Nominated for a César for Best Original Screenplay, Suzanne (2013) is the second feature film by Ivory Coast-born writer-director Katell Quillévéré, one of an up-and-coming cadre of young women directors working in France that includes Céline Sciamma and Rebecca Zlowtowski.1 In telling the story of a young, independent-minded French woman who indulges her passionate yearnings in ways that threaten her romantic and familial relationships, Quillévéré alludes unmistakably, though perhaps unintentionally, to another Suzanne – the role indelibly inhabited by a 16-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire in her screen debut in Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (For Our Loves, 1983), for which she won her first César, for Most Promising Actress. In the role of Quillévéré’s Suzanne, Sara Forestier is a dead ringer for Bonnaire right down to the single dimple that Pialat, in the role of Suzanne’s father in À nos amours, points out is missing its twin. Yet what is different about the two films speaks volumes about the gendered perspectives of their respective authorship, about the all-important factor of socioeconomic status in determining women’s sexual independence, and about the persistent silence on the subject of class in so much cinema.
From their first scenes, À nos amours and Suzanne reveal their affinities and oppositions. Both films’ opening sequences depict their young protagonists preparing for, then enacting, diegetic performances. Bonnaire’s Suzanne is the leading lady in a summer camp performance of Musset’s 1834 play On ne badine pas avec l’amour (No Trifling with Love), based on the playwright’s tortured love affair with George Sand. Suzanne is first seen running lines alone, then shown at a dress rehearsal in a sun-dappled clearing costumed in a blush-hued, hoop-skirted gown and with a flower tucked in her hair. The men grouped around her are held rapt by her recitation, and invite her for a boating excursion.
The title sequence that follows, set to Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song,” is a single long take shot from the vantage point of her admiring onlookers as Suzanne stands at the boat’s bow, facing out at the sea as her skimpy white skirt dances tauntingly in the breeze.2 As the song concludes and “Un film de Maurice Pialat” appears on screen, Suzanne turns to face the camera and smiles in a way that conveys both her innocence and her awareness of the effect her beauty has on us and the diegetic admirers shown in the next shot. Establishing a precedent for the perverse familial romance to come, it is Suzanne’s brother (Dominique Besnehard) who speaks: “Regarde-la. Elle est belle, ma soeur” (“Look at her. My sister is pretty”). Contained within the frame, posed for voyeuristic pleasure and with Pialat’s authorial signature literally inscribed upon her body, Suzanne’s sexuality is not yet troubling. Only when the narrative and she commence their erotic pursuits does she pose a threat to the men who seek to control her.
Quillévéré’s Suzanne emerges in a less romanticised and sexualised fashion, as a chubby-cheeked tween in a multiracial troupe of tiny dancers, garishly made up and identically dressed in sparkly flapper costumes, preparing backstage and then performing a Charleston-inspired recital number. This Suzanne has two onlookers, her smiling and waving father and younger sister, her solemn look at hearing the crowd’s applause the film’s first subtle gesture towards her deceased mother as the cause of her underlying sadness and the catalyst for her actions to come.
A few elliptical sequences later and the sisters are teenagers. Younger but taller sibling Maria (Adèle Haenel), sent away for her studies, returns home to find Suzanne pregnant, father unknown. With Maria a seamstress in a Marseilles factory and Suzanne working an office job, freedom to enjoy nights out is now curtailed by having a child in tow. Their own father, a long-distance trucker, swallows his rage at Suzanne to pitch in with the childcare responsibilities that he relied on neighbours to perform for his girls. But when her son is still a toddler, Suzanne meets a baby-faced criminal Casanova for whom she’ll abandon her family and with whom she’ll eventually wind up incarcerated after being apprehended for robbery and assault. Deserted by his mother and determined to be insufficiently parented because of his guardian grandad so frequently being on the road, Suzanne’s son Charlie is sent into foster care.
