France’s next big arthouse superstar is the writer-director and star of the Cannes-accepted coming-of-age film about a Parisian teenager who enters into a love affair with an actor in his 30s
In Suzanne Lindon’s flat in Paris hangs a poster for Maurice Pialat’s seminal teen drama Á Nos Amours. On this piece of artwork, in capital letters, is the word “SUZANNE”, the original title for Pialat’s 1983 coming-of-ager about the trials and tribulations of a 15-year-old girl called Suzanne. When Lindon saw the film, it presumably brought new meaning to the phrase “call me by your name”.
By cosmic coincidence, Lindon was also 15 when she wrote the screenplay for her directorial debut, Spring Blossom. In the French-language, Cannes-accepted feature, Lindon stars as a friendless, 16-year-old schoolgirl, Suzanne. During the shoot, Lindon was a teenage auteur, which makes Spring Blossom a rarity for movies about that age bracket. Consider that, for instance, Rocks, Summer of ’85 and Call Me By Your Name, all fantastic stories about the awkwardness of growing up, were helmed by directors in their late 40s and 50s. Pialat was 58-years-old when Á Nos Amours changed its name from Suzanne just ahead of its theatrical release.
“I was lucky to be 19 when I directed it, because I had clear ideas on adolescence,” says Lindon, who is now 20, over Zoom from Paris in the middle of April. “Sometimes when you watch movies about young people by adults, they write about what they remember, and it’s beautiful to have their memories. But I wanted to give my point of view of that age, because it’s a complicated period when you discover yourself, and when you’re more interested in fantasies than real life.
“Maybe today it’d be different if I was redoing the movie (now I’m 20). It’s complicated because I wanted to deal with a specific topic, which is a relationship between a young girl and an older man, and I wanted to talk about it in the most pure way. My age, my unconsciousness, and my energy made me write this way. I was interested in talking about a teenager while I was in my teenage years. I was talking about something I really knew.”
As alluded to by Lindon, Spring Blossom delves into controversial subject matter. Not only is Suzanne 16, she’s introverted, lonely, and inexperienced in terms of dating. She rates the boys at school “all five out of 10” and struggles for conversation with classmates at parties. By chance, she stumbles across Raphaël, a 35-year-old theatre actor played by Arnaud Valois (Nathan in 120 BPM). Lengthy flirtations and not-so-accidental meetings ensue between a girl who lives with her parents and a man more than twice her age. You wonder what the tweeters who were outraged by Malcolm and Marie would make of it. Lindon points out, though, that Spring Blossom keeps the relationship chaste. Is that because it’s from Suzanne’s more innocent, idealised perspective?
“If I had to rewrite it today, I wouldn’t do anything more sexual, because even if it’s from this young girl’s point of view, it’s important to know it’s platonic,” Lindon says. “Because of her, because of him, it’s very respectful. They feel good when they’re together. Even if they’re not the same age, even if they don’t have the same life, they’re on the same level. For me, falling in love with someone is sharing the same feeling at the same time.”
Instead of making out, the pair converse about art, listen to music, and slow-dance in front of strangers who don’t intervene. For Lindon, who cites Éric Rohmer and Paris, Texas as inspirations, these often non-verbal sequences are “their own way of communicating – it’s a language that’s more original than kissing and making love.” In private, Suzanne celebrates by grinning and sweetly punching the air, imagining she’s in a Broadway musical. Maybe it’s best we don’t know what thoughts or fantasies run through Raphaël’s head.
In the years since Lindon’s initial draft of Spring Blossom, there’s been #MeToo, Roman Polanski winning Best Director at the 2019 César Awards, and all sorts of worldwide conversations about sexual abuse in the arts. I ask if any of that weighed on her mind. Surely a 35-year-old man shouldn’t be this close to a 16-year-old girl, even if they don’t reach first base? “For me, this film has nothing to do with #MeToo, except that it’s a story between a young girl and an older man. The way they love each other has nothing to do with what we hear about #MeToo. It’s just a love story. It’s very platonic between two people who are misfits, who found something in each other that will help them go back to their lives.”
Last year, Spring Blossom played at a host of major festivals, including TIFF and San Sebastián. When Cannes named it as part of its 2020 Official Selection (it would have received the red-carpet treatment if it weren’t for COVID), Claire Denis sent a congratulatory email to the distributor. Not bad considering that Spring Blossom was Lindon’s first time on a film set in any capacity. However, Lindon acknowledges that she comes from a family of actors. Her parents are Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon, Being 17) and Vincent Lindon (Vendredi soir, Measure of a Man).
