Review: Suite Armoricaine (Breton, 2015) – SFIFF 2016 Preview

suitearmoricaine

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

A suite, in musical terms, is an ordered set of instrumental pieces, often thematically or tonally linked. Though Pascale Breton‘s sophomore feature, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Locarno, is named after the popular bawdy Breton song “Suite Sud Armoricaine,” the film, divided into distinct chapters based on months, is also structurally similar to a musical suite.

Director Breton weaves two separate but intersecting tales in this love letter to Brittany and Breton culture. In one, Françoise (Valérie Dréville), a professor of art history, returns to her home province as a guest lecturer at the University of Renne, from which she graduated. Living in Paris with her partner of 15 years, Françoise hasn’t set foot in Brittany since she left. Though a planned reunion with her old friends–an artistic, free-spirited bunch–never materializes, Françoise still ends up meeting up with them one by one, each visit peeling back the onion layers of recollection. If in Paris the professor feels suffocated and uncomfortable–the atmosphere there gives her eczema, she claims–in Brittany she falls into a happy swoon of memory, reliving wild days with her old crowd and uncovering buried remembrances of childhood on her grandfather’s farm.

In the other tale, Ion (Kaou Langoët), a young geography student with an enigmatic past starts classes at the same university. On the first day, he is immediately taken with his classmate Lydie (Manon Evenat), a blind woman who carries herself with a distinctive grace. Lydie’s friends become Ion’s friends, and his life is suffused with the singular and intense perfection existence can acquire at that age–outdoor dance parties, sweet love-making with Lydie, camaraderie over homework.

And then one day his vagabond mother Moon (Elina Löwensohn) drops in for a visit. Ion, who has previously claimed to a school administrator that he has no mother, is less than thrilled to see her. Though he begs her to leave him alone, Moon, along with her boyfriend and his friends, take over Ion’s dorm room. Exiled, Ion descends into a sort of mad despair, living in the library, bathing in its sinks after-hours, and avoiding classes and friends. The catastrophic day his mother arrives also marks the intersection point of the two stories–though we won’t discover the import of the collision until later.

Breton’s long, immersive scenes, far from boring, feel luxurious, sensuous. And the character of Françoise–beatific, elegant–makes for pleasant company. The scenes of Ion’s homelessness, too, have a charmingly surreal quality to them. Yet, the total package is ultimately a bit thin. Françoise’s drive further and further back into her past feels tangential rather than urgent. Perhaps it fits the meandering mood of the film but, complicated by the harmony of Ion’s story, it’s a rather unsatisfying endpoint to the journey.

Some films excel at making the particular feel universal. Suite Armoricaine has the opposite effect of making the universal–a rediscovering of cultural identity–seem particularized. Not hailing from Brittany, I felt that some of the film’s color and meaning remained hidden from me. I’m fine with that–I expect attentive watchers can intuit most of what cultural unfamiliarity obscures–but I do suspect that I might have been made to care more.

Nevertheless, Suite Armoricaine is an enjoyable–at times, even captivating–watch. The film shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 30, 2:50 pm, at BAMPFA, and May 1, 6:15 pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. Director Pascale Breton is expected to attend at least one of the screenings.

Note: Trailer does not have English subtitles.

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