Suite Amoricaine (2015, Dir. Pascale Breton):
I’ve been to university. I studied geography. I wanted to show this because this is a place that allows us to talk about our human life. To tackle these large questions, like a place between childhood and young age, how you get into the world. It all started with the university. So I started with geography and history of art, which are two different approaches to landscape.
It also was a way to talk about my generation. When we were young, there was a very strong punk-rock scene in Rennes. It’s about all these things, but it’s because nobody’s talked about them like this before. It’s a very local history and the way we’ve been living. In Brittany, what I’m talking about seems very normal.
— Pascale Breton
Suite Amoricaine opens with a girl and her fogged-up image in the mirror, her thoughts an invocation: “No one can be in my brain except me… I have to keep the memory of me, now. Otherwise, where will I have been?” The rest of the movie, which takes place decades later, is a circuitous road back to retrieving memory. Françoise (Valérie Dréville), the little girl grown up, has made a name for herself in Paris as an art lecturer, and as you might suspect of one who has been wrapped up with representations of the River Lethe and the Sphinx, any ties to her youth in Brittany have been lost in a forgetful haze. Suffocated by bourgeois Parisian life, she decides to return to Brittany’s capital of Rennes and teach at her alma mater, content to just get away from it all. “All I know is I need this feeling of solitude,” she tells her disapproving, soon-to-be ex-boyfriend over the phone — but that solitude is soon interrupted via a photo from a college comrade that stirs up old relationships and recollections.
The above is the film’s synopsis, but it doesn’t begin to communicate its novelistic density. While Suite Armoricaine (the title is a reference to Brittany’s original name) is only director Pascale Breton’s second feature-length work, it’s packed to the brim with ideas. The story can be read as a modern spin on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (instead of the beloved madeleine cake, Françoise’s memories are jostled by the name of a herb used by her father, a local healer), with Brittany’s provincial locals substituting for Proust’s highfalutin aristocrats. Divided into chapters (i.e., “September, Here and Now”) and leisurely exploring its characters and themes, this is a film meant to be slipped into like a warm bath. Françoise’s journey into her past leads her (and us) down a plethora of philosophical byways, embracing everything from Elizabethan paintings to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Everywhere we see landscapes: the landscapes in Françoise’s lectures as well as the landscape of her weathered yet still girlish face; the topographical maps that young student Ion (Kaou Langoët) and his new crush, blind Lydie (Manon Evenat), study in geography class; the territories of the young lovers’ bodies; and the sensuous scenery of Brittany itself, with its velvet countryside and night-time boulevards. Françoise and Ion’s paths cross at the halfway mark when Ion literally crashes one of Françoise’s lectures, and soon their pasts and presents mix in unexpected, sometimes tender, sometimes traumatic ways.
All of this might sound like a cold academic exercise, but Breton is playful rather than po-faced when it comes to her big ideas. The film’s most mesmerizing passages are Françoise’s art lectures, wherein the film’s major conundrums are dangled before us for consideration. Whither memory and our past lives? How does our perspective change as we age? (You’ll think of the letter T differently after one of Françoise’s discourses.) In travelogue style, we venture into Brittany as both a cultural entity and as the site of Françoise’s personal history. For some, life here is life lived on the brink: Françoise’s old buddy Catherine “the Great” (Catherine Riaux) is stuck in an apartment with shaky foundations (“It’s like living on a branch”), much like the swaying trees that fill the frame at regular intervals. Françoise’s tenuous hold on her own history is renewed thanks to two crusaders from the university’s Breton-Celtic club, as both she and the audience get (re-)acquainted with the local Breton dialect. In pixilated flashes of videotape, we also catch glimpses of the local rock scene from Françoise’s younger days, and a particular venue that proves to be a locus of regret. Ion finds himself confronted with old ghosts of a more alarming sort, as a long-lost relative returns to upend his life. Divorced from even a notion of home and place, he hides out in the university library, but even his self-imposed exile can’t last forever; in Brittany, no one is an island for long.
While the past might be ugly — a news montage over the film’s opening credits shows how the region has been overrun by industry over the years — the present has its share of tenderness. Ion and Lydie share a Bacchanalian idyll in the university park, and Françoise gets to flirt with John (Laurent Sauvage), her punk god classmate, now endearingly muddled in middle age. It’s unlikely Françoise and John will end up together, but when John sighs, “We went to the same concerts. That’s something,” it’s easy to get caught up in the wistfulness of the moment. While Breton gets up close and personal with her camera on occasion, she has an off-hand grace to her filmmaking, and the movie’s best moments seem spontaneous: a splash of green traffic lights across the windshield of a moving car, a Breton incantation followed by the blowing of a quick breath on a person’s ear. Likewise, the ambient soundtrack reminds us of life teeming all around, from the constant breezes to the cicadas, the passing cars, and the snatches of song.
Breton is also generous with her characters: even the bit parts in Suite Armoricaine stand out, like strategic dabs of paint on the canvas. Riaux only has one scene but she’s an imperious hoot as Catherine, amping up the bitterness (“To our lives. May they begin someday,” she toasts) even as she lets her hair down and thrashes about to the riotous punk music of her younger days. More tragic, and more moving, is former indie darling Elina Löwensohn as Moon, a fellow wild child from the past who has gone spectacularly to seed. Homeless, hard up for cigarettes, her face crinkled in a perpetual frown as she anticipates the next slight coming her way, Löwensohn is the fulcrum upon which the plot turns, and her tête-à-têtes with Françoise and Ion give the film a necessary dramatic pull. The film’s most entrancing performance belongs to Dréville, who is mostly known for her stage acting — she percolates with sensitivity as Françoise, even in her calmest moments. As Ion, Langoët has less to work with, but he’s appropriately frazzled and naive, and gets the film’s biggest laugh via an unexpected encounter in that university library.
Conversational in its tone, inclusive in its sympathies, Suite Armoricane concludes with a note of reconciliation — we’re off to Françoise’s childhood town of Trévignon, where everything is in full bloom, and memory and place are reunited. “The world now seems real to me. I love it,” she muses, and the achievement of Breton’s film is that it leads us into a world that feels lived-in, laden with time and weight. A motorboat sails around a lake, life and landscape converging, and we watch as the boat’s wake slowly dissipates into nothing, like memory fading out. Is this the River Acheron from one of Françoise’s paintings? Or is it Lethe, clouding our histories even as the bittersweet tang of remembrance remains? The answer, much like our collective knowledge of Brittany and its language, remains elusive, but one thing is certain: life is most definitely here, in all its uncertainty and wonderment.