Tuesday, 11 March 2014
The French writer-director Katell Quillévéré's debut feature Love Like Poison, a tight-focus account of a young girl's initiation into the Catholic church, was intriguing enough to make one want to see more from her. Her follow-up Suzanne has been composed on a grander scale: it has ambitions - something like an attempt to do 7-28 Up, or a chapter of the Heimat series, in one ninety-minute go - not to mention two recognisable gamines in the leading roles. These are the eponymous Suzanne and her younger sister Maria, daughters of a gruffly controlling, oft-absent trucker (François Damiens, from the Audrey Tautou romcom Delicacy); they're first seen at pre-school age, and later incarnated as teenagers and twentysomethings by Sara Forestier and Adèle Haenel respectively.
Part of Quillévéré's project here looks to be to counter the limiting, one-goes-one-way-the-other-the-other dualism that's crept into a lot of recent cinema: as though operating under the influence of the Courtney Love poster the girls have pinned to the wall of their post-uni, mid-90s bedsit, both will run wild, but at different times and in different ways. These girls go through phases - and it's these, as in the rite-of-passage of her debut, that Quillévéré is interested in. This phasing even manifests itself in the film's form: in regular blackouts that elide key life events, and turns each scene into a morning-after realisation of the night before. So it is that at one point, we find Suzanne entering jail for a crime of which we're not initially aware; the baby she's conceived with a passing jack-the-lad is seen first as an infant, then in care, then at school age - and if the film has a satisfying emotional throughline, it's the heroine's troubled relationship with a child she was almost certainly too young to have in the first place.
In widening the scope, Quillévéré has lost the absolute precision of her debut: Haenel's Maria remains somewhat underdeveloped as a character, the concluding section relies upon some dodgy ageing make-up, and a little too much of import is kept offscreen. A couple of films into her career, this director isn't quite as assured in her choices as Celine Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy) or, indeed, Claire Denis, the denmother of all these experiential female filmmakers. Yet Quillévéré's obvious affection for her characters - broadly comparable to a mother letting her young twins off the leash and out into the world in short bursts - is touching, and Suzanne is nothing if not a work of admirable economy and control: its final shot suggests this filmmaker is gradually allowing herself out into the world, too, and I emerged from this sophomore work still very much keen to see where she'll end up.
Suzanne opens in selected cinemas from Friday.