Which is all to say that Quillévéré’s Suzanne treats female sexuality as subject to the realities of gender and class inequality, in which unprotected sex leads to pregnancy and bad (object) choices lead to prison. In his 1996 essay, “Is There Class in this Text?: The Repression of Class in Film and Cultural Studies,” David James sounds a protestation of the structuring silence resulting from the capitalist-driven dictate that articulations and discussions of class be excluded in even that most Marxist-influenced of institutions, the academy.3 The same silence reigns in narrative cinema itself, except where the explicit treatment of class oppression is the narrative’s raison d’être. Socioeconomic privilege affords one a blind spot when it comes to matters of class, such that À nos amours need not be concerned by the realities of its heroine’s family- and society-defying choices.
The single, passing glance that Pialat gives to the gendered concern with money comes when, after abandoning the family for his mistress, his character returns home and interrupts a festive dinner party to announce callously his intentions to sell the residence; “the power of money”, he intones while helping himself to their dinner. His bullying refusal to leave and the invective he calmly dispenses succeed in aligning the viewer for the first and only time with his estranged and soon to be homeless wife, played by Evelyne Ker, elsewhere presented as a shrew bitterly jealous of her daughter’s youthful sexual vitality.
Despite Quillévéré’s Suzanne’s recklessly romantic devotion to her gangster beau, that film’s strongest coupling is between sisters, whose loyalty and non-competitiveness serve as glaring counterpoint to Pialat’s depiction of female friendship, in which Bonnaire’s Suzanne arrives home from boarding school to find that her first love and her best friend are now together.
The father-daughter relationships at the heart of both Quillévéré’s and Pialat’s films are equally telling of gendered approaches to the “daddy’s girl” dynamic. In Suzanne, father Nicholas Merevsky (François Damiens) suffers his eldest daughter’s transgressions passively; while Suzanne chases her amour fou, both her father and sister are shown stoically sacrificing their own romantic options. Alternatively, in his role as “La Père”, Pialat assumes another position of authority alongside that of director. The confiding, intimate talks he shares with his daughter are among À nos amours’ most powerful sequences, the film and eventually Suzanne forgiving his domineering influence and abuse of her and her mother. Pialat co-wrote À nos amours with then-partner Arlette Langmann, and one senses her contribution in the empathy and depth with which Suzanne, and to some degree Suzanne’s mother, are drawn. Yet the film is unambiguously envisioned through a male gaze, one which Pialat professes to problematize vis-à-vis the lecherous father role he performs – going so far, in one scene, to teasingly invite himself into bed with his daughter and her best friend – but one never convincingly critical of its own indulgent leering at nubile flesh. To say that the camera ogles the teenage Bonnaire is an understatement; it casts the same appreciative glances as the many onscreen admirers her Suzanne attracts, flirts with, and more often than not beds.
“I wanted to construct a biopic of someone unknown, a very ordinary girl whose life path turns out to be extraordinary,” Quillévéré has said of her vision for Suzanne.4 Quillévéré’s contemporary, Céline Sciamma, also counters biopic convention in her latest feature Girlhood (2015), a coming of age story set in the working class Paris suburbs and featuring an all-black cast.
It is a tantalising approach for a woman filmmaker to take, for the way it challenges conventional notions, indisputably dictated by the Hollywood biopic, of what constitutes an important life and whose stories deserve telling. Agnès Varda did something similar in explicitly invoking Citizen Kane (1941) to tell the converse story of a female vagrant found dead in a ditch in Sans toi ni loi/Vagabond (1986), featuring another spellbinding, César-winning performance by Bonnaire. Like Vagabond’s Mona, Quillévéré’s Suzanne enters the pantheon of cinema’s unruly women, conjured by female directors as figures who actively resist social dictates on how to behave, of which there is no worse defiance than deserting one’s child.
Where Quillévéré’s working class Suzanne proves how feminism’s proclamations of choice fail in the face of socioeconomic disenfranchisement, Pialat’s bourgeois Suzanne is free to embrace the sexual freedoms of her day with no greater repercussions than a heavy heart and her mother’s envious slut-shaming. In this way, cinema’s sexual politics pronounce themselves in the juxtaposition between how two women, alike in name, appearance, and audacity, find themselves facing such disparate futures at films’ end, when each is only just embarking on actual adulthood.
