‘All you need is love?’
(Partir, Catherine Corsini, France, 2010, 85 minutes)
Following her critically acclaimed performance in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, Catherine Corsini’s Partir again sees Kristin Scott Thomas venture into the French film-making industry in a story of passion and betrayal and the complexities that arise when a family is broken apart.
Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an Englishwoman living in Southern France who, for the past 14 years has lived a comfortable upper-class existence as a housewife on account of her husband, Samuel (Yvan Attal), a successful doctor. When Suzanne decides that she wants to return to her work as a physiotherapist, Samuel arranges to have their garage converted into a surgery for her. Suzanne begins to realise a growing attraction to Ivan (Sergi López) one of the builders her husband has employed. An act of carelessness from Suzanne causes Ivan to suffer a leg injury, and she volunteers to drive him to Spain to visit his daughter. The two bond over a meal and, afterwards, Ivan kisses Suzanne, and so begins a passionate and damaging affair that will have dire consequences for everyone concerned. When Suzanne eventually decides to leave Samuel in favour of a life with Ivan the lovers find themselves blissfully happy for a short while, until Suzanne finds that she can no longer access her husbands bank account, and Ivan discovers that Samuel has used his friendship with the local Mayor to have him blacklisted. Penniless and unable to find work, Suzanne and Ivan find themselves restoring to increasingly desperate measures to survive.
To get the obvious out of the way it is fair to say that, in terms of story, Partir wins few points for originality. We are accustomed to seeing stories of marital breakdowns and affairs in everything from Hollywood films, to soap operas, to celebrity gossip magazines and Corsini’s story does not re-write the book on such matters. Nor does it attempt to. In the case of Partir, the fact that the story is one that we are familiar with acts as a help rather than a hindrance, enabling the plot to unfold without any unnecessary complications and our attention to be fully concentrated on the absorbing performances from the three leads. The chemistry between Scott Thomas and López is palpable, and the intense happiness that they experience in the early days of their union serves to make the eventual disintegration of their life together all the more tragic. One scene in particular, in which Suzanne is forced to sell her expensive jewellery at a petrol station in order to pay for their petrol, is heart-wrenching to watch, and Scott Thomas plays it to perfection, displaying Suzanne’s shame and humiliation through her shaking hand and the helpless look in her eye and she attempts to maintain an external aura of calm. All of the intensity of the passionate sexual attraction between Suzanne and Ivan is equalled in the simmering, venomous relationship between Suzanne and Samuel, as he desperately tries to convince his wife to return to him and their children. Samuel is unrelenting in his refusal to accept that his marriage is over, and resorts to devious, underhand tactics to hinder his wife’s new relationship. The performance of Yvan Attal is sensational, he shifts effortlessly and seamlessly between ice-cold passive-aggressiveness and red-hot fury, as he struggles with so many conflicting emotions; his love for his wife and desire for reunion, his embarrassment at having lost her to a man he clearly feels is beneath him and his satisfaction at seemingly having the moral authority in the situation.
It is a credit to Corsini that none of the characters in Partir are stereotypical, and her approach to the film avoids making judgement on who is right and wrong, leaving it for each viewer to ponder on the moral complexities of such situations. Suzanne is a likeable character who seemingly falls hopelessly in love and so we would question whether we can blame her for leaving her family to live with another man. However at several points in the film we see her put her own needs and desires before her duties as a mother, her children are rarely taken into consideration when she makes several life changing decisions, and she fails to show any real gratitude for her husband, who’s money has allowed her to live in luxury without working for so many years. Samuel too could easily have been played as a cold, emotionless husband who deserves to lose his wife, but we see in him a genuine love for Suzanne and desire to keep his family unit intact at any cost. Despite how devious and underhand his attempts to hinder Suzanne may seem the question still remains, if Suzanne is willing to do anything for love then is Samuel not entitled to do the same? Ivan too is not the traditional knight in shining armour; he may be kind, genuine, artistic and deep but he is also an ex-con, and shows little remorse for the fact that he has torn a family apart. All of these aspects of the three central characters combine to display perfectly the point that Corsini is trying to make; as wonderful and empowering and being in love can be, it can also be selfish, depriving us of the ability to make rational judgements and filling us with jealousy and rage. Partir shows us both sides of the spectrum, we see love in all its blissful glory, and in all its petty shame.