Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Directed by Catherine Corsini; produced by Stephane Partheny, Michel Seydoux, Fabienne Vonier; screenplay by Gaelle Mace; cinematography by Agnes Godard; edited by Simon Jacquet; designed by Laurent Ott; costumes designed by Ann Schotte; music by Georges Delerue; with Kristin Scott Thomas, Yvan Attal, Sergi Lopez, Bernard Blancan. Color. 85 min. French dialogue with English subtitles. An IFC Films release.
The domestic melodrama proliferates in the current film scene, but many are reassuring about the traditional family structure, informing us that goofy little predicaments are easily solved, thus the family is restored; others are snide, above-it-all “dramedies” about all those dumb schmucks and their hysterical women—the ballyhooed American Beauty is representative. It is not surprising, then, that Catherine Corsini’s superb, serious-minded Leaving should have been nearly ignored, receiving a few positive reviews before it quietly vanished from urban art theaters. An obvious challenge to those who think feminist resistance is (or should be) seen as outmoded and pointless, Leaving insists that the continued oppression of women by men is very much with us.
The opening shot shows a darkened staircase leading to the gloomy, disheveled marital bedroom. Suzanne Vidal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) lie on the bed; Samuel is asleep, Suzanne lies rigidly on her back, hands clenched, her forlorn eyes staring upward. She bolts from the bedroom onto a walkway that wraps around the stairs, then enters another room. The camera accents the vertical and horizontal lines of the glass-and-stone postmodern house, emphasizing the domicile as a prison, an idea basic to the best melodramas of Sternberg, Ophuls, and Sirk. A gunshot is heard. Did the woman kill herself or did she shoot her husband? It doesn’t really matter, since the film is so forceful in arguing its controlling idea from its first moment: the erotic is extinguished by male authority, with conventional notions of home and hearth merely signifiers of death for the female.
The film then flashbacks six months, as Suzanne begins to renovate a portion of the family home to resume her career as a physiotherapist—she wants work where she can “help people,” a goal privately scorned by Samuel, a doctor too self-involved to take his wife or anyone else seriously. Samuel’s apparent moral support is belied by his consistently superior, condescending gestures, and his view, even early in the film, that Suzanne is stupid and incapable of accomplishing much without his guidance. She isn’t stupid, but he is partially correct, since his financial clout is crucial to Suzanne’s very existence. The film casually and gracefully offers the notion that in these supposedly enlightened times the male sees the female chiefly as “housewife,” as breed sow and cook, and, without economic independence, a slave. When Suzanne, traumatized as her life unravels, drops a platter of chicken on the floor (the family complains that they just had chicken), then breaks into sobs, Samuel assumes she is upset about the broken crockery.
Suzanne’s sudden love affair with Ivan (Sergi Lopez), a burly workman hired to help build her new office, flows naturally from an arid marriage whose arrangements are suffocating; Catherine Corsini’s adept direction emphasizes the enclosures that trap Suzanne, and the awkward pauses indicative of a marriage that has long since collapsed. But Suzanne’s reawakened passion incites rage and vengeance in Samuel, an insecure, vindictive little man at the outset who quickly shuts down his wife’s future. Samuel uses a range of gambits to control her, from physical and verbal violence to teary-eyed pleas at the dinner table to play on her sympathy (suggesting the infantile depths to which marriage descends). He wants to know how many times Suzanne and her lover had sex, as if tallying up the total (common enough) will reveal some sort of truth confirming his wife’s evil and his own righteousness. Suzanne pleads that she has fulfilled her part of the bargain by sleeping with him and “raising [his] children,” acknowledging with a naïve wisdom the nature of the marriage contract.
For all her basic nobility, questions arise about Suzanne’s judgment from the moment she tells Ivan, without a drop of condescension, that her work as a therapist is appreciated, while as a manual laborer he is merely bossed around and insulted. Truer statements were never uttered about the nature of the class system, yet there is the sense of Suzanne as a lamb to the slaughter, especially when it seems, for a moment, that Ivan is pulling the same bullying tricks as Samuel—he is out of touch for a time, but out of fear for his job rather than a need to show Suzanne who’s boss.
That the marriage contract remains intact—from the male perspective— is evident when Samuel tries to “win” Suzanne back with an exotic dining-out and an expensive bracelet, casually conveying the basic notion of wife as prostitute. When all else fails he strips her entirely of security, even basic subsistence. When she tries to buy gas only to learn that her credit cards have been shut down, she offers a watch in payment. She is momentarily rebuffed by a clerk who exclaims that, “This isn’t Africa,” assuming bartering is for the Third World or the lower classes.
Indeed, in Leaving both race and class continually come into play. A hysterical Samuel accuses Suzanne of merely being fascinated with a “prole.” In a scene recalling Max Ophuls’s remarkable The Reckless Moment, a nervous Suzanne is dismissed by a snide loan officer when she attempts to create a separate economic future. Suzanne and Ivan resort to stealing the family’s paintings and heirlooms (Suzanne assumes, quite rightly, that they are her husband’s), but the plan collapses fast as Suzanne realizes that Samuel knows everybody, making a sale impossible. When Ivan, an ex-convict, is put in jail, Samuel tries another maneuver: he will have Ivan released if Suzanne returns to him, a proposal that leads her to faint.
She does momentarily resume her role as housewife, even submitting to marital rape (the rendering of the moment as prosaic makes it among the most horrifying of any such scene ever filmed) then takes a hunting rifle and shoots Samuel dead (the gunshot of the opening). Contra Madame Bovary (reviewers have cited this novel, unembarrassed that they haven’t read it), Suzanne destroys her oppressor, understanding that the decision means her own destruction. The utopian coda seems a farfetched dream of what might have been—yet does even Ivan represent “true love,” given the gender assumptions the film describes? In a few online reviews of the film that I have noted, writers seem outraged by Suzanne’s unmitigated gall in shooting her husband dead. I don’t think we need to rehearse once again the casual way that the female is still being destroyed in all forms of fiction, the male accepting this on the assumption that the female, as property, is his to dispense with as he so desires. To me, such assumptions have not yet been adequately answered, and it is absolutely within Corsini’s right to provide an antidote in Suzanne’s hopeless gesture of outrage and defiance.
The film’s obvious companion piece of the moment is Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, where the female is Other, a foreigner ostracized from an aristocratic family for violating patriarchal privileges synonymous with the survival of a class system. Like Suzanne, Emma (Tilda Swinton) is associated with nature, not in any “earth mother” sense, but in her spontaneity and sensuality, her tendency to display unbridled freedom when allowed the chance. (There is a notable moment in Leaving; Suzanne relaxes on a lawn only to be beset by a bee. She nervously jumps up, but then laughs the whole thing off as she removes her blouse.) But I Am Love’s operatics (influenced by Renoir and Visconti), suiting well the crushing power of aristocracy, are replaced in Leaving by the humdrum world of the bourgeoisie, where wealth isn’t overly ostentatious but nonetheless formidable, and always associated with male prerogatives and the destruction of female desire.
The sense of utter futility that pervades Leaving, enhanced by the plangent musical selections from earlier scores by legendary French composer Georges Delerue, returns the melodrama to its distinguished heights given its refusal to compromise on fundamental questions of gender relations. The performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, with its extraordinarily finely-honed emotional range, confirms her as one of the most important presences among us, an artist of uncommon distinction.
Click here to purchase Leaving.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2