A critic’s blurb from The Guardian termed Quillévéré’s film “unbearably moving”, astute insofar as you’re made to cringe even as you’re tearing up at the somewhat maudlin devices of melodrama Quillévéré employs.5 She freely admits to being inspired by Hollywood melodrama, wanting to shape “a story that strives for really strong emotions… while remaining close to the reality of the characters.”6 The result feels rather old-fashioned and un-French, though not uninteresting, in large part because Quillévéré makes the sage choice to keep the most climactic moments (including a tragedy in the third act) off-screen.
Yet rather like Todd Haynes’ retelling of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) in Far from Heaven (2002), the tenuous balance between revisionist distancing and affecting tone proves emotionally disconcerting here. Both Far from Heaven and Suzanne left me pining for the films that provoked them, if (in the case of À nos amours) only in my mind. It is on this note that I find the exploration of cinema’s sexual politics challenged, for I cannot pretend to prefer Suzanne over À nos amours, despite the former’s clear-eyed depiction of gendered socioeconomic realities and the latter’s entitled blindness to those realities within its blithe gratification of its director’s and audience’s erotic fantasies.
À nos amours closes with Suzanne preparing to depart for America to join her latest paramour in San Diego. Apparently reconciled, her father accompanies her to the airport in the scene that closes the film with a figurative handing over of the bride from father to husband. While Suzanne also leaves us with a scene of father and daughter reconciling, the realism of their situation has not changed. Having given herself and her drug-smuggling lover up at the Marseilles border, Suzanne remains incarcerated, though now in a minimum-security prison where she can continue to raise their infant daughter, and where her newly retired father and now-teenage son can visit. Though Suzanne’s is the more realistic ending, it is also the more cinematically conventional and Hollywood-ized, with reunited father and grandson driving off into the sunset. À nos amours takes its cue, instead, from the French New Wave, in an allusion to the famously indeterminate freeze-frame that ends Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
Nina Simone’s mournful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, heard in the lyrical last moments of Quillévéré’s film, leaves a final echo of a female artist’s revising of the male idealisation of woman as muse. The song is based on Cohen’s 1966 poem “Suzanne Takes You Down”, inspired by Cohen’s reportedly platonic relationship with Montreal artist and proto-manic pixie dream girl Suzanne Verdal, whom he marvels is “half crazy” and yet he’s “touched her perfect body” with his mind. Quillévéré’s choice to use the cover by Simone, an African-American born into poverty who appropriated her music for civil rights activism, reveals another aim, this time no doubt intentional, to signal a re-envisioning of the gaze by those long denied access to it. Quillévéré sees through the blind spots of gendered looking and class privilege in telling her Suzanne’s story, and the film succeeds on this and other levels. Yet reflecting on the still-intoxicating À nos amours, I’m reminded of how less than pristine sexual politics do not prevent a film from possessing that ineffable je ne sais quoi.
- Suzanne remains without distribution outside of Europe, but a Region 2 DVD is available through Amazon UK. ↩
- The David Bowie-discovered German pop-opera performer Nomi, né Sperber, famously performed this piece, his rendition of the “Cold Genius” aria from Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur, or The British Worthy, in his last live performance before his death from HIV-related illness in 1983. ↩
- A reprint of James’ essay appears in A Companion to Film Theory, ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 182-201. ↩
- John Hopewell, “Katell Quillévéré: ‘Destiny Really Fascinates me,’” Variety, 16 January 2014, http://variety.com/2014/film/global/katell-quillevere-destiny-really-fascinates-me-1201061462/ ↩
- Catherine Shoard, “Cannes 2013: Suzanne – review,” The Guardian, 27 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/17/cannes-2013-suzanne-review ↩
- Hopewell, 2014. ↩