The acting trio of Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López and Yvan Attal add weight and interest to this French drama, which could easily have been a much more mundane study of the conflict between practicality and passion in love and marriage. As it is, ‘Leaving’ plays it pretty straight and is rarely a very subtle affair, although director Catherine Corsini succeeds well in planting a seed of discomfort about the limits of romance and freedom that blossoms into full-blown cynicism by the end.
Scott Thomas plays English-born, French-speaking Suzanne, a well-off housewife training to return to work as a reflexologist in Nîmes in southern France, where she lives in a stylish modern house with her husband Samuel (Attal) and two teenage kids. Samuel is an unlikeable presence, a successful businessman with many political and commercial links in the area, who casually jokes about his wife’s economic powerlessness. It’s that power, or lack of it, that becomes the film’s main concern when Suzanne gets closer and closer to Ivan (López), a labourer they hire to help with renovations in their home and with whom she falls in love over the hacksaw and power drill.
What’s interesting about ‘Leaving’ is that Suzanne’s affair is immediately presented as an anti-climax – at least when the first few climaxes are out of the way – even after she takes the bold step of leaving her husband and kids. Corsini gives Suzanne physical and emotional liberation with one hand, but slaps her back into reality with the other as she describes how Samuel blocks her bank account and exploits his local standing to make life equally difficult for the man who’s cuckolded him. There are hints, too, that Ivan isn’t so enraptured with Suzanne when she’s not the monied, carefree person he first meets, which further douses the flames of the film’s amour fou.
Corsini’s film sidesteps a simple tale of stricture and liberation and rails against the more conservative, less progressive strictures of marriage, accusing Suzanne and Ivan of creating a partnership which is unhealthy and unequal. Samuel is nothing less than the villain of the piece, and is fairly two-dimensional. But Suzanne isn’t merely a victim: we also view her as naive and too willing to play the dutiful housewife to be able easily to step away from that role and play the independent free spirit.
I wonder whether the casting of a Spanish actor as Ivan and an English actress as Suzanne is coincidental? Clearly bad marriages are not national affairs, but the otherness of this pair shines a light on just how French Samuel is, with his peacock role in the home and the small-town, male-centred, quasi-Masonic way in which he operates within his community. There’s definitely a hint, via the casting, that Corsini is having a dig at some peculiarly French rituals and routines of marriage.
Scott Thomas is the main reason to see the film: she inhabits the strange contradictions and volatile changes of her character, even if she’s given a couple of key scenes, such as one at a service station when she runs out of petrol and money, that don’t ring true. The ending suggests a lack of ideas, but the journey is surprising enough for that not to matter.