A French Film Festival Dispatch: Our Heroes Died Tonight, Suzanne

FILM, Film Festivals
img_ourheroesdiedtonightAt the Alliance Française French Film Festival, David Perrault’s heady black-and-white debut, plus Katell Quillévéré’s bracing sophomore feature.

When a guy in a black suit and a thin tie leaned over a jukebox, I couldn’t work out if it was an evocation of Band of Outsiders, Reservoir Dogs, or both. That’s just one of many allusions and references in writer-director David Perrault’s luminous black and white debut feature, Our Heroes Died Tonight. Others include Le Samourai, Raging Bull, Frankenstein, The Public Enemy, The Set-Up, Killer’s Kiss, Breathless, a dream sequence that recalls Barton Fink, and a distinctly Lynchian moment with a crab in a bar. The quotation marks are so prevalent that when a roast chicken was served at an awkward dinner, I immediately flashed to Eraserhead.

There’s more going on here than pastiche and quotation though, even if the opening montage of the film—which intercuts wrestling footage with soldiers in Algeria—brings to mind The Battle of Algiers in setting out its thematic aims. The leads of Heroes are two returned soldiers, Victor and Simon. Down on his luck, Victor follows Simon into his profession of choice—professional wrestling. We’re assured the matches aren’t fixed, but Victor is nonetheless cast as a villain, and when he bridles under the weight of that characterisation, tragedy is set into motion.

It would be easy to knock Our Heroes Died Tonight as all style and no substance, but it wouldn’t be fair: this core idea of what constitutes heroism, and how one lives when the desire to have been a hero is at odds with one’s action, is far too weighty to blithely dismiss the film as insubstantial. But it is fair to say that Heroes spends a disproportionate amount of its running time awash in its own (admittedly beautiful) style, and an over-reliance on ultra-slow motion (to be fair, a widespread current obsession thanks to the Phantom camera, but one likely to date this generation of films as firmly to 2014 as “bullet time” dates others to 2000) means that there are many longueurs without strong enough thematic connection to keep one’s attention from drifting. And there’s a dissonance between the quite serious thematic material and the relentless reliance on quotation which is hard to resolve.

Still, most first-time filmmakers would give an eye for the number of arresting images and scenes that Perrault conjures up, from the aforementioned crab and a dream sequence of endlessly removing masks to the truly compelling wrestling match between Victor and Simon, which managed to simultaneously keep me guessing and make me flinch. And there was more than one match-cut between scenes that tickled my editor’s eye—a match cut between the end of a bedroom scene and a body falling in a wrestling ring was flawlessly constructed and perfectly jarring in its effect. Our Heroes Died Tonight is the sort of film that I find myself being hard on only because there’s so much talent at play. It may not be fully formed, but Perrault certainly demonstrates prodigious skill as a filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing where he goes from here.

img_suzanneSuzanne begins with a group of young girls preparing for a disturbingly precocious dance routine. Slowly but surely, the camera focuses on one young face amidst the sequined mass, as a proud if slightly perplexed father, with sister in tow, films his flesh and blood. The applause comes and she smiles, and then it continues, and the young girl’s expression changes. She doesn’t know what to do next.

Thus we are introduced to a compelling, unknowable and frightening girl who grows into an even more problematic woman. Suzanne’s journey through the next two decades or so is handled in a series of moments rather than scenes, punctuated with black to cover lengthy gaps of time. It’s a fitting style for the subject, as Suzanne rapidly demonstrates her ability to leave people behind and create gaps in their own life, in an increasingly dramatic and ill-advised fashion. Any other movie would make her teen pregnancy the meat of the film; here, it’s just the tip of a giant iceberg of unpredictable self-destruction. It’s the sort of film you’d call a character study, if Suzanne weren’t so opaque as to disallow any actual study.

Second-time filmmaker Katell Quillévéré—her previous feature, Love Like Poison, played NZIFF 2011, to Tim Wong’s approbation—may continue to owe a debt to fellow countryman Maurice Pialat, but also demonstrates an unshowy yet assured visual style. Relying largely on controlled movement from a tripod is the sort of unobtrusive craft that rarely garners notices, but here its use is so firm that when a jump cut suddenly occurs, it carries the disruptive force that overuse in other films has diluted. Quillévéré’s facility with actors, both adult and child, is also fully evident. Sara Forestier (in the titular role) does a praiseworthy job of keeping us compelled while maintaining a psychological distance, but I was pleased to see that of the four Cesar nominations Suzanne received for its performances, it was Adèle Haenel, in the role of Suzanne’s long-suffering sister Maria, who walked away with an award.

Cool but not cold, grim but not hopeless, Suzanne is not just the film to beat at this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival but ultimately one of the most moving and bracing films I’ve seen all year.

These and other films in the Alliance Française French Film Festival programme screen in various centres nationwide until April 23.
Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

by

Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.