Since I go into so many movies at the Chicago International Film Festival without any frame of reference, I was eager to catch the French drama Suzanne when it played over the weekend. (It screens again tomorrow at 2:30 PM.) The film is the second feature by writer-director Katell Quillévéré, whose first, Love Like Poison, played at CIFF two years ago. I had only vague memories of that film, but those memories were generally positive—in any case, I could go into the movie with some expectations.
I remembered finding Poison familiar in its general subject matter (a 14-year-old girl’s first encounters with sex and death), but precise in its handling of character and place. It was, in short, a solid debut, demonstrating a firm grasp of film form and paying homage (perhaps a bit too obviously) to some cinematic role models. Its greatest weakness, like so many first films, was a fear of taking risks, but this is understandable. When making a first impression, most people would prefer modest success over full-fledged failure. Unfortunately, modest debut films from other countries rarely play in the U.S. outside of festivals; and sure enough, Poison didn’t return to Chicago. But it gave me hope for what Quillévéré would do next, and Suzanne fulfilled those hopes to some extent.
The movie spans roughly 25 years, from the late 1980s to the present. Like Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, it advances forward in time without warning (sometimes days, sometimes years), creating the sense that time is constantly slipping away from the characters. Those characters include the eponymous heroine, her dutiful older sister, and their truck-driver father, a widower forced to become a more hands-on parent than he probably expected to be. Suzanne requires special attention from the start (when the movie begins, she’s hamming it up in a grade-school dance production) and she only becomes more difficult as she ages. A high school dropout, she has a child in adolescence and gets trapped in an on-again-off-again relationship with a petty criminal. She lands in jail, fails to rehabilitate herself afterward, and practically gets disowned by her ever-forgiving father and sister.
Like Poison, Suzanne can feel derivative of other recent French cinema. Hansen-Løve’s storytelling breakthroughs cast a large shadow over the picture, as do the deceptive formlessness of Maurice Pialat (Loulou, A Nos Amours), the music-inspired editing patterns of Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, and André Téchiné’s love of complex, self-contradicting characters. Yet Quillévéré doesn’t seem as enslaved to her models this time around—she seems to be working through them and slowly establishing her own voice. The most distinctive aspect of Suzanne is the film’s commitment to anticlimax. There’s never an epiphanic moment that convinces the heroine to stop screwing up her life; the world changes but she stays the same.
Quillévéré regards the character as an enigma, neither passing judgment nor encouraging sympathy. The most fascinating thing about the film is its pitilessness—if nothing else, it serves a rebuke to those who expect movies by female directors to be particularly sensitive or compassionate. Quillévéré grants her characters a certain autonomy, then waits for them to surprise her. This observant quality extends, as in her debut, to Quillévéré’s sense of place. Each location has its own distinct mood, colored by the people who inhabit it. Though Suzanne mainly takes place in working-class settings, it never feels like a social portrait—and, this in turn, adds to the sense of uncertainty. That Quillévéré never resolves that feeling is a good sign. It suggests that her third film will take even greater risks.