allure of a festival setting is typically found in its sense of discovery.
Several years ago, Katell Quillévéré’s debut film Love Like Poison was shown at the 47th Chicago International Film
Festival. While the prospects of viewing a French film contending with sexual
self-discovery registered as a little by-the-book, it proved to be a formidable
debut and one of lasting effect (I previously discussed Poison’s merits here).
Several years later and Quillévéré’s sophomore feature is prepared to screen, building
upon the strengths of her debut feature while looking to expand to a greater
audience. What comes of this is a successful film with clear signs of
directorial development, though one marred by over ambition.
Condensing a timeframe of well over three decades within a 90-minute runtime is a daunting task for any filmmaker, though Quillévéré tackles the challenge with the sort of enthusiastic confidence that can only come from a new director. Suzanne follows its titular character from childhood to adulthood, punctuating the low and high notes that lead her from life’s point A to point B. From tracking a childhood beauty pageant performance to the normative touchstones of high school adolescence, Quillévéré’s directorial success stems from a perpetually judicious eye. Never offering judgment, Quillévéré brings about an acute awareness of her character’s early innocence and her subsequent misgivings as she births a child out of wedlock and falls desperately in love with a criminal. It’s particularly interesting to see the director leverage such an even-keeled visage of a woman under the influence. The Cassavetes’ shout out isn’t too far off the mark when describing Quillévéré’s sensibilities. Like Cassavetes, Quillévéré has a great feel for all her characters, at least insofar as to their vocal rhythms and mannerisms. Quillévéré doesn’t share the sort of narrative freeform that Cassavetes is known for as there’s a great deal of structure in its passages. As Suzanne escapes adolescence and becomes a functioning adult, Quillévéré subscribes to a repeated musical pattern that springboard the narrative to another time in her life.
Suzanne defies expectations with Quillévéré making a statement on the self-entitlement of contemporary youth and the degradation of parental forces. It’s never quite clear where Suzanne is headed and while there’s a clear cut structure that’s imposed on the picture, there’s something oddly clumsy about certain passages. The best way I can make sense of this is that the picture’s freeform elements don’t coalesce with the imposing musical structure. Suzanne so often seems on the brink of exploding in a moment of emotional gravitas but ends up circling the proposal, opting to tighten but never releasing. By the picture’s end, the image of Suzanne’s broken-down face is not so much a release but an exemplification of what carrying that sort of burden can do. To borrow the trite adage, it’s two steps forward for Quillévéré in her measured direction and ability to draw out something of an informal performance from all her actors, one step back when the two don’t blend.