The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire: this poignant anti-biopic resists conventional ideas around rediscovery

Visual artist and filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich pieces together the gaps and contradictions in the life of writer Suzanne Césaire with a ‘revisionist’ story, shot on vivid 16mm, that allows its heroine to remain unknowable.

6 February 2024

By Rachel Pronger

The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam

“We’re making a film about an artist who didn’t want to be remembered.” These words summarise beautifully the contradiction at the heart of Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s thoughtful debut feature The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire. They’re spoken by an actor (Zita Hanrot) hired to play the French-Martinican writer Césaire, in an adaptation of her life. Rather than presenting that film, Hunt-Ehrlich offers a deconstructed anti-biopic, an elliptical reflection on the mechanics of memory. 

In her work as a visual artist Hunt-Ehrlich has often excavated hidden chapters of Black women’s history. As a key figure in the anti-colonialist Negritude movement – she co-founded dissident journal Tropiques while living on blockaded Martinique during World War II – and a figure often eclipsed by famous male associates (her husband, the politician Aimé Césaire; the surrealist Andre Breton, who was inspired by her work) Césaire is clearly ripe for rediscovery. What elevates Hunt-Ehrlich’s approach above conventional revisionist biography however is that her interrogation of history’s hierarchies extends beyond the thematic; it’s embedded in the very form of the film.  

Shot on vivid 16mm, The Ballad moves slowly and deliberately, the sultry pace of the Caribbean jungle. Amidst the lush greenery of a tropical park a film crew gather, struggling to make sense of their subject. Cast and crew read extracts from Césaire’s writing and testimonies from her family, while new mother Hanrot is distracted from work by the sound of her crying baby. (Suzanne had six children, and worked full-time as a schoolteacher; how did she write at all? Hanrot wonders). Re-enactments – Aime at a political meeting, an encounter between Breton and the Césaires – offer glimpses of the maybe-film in making. Chronologies disconnect, time collapses; our heroine remains slippery and unknowable. 

In an interview recorded for her Rotterdam Film Festival premiere, Hunt-Ehrlich outlined her theory that the fragment is “the more feminist model of production…  [it] correlates with the way women are able to live their lives in society.” The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire’s fragmented structure reflects the ultimate unknowability of her subject, but also the racist and patriarchal structures which restrict the dissemination of work by Black women artists. Suzanne Césaire stopped publishing after 1945, and although she kept writing, she burned her papers. With no official archive, her story is mainly preserved through the prism of the famous men who surrounded her.  

In a recurring image, sheets of paper – a script? Manuscript? Letters? – are seen under threat, blowing away in the breeze, floating in a creek, burning in a fire. It’s a poignant motif which speaks to the impossibility of reconstructing lost lives. Ehrlich-Hunt does not speculate to fill these gaps; instead she leaves us to sit, in crackling silence, reeling in the wake of Césaire’s dazzling words.