Discreet 16: On Suzanne Lindon’s “Spring Blossom”




FOR ABOUT TWO WEEKS at the start of summer, a specific tree known commonly as the linden, or sometimes the “basswood” or “Tilia,” blooms in Paris, filling the avenues and boulevards with a pungent, and some would say indecently carnal, scent. In appearance, the tree is innocent enough: dressed in an emollient plumage of bright, green leaves and furry, yellow flowers. Yet its aroma — harnessed to make honey, tea, and a $68 candle by Diptyque — is notorious. In German folklore, the linden is renowned for being “the tree of lovers.” In old English, the name linden is related to the word for “lithe” and the German “lind,” which means “lenient, yielding.”

Spring Blossom, the elegant debut feature of Suzanne Lindon, the 21-year-old performer, writer and daughter of esteemed French actors Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon, for the most part resists florid clichés to present a coming-of-age film which — scripted and filmed when Lindon was still a teenager — is even-toned and mature. Though lithe in running time (totaling a compact 74 minutes), the film is neither pliable nor yielding in content. Instead, it rails against rote tableaux of passive adolescent female sexuality to showcase an unconventional love story of choice, restraint, and consent.

Spring Blossom was released in cinemas in France in May and has been available to purchase worldwide as a DVD since October 5. It was scheduled to premiere at the abruptly cancelled 2020 Cannes Film Festival, during a spring in which, deprived of other stimuli, many paid ironically devout attention to the Technicolor flowerings of nature and the outside world. But Lindon’s title for a film about a burgeoning relationship, or more precisely a romantic friendship, between a schoolgirl and an actor in his 30s that is ultimately chaste and unresolved, if mutually absorbing, is purposefully misleading. Despite commercial media’s salacious jostling over its keen status as a timely “age-gap romance,” Spring Blossom is not a film about teenaged transgression, clichéd sexual awakenings, or substance-soaked excess. The grenadine lemonade (sirop de grenade) employed as punctive visual motif, which Lindon’s character — also named “Suzanne” — sips throughout the feature, serves the film’s contrarian, but refreshingly demure approach to a love story in which the central couple remain clothed and appropriately distanced.

The recurring childhood beverage illustrates Spring Blossom’s relative sobriety in an over-saturated French cinematic landscape of films about teenage girls who “lose” their virginity and are led astray, seduced in the etymological sense of that term, by rakish older men who flex their gendered power (to cite a non-exhaustive list: The Lover, Noce blanche, Beau-père, Un Coeur en hiver, Jeune et Jolie, etc.). In contrast to such models, the question of Suzanne’s “deflowering” is never pruriently preyed upon or made explicit, and it is the teenage girl who initiates — and terminates — the unconventional relationship. In its conspicuously sex-less approach, the feature (whose original French title, Seize printemps [Sweet Sixteen], even more explicitly frustrates tired templates of fetishized teenaged milestones), both preserves a certain innocence and slyly suggests that the true succor of adolescence might be sourced elsewhere.

Further signaling the film’s playful ties to cliché — its both perversion of and sizable debt to coming-of-age mainstays like Bonjour Tristesse Spring Blossom opens with a rush of honeyed, lambent Parisian locales: the quaintly charming bistro; the prestigious 16th-century lycée; the book-strewn rive gauche apartment owned by creative and attractive parents. All these settings point to the context of abundant privilege endemic to the film’s milieu, which Lindon does not linger over, but also does not rigorously check. (In contrast, Sébastien Lifshitz’s 2019 documentary Adolescentes showcases a more provincial, and more precarious, teenaged reality in South Central France.) Suzanne’s boredom with “kids her own age” is a somewhat over-emphasized motif in the film, reinforced by the painterly cinematography, which zeroes in on Lindon’s day-dreaming visage yet frequently subjects the crowd of peers around her, at parties or at school, to a diffuse, fade-out effect. And echoing this ennui, the film is noticeably varnished of overtly Gen-Z signifiers (climate angst; TikTok; iPhones). Hanging an old movie poster from Maurice Pialat’s 1983 classic À Nos Amours (which also features a protagonist with the name “Suzanne”) in its lead character’s bedroom, Spring Blossom is enthralled to timeless products of French cinema and the kooky experimentalism of the French New Wave (Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha has also been cited as an influence), which articulates the film’s own precociously mature, yet somewhat anachronistic approach.

