Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, starring English actress Kristin Scott Thomas in an entirely French-speaking role, is in some ways reminiscent of last year’s I Am Love, a film in which Tilda Swinton (another Brit actress) delivered all her dialogue in Italian. Leaving will be hoping to emulate the level of critical success that I Am Love enjoyed, but unfortunately is unlikely to receive it.
Good performances do not a good film make, and that fact is realised here with almost infuriating clarity. Kristin Scott Thomas was nominated for the Cesar Award for best actress for this role and she, like the rest of the supporting cast, is good and well cast. Sometimes films that would otherwise not stand out from the crowd can be carried on the backs of strong performances (most recently, one might think of Crazy Heart as an example) and be elevated to a higher level. Other times, as is the case here, the film is simply too heavy a burden for the actors to carry, and despite their levels of commitment and class, it staggers a little under its own weight.
It’s a very simple setup: there is a wife, her husband, and her lover. Drawn into a passionate love affair, Suzanne (Scott Thomas) must decide between her husband, who provides everything she needs but takes her for granted, and the charming but poor builder. To be fair to Scott Thomas and Sergei Lopez (who plays her Spanish lover, Ivan) the two have an undeniable screen presence and work together well. If this weren’t solidly in place, the film would of course have failed before it started.
But one does get the sense of having seen a lot of this before. The film is well shot and well acted, but the story suffers from similar conceits to something like Greenberg, which recently laboured under its own desire to follow a fundamentally unlikable protagonist. It isn’t entirely clear what Catherine Corsini wants us to come away with when we finish watching her film. The whole thing closes with an emotional denouement that, frankly, the lead character has not earned, through the course of her actions over the whole run time and especially in the final act. This is a woman who, despite Scott Thomas’ strong, charismatic performance, is relentlessly difficult to root for, a woman who breaks up a marriage (and a family) and spends the mid-section of the film begging for money from her estranged husband to fund her new relationship. Frustratingly, it is only this lack of money that forces her to confront what she has done. If the film is intended as a commentary on the issues of relationships and passion (and I’m sure it is) then the path the narrative takes unfortunately undermines that morality, inviting us to sympathise with a morally dubious protagonist.
As with Greenberg, Leaving is a film that it is difficult to form an emotional bond with in spite of good performances. But whereas Noah Baumbach’s film had things to say on elements beyond relationships, Corsini’s choice to focus on passion, on selfishness, on sex, unfortunately means that the film can’t quite make up its mind and never quite settles the way you expect it to.