An elliptical life torn apart by love and crime, Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne offers a journey back to happiness and family through absence.
Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The story of a life from childhood innocence to an adulthood skewered by bad decisions, Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne couldn’t at first sight be more different from her debut film Love Like Poison and its tale of a young girl caught up in religious devotion. And yet, Suzanne with its focus on those difficult years of youth – through unintended pregnancy, dead-end jobs and dangerous loves – is just as much a film about growing up and confusion, Suzanne’s development turned upside-down by her unexpected son and her love for bad-boy Julien, living out her teenage rebellion and recklessness in the prime of motherhood. Partway between A Bout de Souffle, with its delinquent romance, and Betty Blue, with its Marseille-set ‘amour fou’, Suzanne follows the elliptical journey of one girl’s road to womanhood, through crime and punishment to responsibility and independence. It’s a bittersweet story of another poisonous love and the woman who survives to tell the tale.
Suzanne is dancing in a performance at her primary school, watched from the stands by her sister Maria and dad Nicolas (François Damiens). The two girls are left by themselves while their lorry-driving father is away, but does his best to care for them and drives them to their mother’s grave to lay flowers together. A few years later, the teenage girls are working, studying and flirting with boys. Until Suzanne (Sara Forestier) suddenly falls pregnant, father unknown. Another few years on, Suzanne meets Julien (Paul Hamy) at the races, a drug dealer and petty crook for whom she gives up her job and moves to Marseille to live with her sister before abandoning her son Charlie and joining Julien in a life on the lam. After disappearing for years, much to her family’s worry, she’s arrested and imprisoned for burglary. And while Maria (Adèle Haenel) and her father try to look after Charlie, he’s eventually put into a foster home due to the lorry-driver’s long days on the road. It’s a devastating blow to Suzanne behind bars and the beginning of a new life – casting off her old loves and ties on the road to independence.
With a story running over twenty years, Suzanne is a film of absences – from the protagonist’s literal disappearance from the film into an off-screen life of crime to the cuts that mark an ellipsis of several years – from childhood to adolescence, the passage of time only recorded in her son Charlie’s development. But Quillévéré’s Suzanne is also a film of absences in that most of the significant events in Suzanne’s life are missing – the faceless boy who changes her life by making her pregnant, birth and motherhood. Instead Quillévéré focuses on the everyday details of the sisters’ relationship, their disappointed father and her irresponsible love for Julien. And by picking out the minor-key events, it distorts Suzanne’s life, her relationship with Charlie barely getting a mention compared to her desperate love affair with Julien. And her life feels like a life turned upside-down when she’s saddled with parenthood before living out her youthful excesses or experiencing her great love. It’s only in prison that Suzanne starts to gain control over her life – devastated by the news that her son has been placed in foster care. And even if she returns to Julien after a chance encounter on a bus, she’s not so easily cowed into following him blindly into the shady underworld of drug dealing, shopping him (and herself) at the border in an act of self-determination for the sake of her daughter Solange.
Family is key to Suzanne – the broken relationship with her father, disappointed by her irresponsibility, hurt by her disappearance and ashamed by her imprisonment. But there’s also a strong bond between the two sisters – encapsulated in the moving scene in which Suzanne runs with Marie for her train, realising a touching goodbye on the platform – a closeness that is put under pressure when she moves in or abandons her son, but is unearthed when Suzanne finds herself again in prison – the presence (and absence) of her family gaining a new importance. And even when she flees the country to Morocco, Suzanne is no longer completely absent – sending her father a photo of her newly born daughter or buying a scooter for her son for a nocturnal visit. So it’s a devastating blow when Suzanne finds a memorial plaque to her sister on her mother’s grave – another absence now tearing her sense of family apart – Maria buried over two months ago after a car accident on the motorway. But it’s a void that’s finally filled when in the final reel both her father and son come to visit her in prison.
Both the female leads, Sara Forestier and Adèle Haenel, as well as François Damiens as Suzanne’s father and the Belmondo-like Paul Hamy are great. And the cinematography by Tom Harari creates an intimate portrait of life in the raw. Like Claire Denis’ recent Bastards, it’s curiously elliptic, but with flashes of emotional brilliance – due to robust and moving performances from Suzanne‘s leads. The film is bookended by dance sequences, beginning with a young tutued Suzanne at the beginning and ending with her son Charlie streetdancing – a kinetic icon of the promise of youth. Presumably inspired by Nina Simone’s lesser known B-side that plays the film out, Suzanne is the story of a half-crazy girl drawing others in to her vortex of love. And as son and grandfather drive off into the sunset, the broken circle of family has been repaired, proving the strength of bonds not so easily broken. For while in Quillévéré’s Suzanne, love is a violent and destructive force, it’s also a watchtower – with the shadow of family leaning over her.
Suzanne is released on 14th March 2014 in the UK