The meet-cute of Suzanne and her older actor crush, Raphaël (Arnaud Valois), which shapes the film’s conceit, is not scandalous or exceptional, occurring on the former’s daily walk to school. Impervious to the demands and interruptions of the wider world, the couple’s encounter could have taken place in 2020 or in 1988. Spring Blossom wisely resists the overcooked terrain of the zeitgeisty “hot take.” Yet, its probing of a complicated juncture between an older man and much younger woman, inevitably — at least in subject matter — annotates a post-#BalanceTonPorc, post–Dominique Strauss-Kahn French cultural imaginary, which, on the back of explosively commercial works of literature such as Vanessa Springora’s Consent (2020) and Camille Kouchner’s La grande familia (2021), has finally begun interrogating ingrained patterns of domination and violence lurking behind cultural values of galanterie and French exceptionalism when it comes to heterosexual sex. During their initial meeting, Raphaël grasps clumsily for tired tropes of flirtation as he asks Suzanne if she might light his cigarette for him (“It’s already lit,” she gigglingly undercuts him) but advances past cliché as he asks her to be explicit about her age (“Fifteen,” she immediately replies). Though the film’s stylish patina and knowing art direction exceeds mere cultural case study, the lucidity of the exchange coolly dispenses with the premium that French seduction rituals place on ambiguity, ambivalence, or the maddeningly plastic notion of “complexity.” In contrast, Spring Blossom is admirably clear-cut and straightforward in its use of qualifiers. Near the end of its condensed running time, Lindon’s protagonist breaks down and confesses to her mother, “I fell in love with an adult.” Though the rest of the formulation is unspoken, the audience doesn’t have to work too hard to fill in the blanks: And I am still a child.

Instead of sex, transgression, and the nebulous arenas of “seduction,” Spring Blossom immerses us in an affecting universe of tender fantasy and innocent projection, and crafts a love story between two lonely people, or, in the director’s words, “misfits,” that circumvents the pantingly erotic. Instead of wining and dining and nocturnal tête-à-têtes, the screenplay extends the precedent set by the meet-cute by trafficking in a less intense, more banal register of everyday life. The would-be lovers meet for walks to the tabac to buy cigarette papers (for him) and candy (for her), or to go on excursions to cafés in broad daylight. Yet, perhaps because it was written by an actual teenager and not a thirtysomething looking back with privileged hindsight, Spring Blossom harnesses the woozy, dense interiority of adolescence, when imagination counts for more than the gristly sinews of “reality.” That the character of Suzanne, under-stimulated at her well-to-do Parisian lycée, develops a particular obsession with a similarly disaffected and adrift male actor taken to loitering outside the entrance to the theater where he performs nightly in a play, seems telling in this regard. The larger conceit of performance — with scenes, as the film progresses, shot from inside the stalls, on stage, and in Raphaël’s spare backstage dressing room — is fittingly deployed by Lindon throughout.

When Raphaël begins to return Suzanne’s interest and suggests they meet for breakfast the next morning, Lindon’s character — suspending what would usually be possible in a central Paris setting — skips along the street in ecstasy, breaking into dance and miming lyrics to the French singer Christophe’s catchy hit “Señorita.” (The soundtrack also features an original recording on which Lindon herself sings, somewhat underscoring her much-fêted status as a multitalented, precocious wunderkind who has also modeled for Hedi Slimane’s recent relaunch of the French fashion house Celine.) The film’s thematics of restraint is challenged by the vatic, freewheeling excess of these formal flourishes, which point to Lindon’s film’s clear hierarchy of fantasy over reality. Yet, as Jacqueline Rose has recently signaled in her book On Violence and Violence Against Women, there can be potent, and feminist, advantages to such priorities. Despite the risk of abstraction, the retreat into fantasy, she writes, preserves an “inner freedom” unable to be touched or intruded upon by invasive Others, as it involves no other party than the daydreaming and enraptured self.

Spring Blossom’s whimsicality, which sometimes slides into the grammars of the over-mannered and the fey, is further communicated via several experimental dance sequences, which nod toward the ethereal and haunting body work of Pina Bausch’s ensembles and which occupy the slots in teenage coming-of-age films usually inhabited by scènes de lit, or bedroom scenes. These intervals — asymmetric and improvisational in feel as opposed to carnally, urgently sexy — inflect a potentially rote story with a different, more arresting texture and grasp after an alternative bodily language than the register of making love. They also affirm the essential mobility of the film’s protagonist, who, rather than a static target of the deadening “male gaze” or a passive vector of anticipation, waiting idly for her new suitor to text, careens and dances around Paris in obvious, active exertion. (Suzanne’s initial, obsessive interest in the mechanics of Raphaël’s scooter and her later refusal to jump on the back of it nimbly overturns heavy-handed tropes of masculine mobility.) Her kinetic energy counters the exploitative opening shot of À Nos Amours (1983), which displays Sandrine Bonnaire’s Suzanne’s naked back to the spectator on a boat, her bare buttocks immobilized by the camera’s voyeuristic glare.

