With Suzanne, French filmmaker Katell Quillévéré set herself an ambitious undertaking in squeezing 25+ years of a characters life into just 90 minutes. As was the case with the recent Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, certain concessions need to be made in order to cover such a time span and the challenge lies in maintaining logic and clarity in the narrative despite the necessary leaps in time and place. Whilst not as epic in scope as the Nelson Mandela biopic, Suzanne is a challenge at times as it tracks the tribulations of the aimless, selfish and, at times, infuriating titular character. This second feature from Quillévéré (following 2010’s Love Like Poison) is a socio-realist drama set firmly within France’s working class that can be confusing at first but ultimately emerges as an emotional and touching film.
The opening scenes are delightful as we meet little Suzanne, her widowed truck driver dad and younger sister Maria enjoying a seemingly happy existence in the Languedoc region of France. From here, we jump forward in time to Suzanne (Sara Forestier) about to leave secondary school and announcing she is pregnant. We flash forward another five years or so to find Suzanne working in the office of the trucking company that employs her father Nicolas (Francois Damiens). However, when Suzanne meets small-time criminal Julien (Paul Hamy), she is smitten and abandons her job and her son Charlie to embark on a series of misadventures that leave her broke and with little regard for the impact her actions are having on her own wellbeing or those who around her. Forestier is very good, imbuing Suzanne with a vacuous persona, seemingly oblivious to any responsibilities she has as a parent, daughter or sister. Even when Julien leaves her to take the rap for a botched robbery, she refuses to use this as a catalyst for change, sashaying back into his arms despite his myriad mistruths and false promises that only lead to more trouble. Suzanne makes occasional attempts to reconnect with her son – who we see grow from a toddler to a teenager – but she is ultimately unable to muster any long term maternal commitment to Charlie.
Whilst Forestier is very effective in the lead role, the performances of Damiens and Adele Haenel as Maria are also exceptional as her put-upon family. Nicolas is utterly dismayed at Suzanne’s actions and when he is unable to look after Charlie due to his job requiring extended absences from home, he is forced to submit his grandson into foster care. Damiens delivers a performance of great subtlety and despair in his achingly poignant portrait of paternal love. In one courthouse scene, you can almost hear his heart breaking as he listens to the litany of charges being directed at his daughter. Maria, meanwhile, transforms from good time girl to a mature young woman desperate to make her own way in the world, only to find herself constantly being sucked into the vortex of her sister’s downward spiral. Haenel is terrific – a captivating presence – and it is no surprise she picked up the Best Supporting Actress award at the 2014 Cesars – the French equivalent of the Academy Awards. What is it about French actresses named Adele this year?
In keeping with the realist aesthetic, the ageing of the characters is achieved with a subtlety that slowly creeps up on you and is all the more effective for it. At times, the woozy hand-held camera style renders a documentary feel to proceedings, an approach that serves the material well. There is nothing flashy about this film and I can’t help but draw comparisons with the likes of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Although the action jumps rapidly from episode to episode and there is much that we don’t see (such as the robbery for which Suzanne is arrested) or know (the identity of Charlie’s father) this doesn’t detract from the film. Quillévéré has demonstrated considerable skill and confidence as a filmmaker, drawing uniformly strong performances from her cast. The costumes and production design effectively invoke a sense of time, place and social class. Although Suzanne remains distant to those around her – and the audience as well – there are sufficient lyrical moments and poetic interludes that prevent the film from becoming too downbeat.