France (2013) Dir. Katell Quillévéré
After delivering a stunning debut in Love Like Poison, a potent brew of a coming of age sexual awakening tale and an exploration of crisis of faith, the second feature from French writer/director Katell Quillévéré hits us with another starkly probing drama, this time a story spanning two decades in the life of one family, hinged on the decisions made by the youngest member of the clan and the resonance of the resulting shockwaves they incur for everyone.
There is no plot to speak of, just the passages of time through which we leap in great strides with little warning or insight into what happens in between. We first meet the Merevsky family in the mid 80’s – truck driving father Nicolas (François Damiens) is bring up his two young daughters Maria and Suzanne alone following the death of their mother.
It seems the eponymous younger of the two is more capable of pushing her father’s buttons than her elder sister. We then jump forward the late 90’s and while Maria (Adèle Haenel) is away at a higher education, Suzanne (Sara Forestier) is pregnant, the father never discussed.
Skip forward a few more years and Suzanne is now working at the same truck hire company as her father, with whom she and her son Charlie (Timothé Vom Dorp) live while Maria has her own apartment. While out at the races one day Suzanne meets and spoon falls in love with petty criminal Julien (Paul Hamy), with whom she runs away leaving her son in the care of Maria and Nicolas.
From this point forward Suzanne’s life is a string of disasters which have devastating effects for her family, in some case more so, than for her. Yet they are not so far fetched that Quillévéré demands the audience suspends disbelief thus cannot invest themselves in the plight of the Merevsky family.
That said, one often finds themselves scratching their heads at how Suzanne is prone to making the same mistakes over, having not learned from them first time round. This makes for a slightly infuriating experience for the viewer but Quillévéré lets each situation grow naturally, this lack of contrivance creating an air of complete credibility.
The end result is that we find ourselves sitting in judgement of the cast yet we can’t help but empathise as it is apparent this is a family unit that desperately wants to be close to each other but grows increasingly distant due to their actions. Father Nicolas is often quick to anger but one can argue that Suzanne gives him cause to, especially as her troubles escalate.
Maria remains loyal to her younger sister, yet despairs of her, happily taking up the reigns of parenthood for Charlie while fuming at his mother’s irresponsibility. She is the glue that keeps the family together more often the conduit in bringing father and daughter together again, not always with cheerful results.
Arguably the most effective and heartbreaking scene comes midway through the film where Suzanne is in court after being arrested. As the clerk reads out the charges, the camera stays on Nicolas’s face, and we are left to watch as he slowly chokes up then storms out while hearing what his daughter has become and the punishment she faces.
Suzanne herself recognises this but as ever, we never know whether her tears are guilt for upsetting her father or fear of abandonment – an inference with some irony considering how she left her own son to be with Julien.
With a runtime of just 90 minutes, it may seem unfathomable that a two decade timeline can be covered sufficiently enough with coherent results but this is exactly what Quillévéré achieves. Lengthy exposition isn’t needed as each development speaks for itself and the dialogue is perfunctory, often bare, yet enough is said to satisfy our curiosities and keep us abreast of the developments. Minimalist cinema at its most effective.
The other aspect that requires praise is the keen attention paid to depicting the physical pages of time on the cast. Suzanne’s hair is different lengths throughout and her dress sense reflects her age. Nicolas and Julien are both bearded and clean shaven at various points, and Charlie is played by three different actors. Only Maria doesn’t seem to age much physically but her maturity is suggested more in her attitudes.
Quillévéré’s most obvious skill as a director is her ability to coax natural and emotive performances from her cast, to compliment the bare bones and intimate camerawork which often makes the viewer feel more like a voyeur than a distant observer. François Damiens is mostly know for playing the loser type in romantic comedies such as Delicacy; his essaying of Nicolas is a far cry from these roles, delivering a powerfully efficacious and emotively brooding performance that touches deeply.
Adèle Haenel is actually three years younger than her on-screen sister which occasionally shows (but is few inches taller), but she is able to pull off the idea of being the elder sister with an air of credibility, albeit being the most guarded character of the bunch.
But this is Sara Forestier’s film from the moment she appears in her stroppy teenage form to her last emotional scene. She carries the emotional weight as well as the physical burden with her character enduring so much of her life span. It is a nuanced turn, full of pitch perfect reactions, rich in subtle yearnings for sympathy despite being capricious and foolhardy in following her heart over her head. A role that deserves praise and reward in equal measures.
Suzanne may be Quillévéré’s second feature but it not only follows on the promise of her debut but serves as another delicious taster for what is sure to be a fulfilling career for both her and film fans alike. A touching and very real viewing experience which is not to be missed.