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Are all relationships between older men and younger women abusive ones? Do the young women who take part in such relationships hold any level of responsibility? Is it “OK” to be attracted to somebody more than twice your age, and, if so, can you act on that desire? Is it too French to be asking such questions, especially in a movie?
These are some of the many thoughts evoked by Spring Blossom (Seize Printemps), a provocative first feature from writer-director-actress Suzanne Lindon that depicts the love affair between a 16-year-old high school student and a theater actor in his 30s. The fact that Lindon herself plays the student, and that she’s only 20 (and first wrote the film when she was 15), adds yet another tangled layer to a subject that’s already become so controversial in France and elsewhere you need to handle it with heavy-duty gloves.
And yet, what may be even more provocative about Lindon’s debut is how little the age issue comes up — it’s mentioned only once, and at the very end of the film — with the story focusing more on how Suzanne, a very smart and very bored teenager, falls for Raphaël (Arnaud Valois, BPM), an actor performing in a nearby theater, and how she transforms her crush into an intense, short-lived tryst that feels like a genuine romance.
At a time when the French intelligentsia face accusations of rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment among its ranks, whether in the worlds of film (Roman Polanski, Luc Besson, Christophe Ruggia), literature (Gabriel Matzneff) or dance, Lindon’s decision to tackle the subject from her own perspective will definitely garner some attention, and possibly raise some eyebrows. (The film was included in the Cannes 2020 selection and premiered in Toronto, to be followed by a European bow in San Sebastian.)
Yet Spring Blossom is much less of a headline-grabber than it is a rather modest tale of one girl’s lost innocence, harking back to earlier works like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (the book, not the overcooked movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud), as well as to recent films like Joanna Hogg’s excellent The Souvenir — autobiographical stories where such affairs serve as bildungsroman experiences for their young heroines.
Spring Blossom exists in the same vein, but, unlike Duras, eschews any depictions of sex or intimacy. What we see is a mostly platonic affair between two lonely and cultivated people looking for a little companionship in the big city. “So what if she’s only a teenager?” Lindon seems to be saying, or at least implying by refusing to make age the centerpiece of her story. Still, the age difference is always there, unspoken and uncomfortably present, as the thing that could drive this would-be couple apart.
Clocking in at a mere 73 minutes, the film ultimately asks a lot more questions than it answers, sticking forever to Suzanne’s side as she experiences the swoons and heartbreaks of first love. The dialogue is scant, as is the action, to the extent that Spring Blossom sometimes feels like a short stretched to feature length, with a bit too much dead air, lots of musical interludes and not quite enough narrative force.
It also suffers from a very privileged, Parisian point-of-view that some viewers may find suffocating. Lindon is the daughter of two of France’s most renowned actors, Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, and the harmony of Suzanne’s bourgeois household — with its tasteful French literature and music, loving parents and siblings, spacious kitchen and picturesque Montmartre setting — feels both too good to be true and dramatically constrictive: The film’s only real suspense hovers around Suzanne’s secret relationship, and yet her mom (Florence Viala) and dad (Frédéric Pierrot) seem so warm and understanding, you’re never worried they’ll be upset about it.
Still, you can hardly blame a first-time 20-year-old director for making a movie about what she knows, and Lindon never seems to stray far from her world. By casting herself as the lead, she puts you in her shoes, which can be a curious place to be once the relationship between Suzanne and Raphaël takes flight — and literally takes flights of fancy when the two consummate their attraction via a series of interpretive dances, with hand gestures and other movements replacing more suggestive forms of physical contact.
From the very start, Lindon makes it clear that Suzanne is the initiator in this affair. A mature girl who seems to be a head above her friends and classmates (“I’d give everyone a 5,” is how she rates them at a party that bores her to tears), she’s looking for something better — and finds it when she spots Raphaël outside a neighborhood theater, where he’s starring in what appears to be a modern adaptation of Oreste.
Stricken by the older, handsome and rather gentle-looking man, Suzanne becomes something of a stalker, watching Raphaël’s rehearsals in secret and spending lots of time at a nearby café just waiting for him to notice her. When he does, they begin going on dates together, getting breakfast in the morning, talking about books, theater and opera. You know, the things people in Montmartre like to do.
Spring Blossom works best when it underlines how much Suzanne’s encounter with Raphaël is transformative. Early on in the movie, she’s still a girl between two ages — an idea highlighted by the only two posters taped to her bedroom wall: one for Disney’s Bambi, the other for Maurice Pialat’s coming-of-age drama, À nos amours, with its frank depictions of a 15-year-old girl’s sex life. (The lead character is also called Suzanne, which was the title for À nos amours at one point.)
After seeing Raphaël, the taciturn Suzanne blossoms into another person. Suddenly she’s trying (and failing) to put on eyeliner in the morning, dancing in the middle of the street or, in what’s probably the film’s most sensual scene, making out with herself in the mirror.
At such moments you tend to forget the elephant in the room, which is the age gap, and can just appreciate the fact that Suzanne has finally fallen in love. Likewise, the forlorn and solitary Raphaël, tired of doing the same show night in, night out, has found someone he can confide in between all the rehearsals and performances.
For a while their relationship almost seems, gulp, “normal.” But when Raphaël eventually brings Suzanne around to meet cast and crew after a show, the creepiness sets in again. Doesn’t anyone see how young she is? Or is the fact that nobody says anything — perhaps because this is the French intelligentsia — even more troubling?
Lindon lets such ideas assail us without ever taking sides or pointing fingers, turning Spring Blossom into a tale of budding love and broken hearts rather than a public condemnation. To some this may prove disconcerting, especially when relationships like the one between Suzanne and Raphaël have continued to make headlines in France as cases of abuse. The fact that Lindon doesn’t judge the situation as much as she simply shows it is a sign of her intelligence as a promising young filmmaker — one who has both dared to expose herself onscreen and then dared to let the audience judge for themselves.
Production companies: Avenue B Productions, Bangumi, Eswkad
Cast: Suzanne Lindon, Arnaud Valois, Frédéric Pierrot, Florence Viala
Director, screenwriter: Suzanne Lindon
Producer: Caroline Bonmarchand
Director of photography: Jérémie Attard
Production designer: Caroline Long Nguyên
Costume designer: Julia DunoyerEditor: Pascale Chavance
Venues: TIFF (Discovery); San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)
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