An insouciant Frenchwoman falls for the wrong guy in the mostly realistically staged but artificially structured “Suzanne,” an overly ambitious second feature from Katell Quillevere (“Love Like Poison”). Though it’s just over 90 minutes long, the story charts 25 years in the life of not only the protag but also her dad, sister and criminal lover, with ellipses occurring so frequently that the pic almost feels like an extended trailer for an entire season of a French working-class daytime drama. However, lead thesp Sara Forestier (“The Names of Love”) is mesmerizing, and Francophone and fest auds should be intrigued.
The opening scene shows little Suzanne (Apollonia Luisetti) onstage at a cutely amateurish dance performance, followed by a handful of subsequent domestic scenes in which the girl interacts with her widowed truck-driver dad (Francois Damiens) and her little sister, Maria (Fanie Zanini). While the early going thankfully avoids facile psychological explanations for how these characters will turn out later in life, Quillevere is at such pains to show they’re just a regular family that these scenes lack focus or a sense of purpose (they could have been substituted with countless others).
When the girls are in their teens and Forestier and Adele Haenel (as Maria) take over, things quickly grow more complex. Not even 15 minutes in, Dad is told his eldest is pregnant. Suzanne decides to keep the child “because she feels like it,” and before her father (and the viewer) can process the information, there’s another ellipsis and little Charlie (Timothe Vom Dorp as a baby, Maxim Driesen as a young child) is simply part of the family.
While out with Charlie, Maria and Maria’s latest squeeze, Suzanne meets Nicolas (Paul Hamy), who immediately sees MILF potential in his new acquaintance. (He: “Does this kid have a dad?” She: “No.”). A particularly strong visual sequence — a long shot of the two going in separate directions on a rainy Marseilles square, but running back to each other for one last kiss several times — superbly conveys that they are in love.
It’s one of several instances in which a documentary-like look at these lower-class creatures (courtesy of lenser Tom Harari) is elevated to a fairy-tale-like register, suggesting that lyrical moments occur in everybody’s lives. The more poetic interludes also keep the film from being too continually downbeat.
There’s certainly more than enough to be depressed about, including Nicolas’ (offscreen) entry into crime, initially only hinted at by a conversation in which he confesses he’ll “need to leave for a while.” When a subsequent scene shows an ever-grayer Dad telling a hitchhiker he hasn’t seen his daughter in a year, it’s clear something serious has happened. But viewers won’t figure that out right away; with such vital story points initially obscured, it’s hard to sympathize with these characters, who seem to know more than the audience does.
Indeed, Quillevere, co-scribe Mariette Desert and editor Thomas Marchand struggle to keep audiences fully involved in the story, which may be named after Suzanne, but occasionally sees her drop out of her own film. There are scenes, such as a moment when Suzanne is hospitalized for a mystery illness, that aren’t connected to anything else and serve little purpose, other than perhaps to suggest that this also happened in Suzanne’s life.
Thankfully, the performances are all first-rate. Forestier amply demonstrates she can do more than play silly sex kittens, showing a broad palette of emotions, all beautifully underplayed. Haenel (“Water Lilies”) has great chemistry with Forestier as the less reckless, more responsible of the siblings, and comic Damiens shows that his ace dramatic turn in “The Wolberg Family” was no fluke. Hamy (“On My Way”), a charismatic non-pro who looks like Tom Hardy’s younger brother, is equally excellent.
Production design, costumes, makeup and hair evoke the 1990s and 2000s in an organic rather than obsessive manner, while the music by Electrelane’s Verity Susman is atmospheric and appropriately rocky.