Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2016 6:07 pm 
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A coming-of-age story and exploration of memory and place

Pascale Breton's fascinating and satisfying new film, her first feature since her distinctive 2004 debut, Illumination (SFIFF 2005), dramatizes her autobiographical protagonist's return to her native Brittany. A festival blurb calls this a "rapturous ensemble film about the persistence of the past in the present." It is that, and despite its nearly two-and--half-hour length, I found it a continual pleasure for its handsome use of digital imagery, its layered screenplay, and its interesting characters. The plot revolves around Françoise (Valérie Dréville), a gifted art historian who leaves Paris and her longtime companion, with whom she's lived for fifteen years, to teach at her alma mater in Rennes. She says she has begun to find Paris "stifling." In Rennes she encounters former schoolmates, many of whom have never left. As she arrives at the university so does a tall, poetic and slightly wild geography student with exploding hair called Ion (Kaou Langoët), who quickly falls in love with a beautiful and assured blind girl called Lydie (Manon Evenat). Ion has issues, for good reason, with his wayward mother, ex-hyppie Moon (Elina Löwensohn), to whom Françoise used to be very close. The separate threads -- though we guess that sooner or later Françoise and Ion will come together -- allow Breton to explore Françoise's past and present, even, toward the end, her childhood, when she used to fetch plants for her grandfather, a Breton healer. Through Ion, Breton explores the development of a youth in the present moment.

Geography and art history are important themes. So are meetings and reconnections. It's not surprising that eventually Proust is mentioned and there's something Proustian about the way Lydie can identify Ion by his smell. "Armorica" is an ancient geographical designation to a region roughly comprising Brittany and a bit more. In one of their first geography classes Ion and Lydie are shown how to use a stereopticon device to look at a topographical photograph. Of course she can't see it, just as one can't recapture one's past. Françoise has a black and white photograph of revelers from the early Eighties in which she and others appear. They include Moon, and John Le Scieller (Laurent Sauvage), now a successful musician, whom "everyone was in love with then" because he was "super-handsome," but Françoise barely know. Now, John seeks her out. There is also the slightly crazy "La Grande Catherine" (Catherine Riaux) whom Françoise drinks wine and dances with in her swaying tower apartment at what was to have been a party where her former lovers would appear, but without her knowledge it was cancelled.

Ion is a bit of a wild and wayward boy, like Ildut Le Du (Clet Beyer), the disturbed protagonist of Breton's first film Illumination, who hears voices, becomes cut off from the world, and is only motivated to get better after he becomes obsessed with a young woman. Ion denies that Moon is his mother. When she turns up and meets him for the first time in four years, invading his dorm room with her seedy boyfriend Dav (Tangi Daniel) and two cronies, he lets them stay, but flees and begins to live like a homeless person himself, though somehow still pursuing his studies. There is a thread of wildness that runs through the film, somehow balanced by Françoise's intelligence and her impressive, soothing performances in the classroom. But she has a dream (handsomely realized) in which a large sphinx blocks every roadway, and the ATM machine is only in the Breton language. Her grandparents spoke it fluently, her parents only a little; she knows only a few words. But two young men from the university's department of Breton and Celtic Studies interview her, and she recovers "frozen" memories of her grandfather that make her weep.

The film brings art history to life, not only with Françoise's lectures but her visits to the Rennes Museum of Fine Arts, where she goes repeatedly but notes to her class she has seen none of them -- except that she unknowingly crosses paths there with Ion, sitting on a bench contemplating George de la Tour's (typically) striking painting, "Newborn Infant." The way painting interpretation appears reminded me of John Schlesinger's A Question of Attribution, and the memorable use of an art museum brought to mind Jem Cohen's subtle docudrama Museum Hours (SFIFF 2013).

Françoise's lectures are interesting. Perhaps a bit obvious but nonetheless touching is her first one (even previewed in her sound test of her mike) when she shows a blowup of Poussin's painting "Les Bergers d'Arcadie" which contains the Latin phrase "Et in Arcadia ego," "I too was once in Arcadia," a reference to her having been where her students now are, and that theirs is an idyllic age. In her final lecture she offers the notion that the Romantics were not so much in harmony and in love with Nature but frightened of its alien power -- an idea that somehow resonates with the geography theme.

Suite Armoricaine has some repeats of scenes from another point of view, slipping from Françoise's to Ion's, and brief flashback images of Françoise's memories, and her meetings with former associates are explorations of the past. But an equally important focus is the "forever youthful" Armorican Arcadia of the university of Rennes, and a handsome use of digital shows in first green landscapes, then wide nighttime panoramas of the built up campus, as the film moves through the months of the scholastic year, from Françoise's adjustment to memories and fear of the new place, the first lectures, and Ion's wild winter time haunted by Moon, losing touch with Lydie, to the pleasant arrival of summer, with promise of sunny travels -- to the town of Françoise's childhood and, for a healthier, happier Ion, to Greece with Lydie.

Suite Armoricaine might have benefitted from being tightened up and made more focused on a few important scenes. Some critics at least seem to think so. But it's nonetheless a wonderfully complex, rich, and intelligent film. It's a pity Pascale Breton doesn't make more and one can only hope it won't be so long till her next one.

Suite Armoricaine, 148 mins., debuted 13 Aug. 2015 at Locarno. One other festival, and Lincoln Center-MoMA's New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review. Pascale Breton has made many shorts and worked for TV, but not directed any other feature but this since Illumination. Suite Américaine comes out in France 9 March 2016. It has so far gotten only four reviews, adding up to a very mediocre 3.0 press raint on AlloCiné. It got raves from Cahiers du Cinéma and Transfuge and pans from two other publications that found it too self-regarding and lengthy. Illumination would up with a 3.3 but Cahiers and Les Inrocks were very favorable.

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