What would have happened had Emma Bovary killed her husband instead of taking her own life? What circumstances would have led her to do so? Leaving, directed by Catherine Corsini and starring Kristin Scott Thomas (Suzanne), Yvan Attal (Samuel), and Sergi Lopez (Iván), sets out to answer this second question.
Suzanne is a forty year-old housewife living in the South of France who decides to become a physiotherapist. Her husband Samuel agrees to build her an office, but before its completion she falls in love with Iván, a Spanish laborer. Complications arise when she confesses to her husband but continues to seek her Spaniard.
Thomas portrays Suzanne as an impulsive, flighty, and not altogether bright character. But Corsini forces us to take her seriously. If we want to judge her, we must empathize with her as well. In a wide-angle shot of a Spanish plaza, Iván kisses Suzanne then she walks away. In the next scene, the camera pans rightward across the windshield of Suzanne’s moving car on the trip back from Spain. Suzanne reaches off camera for what we assume is Iván’s hand: a quick, silent moment of reciprocation. The affair begins.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Suzanne’s husband actually took advantage of her when he “rescued” her from life as an au pair. Samuel is a mean-spirited, abusive creep. At the beginning of the movie, Iván is the only convicted criminal, but during the movie his conduct is the least questionable. Suzanne’s refusal to compromise and act rationally lead her to abandon her family and commit murder.
One of the film’s major themes is the relationships people have with their bodies and other people’s bodies. Suzanne is a physiotherapist: she heals people by moving their body parts through uncomfortable positions (in one not so unsubtle scene, she puts pressure on a women’s leg while repeating the French word for “push” [hint: it sounds like another word in English]). Samuel is a doctor, but we never see him heal people; he just seeks to control them, Suzanne especially. In one scene, Samuel refers to Suzanne as a “bitch in heat” before locking her in a room. And during Suzanne’s first sex scene with Iván, some creative sound editing results in some truly canine-sounding breathing.
Leaving poses some uncomfortable questions, but it ultimately comes up short. At its worst, it plays like a politically correcter (depending on your perspective) version of Madame Bovary: a modern day morality tale whose artful touches are dulled by unsubtle identity politics.
Subject matter and politics are the discretion of writers and directors, and especially writer-directors like Ms. Corsini. While she is obviously very talented, she failed to dream big with this feature. There is not enough novelty here to hold strong interest nor does the feministic element provide much intrigue. One of the major themes of the original Madame Bovary is the banality of bourgeois life, which Ms. Corsini seems to have hammered home here without saying anything new. But she doesn’t really expand upon it, which results in a pretty unsatisfying feature. As Suzanne and Iván carry on their charade, it becomes difficult not to judge them too much and to even care about them as characters. But maybe that’s the point.
LEAVING is now playing in limited release.