Kristin Scott Thomas is a bilingual, British-born actress with glacial expressions that French and English directors love to defrost. She makes a lot of movies about cold women searching for the secret location of their inner glow. Recently, there’s been no small degree of evidence that she may be making too many of them, but before she moves on to other things, let’s at least be grateful for her fine work in Leaving, Catherine Corsini’s penetrating look at a repressed middle-aged woman’s violent declaration of independence; it’s guaranteed to leave you stunned.
Leaving is an apt title. It begins in the predawn hours of a beautiful, slumbering household, with the roaring eruption of a rifle shot. This is a bit like Nora slamming the door at the beginning of A Doll’s House instead of the final shock before the curtain comes down and the Ibsen play ends. Told entirely in flashbacks, the film takes 85 minutes to reveal what happened in the months leading up to that gunshot. Ms. Scott Thomas plays Suzanne, the English-born wife of a rich, successful French doctor in the South of France, a mother of two teenagers and an admired member of the community, who risks everything for sensuality, sex and passion. Clearly bored with her routine and status as a trophy wife, Suzanne is preparing to return to her old job as a physiotherapist when her husband, Samuel (Yvan Attal), hires a Spanish laborer fresh out of prison named Ivan (popular Sergi Lopez, the Catalan-born actor who has carved a name for himself playing charismatic villains in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) to build her a new clinic near the swimming pool. Something in Suzanne’s lost libido stirs immediately, but after she injures the laborer’s foot with her car and drives him on crutches to visit his young daughter, mutual attraction throbs with renewed intensity, and Suzanne cannot contain her lust. An affair begins that arouses sexual passions that had lain dormant for years. Unwisely, she tells Samuel everything. He locks her in her room, but she climbs down a ladder to meet her lover. Ivan takes a job in another town, waiting on tables. She follows him and moves into his room in a slum. Samuel freezes her bank account and gets Ivan blacklisted. Ignoring social barriers, losing self-respect and desperate for money, Suzanne pathetically sells her Cartier watch to buy gasoline, and later robs her own house. Extreme penury and the fact that the only way she can save her lover from a second prison term is to go home, a woman who has already cut her ties with respectability, financial security and parental responsibility is forced to make one final decision that will change her life forever. The ending is a real shocker.
It’s not a new story. We’ve seen it and read it in everything from Madame Bovary to Tilda Swinton in the recent Italian film I Am Love. Kristin Scott Thomas breathes new life into a woman who was invented by Flaubert and copied by Francoise Sagan. She creates a vital portrait of a soul in turmoil, with her reckless despair contrasting with the pulsating happiness when she’s in bed with the hirsute man of her dreams. Their frustrated inability to resist a force stronger than common sense is intelligently conveyed, although sometimes you just want to shake them back to reality. I suppose it is possible to enjoy Leaving solely on the merits of its two appealing stars, but with anyone less sincere than Kristin Scott Thomas in the role of Suzanne, I would find it more difficult to sympathize, unconditionally, about a woman who is so basically naïve, careless and self-destructive.
Running time 85 minutes
Written by Catherine Corsini and Gaëlle Macé
Directed by Catherine Corsini
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Yvan Attal, Sergi Lopez