Partir is a superior genre film – the kind of quality film that once inhabited British cinemas in the late 1940s. These days it is what passes as an ‘art film’ because it is in French and aimed at people over 40. Several people in the audience as I left the cinema were raving about Kristin Scott Thomas and her performance. But there’s more to it than that – even if she is very good indeed.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Suzanne (Scott Thomas) is a French wife and mother who decides to return to work as a physiotherapist/reflexologist. Samuel, her husband (Yvan Attal) is not very gracious about paying for the work on her new workspace. But a new builder is hired and Suzanne falls for Ivan (Sergi Lopez) almost immediately. Samuel is not the kind of man to accept that his wife is in love with someone else, especially when she is so clearly smitten.
There are several intriguing aspects of this short (85 mins) film. Writer-director Catherine Corsini worked with two other women, co-writer Gaëlle Macé and cinematographer Agnès Godard (often associated with Claire Denis) to produce a film which gives Scott-Thomas plenty to get her teeth into, including some believable sex scenes – which as we know are often best directed by women. Given the short running time, I was impressed by how much was crammed into the script and how the genre repertoires were exploited in different ways. Primarily a realist love story/marital drama, there are also elements of melodrama and crime film. I kicked myself at the end for not recognising how much music was in the film. Asking myself “is this a melodrama?” I was aware that I just hadn’t noticed the music until the closing sequence. Yet when the credits came up, I saw that I’d passed over music by Georges Delerue taken from several Truffaut films including Vivement dimanche!(1983) and La femme d’à côté (1981). Now I think about it there is more music including songs sung by Sergi Lopez and the children. If there is any ‘excess’ in the film, it is probably in the sensual overload offered by the scenery – Ivan and Suzanne find a love nest in the hills of Languedoc-Roussillon (the main location is Nîmes) and enjoy a trip to the beaches of Catalunya. I think the overt displays of emotion also push the film towards melodrama, though always ‘realist melodrama’.
In some ways the question to ask is why is French Cinema able to offer these kinds of roles where British Cinema can’t? Why is it seemingly easier for top quality female directors to make films in France? It isn’t just Kristin Scott Thomas either. Brenda Blethyn has just appeared in London River and Tilda Swinton in the Italian film I Am Love. Not only that, but the last French film I saw celebrated another British export to French culture, Jane Birkin, as a character. There is something wrong with British Cinema and whatever it is won’t be helped by scrapping the Film Council.
One last thought – just as in I Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is given a back story to justify her English accent. Is this now in her contract? Over to you Des.
If having a backstory to explain Kirsten Scott-Thomas’s accent is in her contract, it’s well worth the price as she carried the film. Her backstory as an au pair who stayed in France from about the age of 19 certainly would remove any curiosity an audience might have at a slight foreign accent but in this case her character’s foreignness also links her to Ivan’s and links them in opposition to the husband (Yvan Attal)’s upper-middle class Frenchness.
On the film as a whole, I find myself largely in agreement with Roy’s reaction yet, for me, the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of the parts and while I quite liked the film (and I could watch a financial services ad if set in Nimes with music by Delerue), I felt it fell a little short of expectations. Perhaps it’s a question of character motivation, and I found the bit where they broke in and stole and tried to flog the expensive artwork etc a bit implausible, especially given his criminal record (and it might have been interesting to find out what he was inside for! Does Suzanne have no curiosity?) I suppose we can put her actions down to amour fou but wouldn’t he be a bit more cautious? And I don’t feel that Sergi Lopez was well cast.
And regarding genre, maybe it wasn’t nearly melodramatic enough. Comparisons are odious but I couldn’t help comparing the film unfavourably to Io son amore/I am love – with which it has much in common.
Regarding Scott-Thomas, she seems to have grown as an actor since she has been doing more French films (and jettisoned that ridiculous “ice-queen” image of Four Weddings and an English Patient). Having missed the Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”, I didn’t realise she played the redoubtable Aunt Mimi. Anyone seen it? I’ll have to get hold of the DVD.
We posted on Nowhere Boy earlier this year.
I agree it was superior genre stuff that was held up by the quality of some of the central acting. It was a dead ringer for a mini-series on British television in the late 90s called Pure Wickedness starring Orla Brady, Kevin Whately and David Morrissey and created by Lucy Gannon, who is responsible for some very successful tv drama in the UK. In fact, it suffered by the comparison (although I know it’s going to be obscure) because the tv series developed many of the same ideas – controlling, emotionally distant husband, passionate/responsive working class lover – and had a longer time frame to evolve them without some of the melodramatic punches – making the situations much more character-driven and believable (and not so contrived as described above). Therefore, something about Partir kept striking me as having the potential for domestic tv drama, uncomfortably adapted to be cinematic.
While I enjoyed the set-up – the first half an hour or so, which flirts with comedy – the shift in tone once Suzanne leaves her husband left me struggling. To be honest, the more hysterical the film became, the more restless I got. Samuel’s development (if that’s the right word) from complacent but actually rather indulgent husband to Victorian cad felt ridiculous given the ‘realist’ mode of the film. None of which should detract from the quality of the acting generally and Scott-Thomas in particular.
Could this be the melodrama problem again, John. I didn’t see the comedy you refer to and I thought the husband was fairly odious from the off – but perhaps I was subconsciously reading it as a melo – and you clearly weren’t? I’m not saying that you are wrong – just pointing out that we read things differently.
Re: comedy, I’m thinking specifically of the dinner scene with Samuel’s parents which I thought hinted at a black comedy direction. There is also a lightness of touch in the first part of the film, relatively-speaking, that is not a million miles from ‘rom-com’ territory – again, the genre issue. And while I don’t think Samuel would have won any prizes on Mr & Mrs before Suzanne left him, the escalation of his behaviour was preposterous (I would hope – maybe there are men like that…). I suspect you are right that this was a (self-consciously) melodramatic device but it didn’t work for me.