In the carousel of Zoom interviews promoting Spring Blossom, Lindon frequently recounts how a sense not only of mobility but of fierce independence was important to her in the crafting of her lead. To reclaim her creative autonomy from her dynastic family heritage seems equally to have informed Lindon’s decision to have made her acting debut in a vehicle of her own making rather than under the tutelage of a more established filmmaker (or the apprenticeship of her famous parents). In taking on the roles of both director and lead actress, she inherits a growing autofictional tradition in French cinema from women cinéastes such as Chantal Akerman, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, and Maïwenn. (Indeed, Suzanne’s goofy physicality and erratic bursts of energy seem partially informed by Akerman’s burlesque self-citation, and almost Chaplinesque parodying of herself, in 1968’s Saute ma ville, or even 1974’s Je Tu Il Elle.) Lindon has commented that writing and directing her film independently — as well as starring in it — was a strategy of self-determination; a means of “proving” to herself that her talent as a debut actress wasn’t merely a question of who she knew. Yet her shielding of her own autonomous creative process also semaphores a kind of double refusal: on the level of plot, a refusal to be penetrated/“give it up” to her intrigued male suitor, plus, extra-diegetically, a refusal to be seen, disassembled, and constructed through another (implicitly male) point-of-view. Lindon’s reluctance to yield sexual or representational currency to an outside director braids core steeliness through Spring Blossom’s superficially botanical, delicate surface and blurs the fantasy and projection of the protagonist with that of the filmmaker herself.

Despite the strength implicit in this stance — which arguably places Lindon’s film on a spectrum with other recent Francophone post-#MeToo cinematic works such as Hafsia Herzi’s Tu mérites un amour (2019) or Rebecca Zlotowski’s Une fille facile (2019), both remapping the terrain of nascent adolescent sexuality from the vantage point of a vibrant “female gaze” — Lindon has confessed reluctance to describe herself a feminist. Fearing “extremes” of all kinds, she says, she believes in absolute equality between the sexes but prefers “humanist” as a more inclusive term. Such a statement is invariably disappointing given the still relatively meager breakthroughs in acknowledging women-authored cinema in France. (Julia Ducournau’s Titane, at 2021’s Cannes Film Festival, which was only the second-ever film directed by a woman to win the elusive Palme d’Or, after Jane Campion’s The Piano in 1993, can only go so far toward addressing these imbalances.)

Yet Lindon’s hedging is perhaps consistent with Spring Blossom’s eagerness to open a third way between outright, sensational transgression and complete, puritanical abstention. Her film is sensual without being explicitly sexual. Taking up the baton from Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), which tenderly — and radically — suggested that desire could be kindled in a crucible of mutual respect and care, the dynamic between Raphaël and Suzanne is playful without leaning on the crutches of abject provocation.

In an essay from last year for Mal Journal on the cultural experience of a “collective turn-off,” Sophie Lewis pinpoints how “capitalist society is centrally predicated on commanding us all, women especially, to unrepress ourselves, to talk about sex constantly as though ‘confessing’ something innate, and, always and ever, to enjoy!” Yet a kaleidoscopically pansexual, supposedly uncensored, and permissive sexual landscape also must accommodate refusal: the ability to opt out; to withdraw consent at any moment; to say no. The conditions of possibility must also include space for withholding. As Lewis further writes, “Arguably, ‘I would prefer not to’ is the most crucial, ground-zero ingredient of good sex.”

Spring Blossom, frustrating the lurid suggestiveness of its clickbait-y English title, is a singularly graceful film about a teenager that resists conjugating standard grammars of smartphones, stimulants, and euphoric multi-player sex. It centers a young woman who, at the juncture of her first potentially erotic liaison with a (much older) man, decides to pull back before things accelerate, before fantasy calcifies into a sourer reality. In Suzanne’s final encounter with Raphaël on a residential Paris street near his theater, the latter mistakes her line “I have to go” (“Il faut que j’aille”) as a casual statement, when it, in fact, by her design, ends the relationship — a crush? a whim? a flight of fancy? — on a more terminal note. She leaves him standing on the street as she decisively turns her back and walks away. The camera does not stray from its fixed frontal position. She does not falter. She does not return.

The aftertaste of this penultimate tableau makes the perhaps over-prescriptive point that this is a woman who has chosen her own path. As she grins into the sunset in the film’s final, light-streaked shot, where Suzanne looks fondly over at Raphaël’s theater from some distance — the expression on her face reads as one of someone who has now moved on and has perhaps chosen art and the more enduring pleasures of sublimation over sex. “Why make love when you could make a film?” Lindon’s sly final raised eyebrow seems to posit. In its holding space for fantasy and unconsummated crushing, Spring Blossom outlines a refusal to rupture a certain dreamy innocence. Yet, at the same time, Lindon’s soulful understanding that the fantasy is often better than reality reveals a sagacious knowingness that opposes wide-eyed sexual naïveté. In one sense, her Suzanne is a child. In another, she’s already an old pro.

¤

Alice Blackhurst teaches feminist film theory at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Her monograph Luxury Sensation and the Moving Image was published by MHRA books last month.

 

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