French filmmaker Katell Quillévéré’s second offering, Suzanne (2013), is an ambitious attempt to present a good twenty-five years (or perhaps, in greater detail, a decade) of her titular lead character’s life into a single ninety-minute feature. Following on from the coming-of-age trials of her debut, Love Like Poison (2010), Suzanne charts the stilted maturation of a flawed young woman. That Quillévéré manages to create an impressively touching dénouement to her latest offering is certainly praise-worthy. What comes before that is, regrettably, somewhat inconsistent with regards to how much it is possible to fully connect with and commit to her selfish heroine.
We first encounter Suzanne at a young age, readying herself for a role in an upcoming school dance recital. Her father, Nicolas (François Damiens), and younger sister, Maria (Adèle Haenel), watch on quietly as she performs her routine. This opening provides a neat reflection of the coming life in which she will always need to take centre stage. The film then jumps forward to a teenage Suzanne (Sara Forestier) learning she is accidentally pregnant, and then immediately to five years after that revelation. Her young son Charlie in tow, Suzanne walks out on her job and moves in with Maria to be closer to her new beau, small time-crook Julien (Paul Hamy). Eventually, Julien departs Marseilles, with Suzanne left to choose whether to follow him to pastures new or remain at home with her family.
Quillévéré’s sophomore drama thus follows the consequences of Suzanne’s actions on herself, and her nearest and dearest, through a series of short encounters throughout the proceeding ten years or so. Some provide touching emotional beats, whilst others result in something more akin to frustration at her character than anything approaching empathy. Some of this is down to the fact that the action jumps so readily from episode to episode that it never fully allows the characters the emotional time or space to tug on heartstrings. Another problem is the lack of a genuine sense of the love between Suzanne and Julien, undermining the difficulty of our protagonist’s choices.
Performances are uniformly good with Damiens and Haenel commendable as the lead’s endlessly-forgiving loved ones. Standing front and centre is the terrific Forestier, who manages to imbue her character with a fragility that belies her self-centred and irresponsible behaviour. That Suzanne is unable to continually win back the audience’s sympathy is hardly down to the performance as much as the character itself. Though it ends on a strong note, it’s hard not to leave Suzanne with the nagging frustrations that she was, herself, not emotive enough. Her family are the ones who the audience are more likely to feel for, resulting in a film that feels unsatisfying when the credits roll.
This review was originally published on 21 October 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.