The reason for writing and directing a movie, Lindon explains, was to prove herself as a “legitimate” actor, not someone who accepted walk-on roles through industry connections. She notes that, like Suzanne, she felt alienated at 15. “I was bored of people my age, but I was more secure and sure of myself than Suzanne. What saved me was the desire to direct this film. It was my huge, secret life, writing this movie. Suzanne’s secret is that she’s in love with an older man. So we don’t share the same secret, but I was in the same state of mind she was in, in the film.”
Within Spring Blossom, modern technology barely exists. To visualise Suzanne’s isolation, she silently reads a book, not a Twitter feed, while surrounded by chattering classmates who fill up the frame. Despite a healthy following on Instagram, Lindon tells me that social media doesn’t excite her. Her main passion growing up was dance lessons – hence the many musical numbers within Spring Blossom – but she’s yet to join TikTok.
On being an ambassador for Celine by Hedi Slimane, Lindon says, “I’ve always been inspired by Hedi’s taste. I see fashion as a cultural thing. I know that Hedi sees it the same way. He’s always been inspired by movies, by music, by books, by exhibitions.” She points to what she’s wearing, adding, “Fashion is important in my life, but I’m not preppy or girly. I have my style. I’m always wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, like today. Clothes are important in the film because it reflects who the characters are.”
For the first half-hour, Suzanne wears jeans and a white t-shirt. Then her father, unaware of Raphaël’s existence, offhandedly comments that men prefer women who show off their legs. In the next scene, Suzanne switches to a skirt to successfully attract Raphaël’s attention. At no point does Raphaël face any repercussions for not turning away his 16-year-old admirer this time, or the next time, or the next time. True, he doesn’t commit any illegal activity and it’s all in public spaces, but he escapes punishment for arguably predatory behaviour. Do filmmakers have an ethical responsibility with the stories they present? Or is it like complaining that Promising Young Woman shows the wrong kind of justice at the end, and the wrong people are let off, and the wrong solutions are executed, which is akin to wanting films to be moral templates for how society is run?
“I don’t think I have to give a lesson to people. I’m not making films to make people understand anything. In my film, there’s nothing political. This is how I see love between two people, and how love can be stronger than anything else, even if the age difference is here. As I said earlier, it’s the story of two people feeling the same thing at the same time. Love is about respect. Here, it’s two people who are very respectful towards each other, and no one has more power than the other. There’s no abuse or weird relationship between them. I also think it’s interesting that a young girl like me can see love this way.
“If I had to deliver a message against sexual harassment, against sexual abuse and everything, I wouldn’t have done this film, and I wouldn’t have done it this way. Of course, it’s wrong, and I’m from the people who think that it’s wrong. I’m not defending anything else. But I think the movie’s not dealing with that.”
I tell her I disagree about the power dynamics. This is Suzanne’s coming-of-age story, not his; Raphaël is a grown man in the action profession with past relationships, while she’s a child timidly dipping a toe into the dating world. Suzanne even pointedly uses the word “adult” when eventually describing Raphaël to her father. “But to me, it’s not about power. Even if he’s older, even if he’s been in a relationship before, it’s not the same type of relationship. Here, it’s pure and different. Maybe he’s nervous to find this kind of love. Maybe she’s nervous to find this kind of love, too.
“In my film, there’s nothing political. This is how I see love between two people, and how love can be stronger than anything else, even if the age difference is here” – Suzanne Lindon
“To me, if one character has more power than the other, it’s the girl. She sees him, she chooses him, and she really wants to know him. She’s the one always starting things with him. He’s kind of lost with her. He doesn’t really know what happens to him.”
If Lindon was scribbling away at a script about personal feelings when she was 15, what kind of movie is she planning for her second feature? Having to deal with an annoying journalist like me who keeps asking about the age gap of Spring Blossom? “Oh, no!” she says. “I’m going to write about a great journalist who created a great (Zoom) background for an interview.”
She’s referring to my background, a Photoshopped mashup of Spring Blossom and Á Nos Amours. Pialat’s 1983 coming-of-ager might have more cultural influence than some people realise. Joanna Hogg named her film collective Á Nos Amours as a tribute and Luca Guadagnino cited it as the main inspiration behind Call Me By Your Name. But while Guadagnino’s interview snippets tend to praise Pialat, Lindon was struck by Sandrine Bonnaire who was 16 when playing Suzanne. The “SUZANNE” poster appears prominently throughout Spring Blossom.
“Á Nos Amours was huge for people of Sandrine Bonnaire’s age. It was also a huge shock when it was released in France – and in the world, actually.” Lindon adds, with a laugh, “I hope it’s going to be the same with my film, but I’m not so sure. I know that when I saw Á Nos Amours and L’Effrontée, I was very impressed that young girls such as Sandrine Bonnaire and Charlotte Gainsbourg could be serious actresses. It gave me the desire to do the same.”
Spring Blossom can be streamed at Curzon Home Cinema on April 23