Suzanne: Cannes Review

An episodic coming-of-age story whose plot holes are paved over by strong performances and a few emotional highlights.

Sara Forestier and Francois Damiens star in writer-director Katell Quillevere's follow-up to her award-winning 2010 debut, "Love Like Poison."

CANNES -- A young woman’s turbulent life is sliced and diced into a series of short, touching and occasionally poignant episodes in Suzanne, the sophomore feature from writer-director Katell Quillevere, whose debut Love Like Poison premiered in the 2010 Directors’ Fortnight and went on to win France’s prestigious Louis Delluc prize. Although less narratively succinct than her previous effort, this well-cast coming-of-age drama is marked by standout performances from Sara Forestier and Francois Damiens, and should see sufficient Francophone and art-house play following an opening night slot in Cannes’ Critics’ Week.

Like the subject of Leonard Cohen’s titular song – featured during the film’s closing credits in a live cover by Nina Simone – the decades-spanning story (co-written with Mariette Desert) has a breezy, passionate and somewhat erratic feel, hopping ahead from one plot point to the next and barely slowing down to let it all sink in.

As such, it doesn’t always prove effective, especially during a denouement that creeps towards genre territory without convincingly laying down the groundwork for it. But other moments, particularly in the movie’s lengthy mid-section, are both realistically handled and, at times, extremely moving, thanks in a large part to terrific turns from Forestier (The Names of Love), Adele Haenel (House of Tolerance) and Damiens (Nothing to Declare)–in a rare non-comic role that proves the Belgian actor definitely has the chops for drama.

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Kicking off with a chintzy children’s dance show that will be mimicked later on by a contemporary hip-hop one, we first see young Suzanne (Apollonia Luisetti) and her older sister, Maria (Fanie Zanini), riding along with their truck-driving dad, Nicolas (Damiens), to visit the gravesite of their deceased mother. While the three seem to share a solid and loving bond, Nicolas can be a harsh disciplinarian, and, as a single father raising two girls, he also seems a bit lost amid the whims and attitudes of his daughters.

Cut to black and then to several years later, where Suzanne (Forestier) is now a grunge-loving high school student who has some bad news for daddy: she’s pregnant, and it’s already too late to abort. From here on in, their lives, as well as that of Maria (Haenel), will be forever transformed, and Quillevere spends the rest of the movie revealing how such events impact the already fragile family unit.

Indeed, things soon go from bad to worse when, a few years down the road, Suzanne falls for a small-time gangster (the excellent Paul Hamy, On My Way) and pretty much abandons her son, Charlie (Maxim Driesen), in the hands of her father and sister, who now works as a seamstress in Marseilles.

Similar to Love Like Poison, which portrayed a teenage girl coping with an absentee dad and depressive mom, the film's strongest sequences show how the rest of the family deals with Suzanne's increasingly chaotic lifestyle, including a botched robbery attempt that eventually lands her in jail. This leads to the movie’s most memorable scene, during which she’s sentenced to prison while Maria and Nicolas look on from the audience—a scene whose immense power is conveyed through only a handful of words and sidelong glances.

Yet while Quillevere admirably favors emotions over explanations, such a technique proves less effective during the movie’s final section, which tracks Suzanne after her release and, following a very dubious coincidence, back into a life she had initially turned away from. This is further dampened by an episodic structure that tends to saunter through certain pivotal events – such as Suzanne’s suicide attempt – making it difficult to grasp onto a story that keeps slipping away towards the future.

Still, things are well anchored by Forestier’s fervent performance, proving that the young French actress, who was first discovered in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Games of Love and Chance, has since matured into a bona fide talent—one capable of portraying volatile characters (see Jacques Doillon’s recent Love Battles) without resorting to hysterics. Likewise, Damiens underplays Nicolas to such an extent that when he occasionally erupts in anger, it feels both real and necessary.

Alongside the first-rate acting, Suzanne features sharp naturalistic cinematography by Tom Harari and a poetic electro-rock soundtrack by Verity Susman (from the Brit girl band Electrelane), whose compositions are blended with well-chosen period tracks from Courtney Love's Hole and the now defunct French ensemble, Noir Desir.

Production companies: Move Movie

Cast: Sara Forestier, Adele Haenel, Francois Damiens, Paul Hamy

Director: Katell Quillevere

Screenwriters: Katell Quillevere, Mariette Desert

Producer: Bruno Levy

Director of photography: Tom Harari

Production designer: Anne Falgueres

Music: Verity Susman

Costume designer: Moira Douguet

Editor: Thomas Marchand

Sales Agent: Films Distribution

No rating, 94 minutes