Suspended Time: an affectingly vulnerable lockdown chronicle

Olivier Assayas works in the key of love and continuity for a lightly fictionalised account of his pandemic experience.

4 March 2024

By Nicolas Rapold

Nine D'Urso and Vincent Macaigne as Morgane and Paul in Suspended Time (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Olivier Assayas’s best films have a quicksilver feel, bottling something ineffable about a phase in life, a way of being, a relationship, whether it’s Cold Water (1994) or Clean (2004), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) or Demonlover (2002). Very often he’s making films on the cusp – a risky business, but not so for Suspended Time, a chronicle of cloistering during the spring-summer 2020 lockdown. That era’s oddity and intensity has largely been consigned to cliché or oblivion, but from those lost days, Assayas sketches out a stint en famille that’s warm, funny, and affectingly vulnerable.

Assayas draws on his own lockdown experience, which sounds cosy, spent in his parents’ country house south of Paris, amid trees and books. Ever-rumpled Vincent Macaigne of Irma Vep (2022) plays ‘Paul’, Assayas’s most explicitly autobiographical character yet. He takes refuge at the house with his willowy documentarian girlfriend, Morgane (Nina d’Urso), and brother, Etienne (Micha Lescot), a modish music journalist/radio DJ, who’s with the minimally drawn Carole (Nora Hamzawi). Entering the picture periodically is Paul’s daughter, Britt – at first only on screen, and greeted with bubbly affection – whom he co-parents with his forthright ex-wife, Flavia (a proxy for Assayas’s former partner, Bergman Island (2021) director Mia Hansen-Løve).

If early pandemic was a bewildering mix of extreme drama (a pandemic, after all) and extreme stasis (work and social life curtailed), Suspended Time leans into the everyday: chatting over meals, procuring supplies, washing hands, fretting over masks. Paul’s sweet rapport with his brother naturally comes to the fore, especially since the house effectively shuttles them back in time to childhood days spent roaming and playing. Paul’s neuroses wear on Etienne, who does his radio show remotely while his brother loses himself in the contents of the bookshelves.

Slipped among this present-tense puttering are lovely nonfiction interludes about the Assayas family and homestead narrated by the filmmaker. He reflects on the auras of his screenwriter father’s office and mother’s room (they’d separated), and delves into his background (her flight out of Hungary, a grandfather from Turin with an eye for the wrong art). Since Macaigne and company were filmed in the actual house, Assayas’s lilting recollections of childhood routines (including painterly ambitions) are like a becalmed internal monologue, deepening the day-to-day and humbling the auteur before a vast cultural heritage.

Paul’s pandemic anxieties hint at the spectre of death, however distant; survival is, after all, the reason for quarantining. But nestled in the family homestead, Assayas works in the key of love and continuity, bringing his film to a hopeful denouement at the speed of life.

 

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