzanne as she veers from one choice to the next.

"Suzanne" premiered this past spring at the Semaine de la Critique -- a parallel program of the Cannes film festival's main competition, comprised of early works from a stable of promising young filmmakers.

Quillevere's film will screen Monday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, the opening feature of the Beirut reiteration of Critics' Week. Cannes has been visiting Beirut for seven years now, making Semaine de la Critique as much a summer event as the political unrest with which it competes for audience attention.

"Suzanne" is the sort of tale that could be (and has been) told in moralizing or melodramatic terms. One of the strengths in the script -- co-penned by Quillevere and Mariette Desert, who also collaborated to write "Love Like Poison," the director's 2010 debut feature -- is its dispassionate matter-of-fact quality.

This is a consummately Gallic film, yet Tom Harari's camera consistently abjures the easy beauty that might tempt a DoP in the south of France. For long swathes of the action, the aesthetic of "Suzanne" is oddly British, in fact, looking not unlike one of Ken Loach's working class dramas ("Raining Stones" from 1993, say).

The film's ample emotion doesn't rest in the writing, however. Rather it bleeds through in the authenticity of the acting, which (like the writing) errs on the side of understatement.

Where Charlie came from is less relevant to the story than his importance to Suzanne and her struggles to reconcile that with her other compelling needs. In its aesthetic and narrative, "Suzanne" reflects the narrowed horizons and lowered expectations of the characters who inhabit it.

By the time Suzanne's story pauses long enough to allow the closing credits to run, her immediate family has expanded. It's also contracted. Some have died along the way. She no longer has the liberty that she did, but she is alive and able to smile.

That's the happiest end we can reasonably expect nowadays.

"Suzanne" screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil on July 1 at 8 p.m. Semaine de la Critique continues daily until July 11. Exceptionally "3X3D" will be projected at Cinemacity, City Mall, Dora. All tickets are available at Metropolis and go for LL6,000 -- except "3X3D," for LL10,000. For more info, ring 01-204-080 or see www.metropoliscinema.net.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/

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