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Le Retour: Controversially Mediocre French Contender Director: Catherine Corsini
Image: Cannes

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Cannes 2023: Le Retour is a Controversially Mediocre French Contender

Le Retour (Homecoming) Review

There was a certain buzz around choosing Le Retour by Catherine Corsini to kick off France’s participation in the official competition: preceded by a complaint about sex scenes involving minors not being priorly declared as French actors’ guild rules require and some vague mentions of on set harassment, contributing to the film’s tardive addition to the official competition. Allegations notwithstanding, Le Retour made it to the official selection at Cannes, much to this reviewer’s chagrin. Sadly, Cannes does have a history of selecting films about nubile teenagers, in all their uninhibited hormonal annoyingness, adolescent lassitude with the world and cliched rebelliousness. As anticipated, they will do some partying, take some ecstasy, will have some first sexual encounters but mostly, majorly, overwhelmingly, sulk and lash out at their well-meaning parents…We’ve all been there, raging hormones are understandable and relatable, however why such a spectacle of made-for-TV mediocrity would find its way into the official selection is puzzling. (Disclaimer: I watched Le Retour shortly after Hirokazu Kore-eda’s excellent Monster which also centres on sulky teenagers discovering budding sexuality; I have nothing against that segment of the population and everything against its stereotyped portrayal). 

Set during the summer school holiday on the island of Corsica,  Le Retour is structured around some easy counterpoints which it unfortunately slathers in grating cliches: white bourgeois versus African-origin working-class families, French mainlanders versus local Corsicans, a responsible, studious daughter versus an unruly “ghetto” one whose roles, surprise surprise, end up reversed, and some half-baked family secret thrown in for good measure, which the coming-of-age characters will need to overcome in order to grow. 

Kheididja (Esther Gohourou), a Senegalese-origin widowed nanny from the French mainland travels to the island with her two teenage daughters in order to look after the children of her well-to-do white employers. It is gradually revealed that Kheididja herself used to live in Corsica with her now-deceased Corsican husband. The elder daughter Jessica, played by Suzy Bemba, has just been accepted to Sciences-Po, a prestigious university institution, which should pave her way to future success, while the younger Farah is a loud-mouthed confrontational troublemaker generally going around picking fights or well, being busy with her mobile device. Here is the moment to mention feisty Farah’s character is a compendium of French Ghetto 101, in glaring contrast to her mother and sister’s courteous mild-manneredness– the filmmaker’s purported reasoning being that Jessica, the academic star of the family, is overindulged by her mother because of her good behaviour and high school grades, so the neglected Farah is left to fend for herself. 

Image: Cannes

The drama is propelled by Kheididja’s refusal to take her daughters to their father’s village and by Jessica’s growing relationship with Gaia (Lomane de Dietrich), the slightly older daughter of Kheididja’s employers. Both of these unfold as expected, with predictable pivotal moments – the unearthing of the buried familial secret and reunification with the father’s side of the family on the one hand, first kiss, first sex, first drugs, on the other. While the scenes with the Corsican grandmother are mostly going through the motions, the teenage beach and party sequences do have an authenticity, aided by a decently enthusiastic performances by the three adolescent leads. What they do lack is, however, is interest. At no point did this reviewer manage to get immersed or barely care for the growing up process of this group. 

Thankfully, there are moments of comic relief (as in relief for the audience from the tedium of this beachside summer break) mainly owing to the preposterous Denis Podalydes as Gaia’s foot-in-mouth father and Virginie Ledoyen as her overwhelmed stepmother. She just cannot single-handedly (well, along her husband and her adult stepdaughter) manage the younger children (or at least manage to enjoy her holiday), African nanny to the rescue! The comical value of the feckless bourgeois is a trite staple of French cinema, but at this point the audience must cling to what it can.  

Feisty Farah’s no-filter awkwardness is also a welcome breath of fresh air in this stultified concoction:  Farah to her mother “If my father is white, how come I am blacker than both of you?” was probably the moment which elicited the greatest audience response, not least because said audience had been pondering the same question for about an hour, obviously going down the path of “the purported Corsican father is not the girls’ real father and the family secret will out”. But it turns out he is, and the director herself must have felt the need to address the racially implausible casting and its impact on the credibility of the storyline. As for the objectification of teenage girls’ summertime bodies, which takes up a fair portion of screentime, it may be what these days is called a “celebration of the freedom of movement of teenage girls’ bodies”, you know, a la Kechiche. I am willing to give Corsini the benefit of the doubt and pretend that an adult filmmaker so focused, visually and narratively, on half-naked adolescent flesh is nothing leery. It is just plain boring. 

Another pointless, jarring subplot is Kheididja’s out of nowhere decision to sleep with her late husband’s friend – yes, it can be explained in terms of an albeit awkward overcoming trauma, clinging to the past, etc. but the sequence is utterly unconvincing, bordering on the cringeworthy. The filmmaker probably had in mind something along the lines of “gentle coming back to life”? We’ll take it, if the characters’ salvation brings with itself the audience’s salvation from this weary beachside pablum. 

Zornitsa Staneva

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