'Spring Blossom' Review: A Controversial Subject Is Tackled With Grace, Humor, And Wisdom [TIFF 2020]

The most striking thing about Spring Blossom, in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a man in his mid-thirties, is that it stars 20-year-old director Suzanne Lindon in the leading role.The 2020 Cannes and TIFF selection is a tender and amusing portrait of teen-hood, in which the character of Suzanne experiences a generational disconnect. Bored with her school-aged peers, she seeks out a magnetic stranger — Raphaël (Arnaud Valois), an actor rehearsing at a theatre en route to Suzanne's school — as a means to escape her mind-numbing routine. Raphaël is similarly dissatisfied, as a performer stuck with older castmates and directors he struggles to understand. And so, their rendezvous feels like the passing of ships in the night, an affair that's barely physical but always emotional, often expressed through surrealist moments of interpretive dance. Of course, such a premise can't possibly escape the broader conversation on age-gap romance — nor should it, since it involves a young teen and a man nearly twenty years her senior. The age of consent may be 15 in the film's native France, but recent reckonings with predatory power dynamics ought to call Raphaël's behaviour into question, even though he comes off kindly. That's for us as an audience to decide, though Spring Blossom is also the type of film where excising this dimension from the narrative doesn't necessarily feel untoward. The film is by no means a retort against those of us who might take issue with the dynamic — the opportunity doesn't really arise within the narrative, since their romance is largely a secret, and no other perspectives but theirs ever come into play.It was written, after all, when Lindon was 15.With a few additional years of maturity and technical acumen under her belt, it makes for an engrossing look at someone lost in the fog of adolescence. At 15, Lindon may not have had the words to express these feelings, and whether or not she does at 20, she captures the character's meandering search with commendable clarity, as if to ask: if there are no words, why bother trying to find them?Suzanne, the character, feels at an impasse, in which her concerns with life, romance and sexuality are entirely, and understandably, self-absorbed. She interacts with other characters all the time, from her parents (Florence Viala and Frédéric Pierrot) to her older sister Marie (Rebecca Marder), and their scenes are largely pleasant. But Lindon's playful performance betrays a sense of distraction, even when the character seems engaged on the surface.In telling the tale entirely from Suzanne's perspective (except for a small handful of scenes), Lindon avoids the broader social backdrop altogether. One's mileage may vary on the question of which filmmakers bear how much responsibility to condemn their subjects, but in the process, Spring Blossom also avoids a narrative route that might feel too simple, or too morally agreeable, to make for a compelling narrative. Instead, the film's emotional core is one of unspoken, inexplicable misalignment. The two get along famously, despite what little they have in common — and therein lies their disconnect. The liberation sought by Suzanne and Raphaël (to escape into a world of adulthood, and to re-capture lost youth respectively) instantly draws them to one another, as if they were shaped like each other's missing puzzle pieces. And yet something, somewhere, remains amiss. The young writer-director allows her characters to express their uncertainties, and their occasional moments of clarity, through dance. One might not call Spring Blossom a musical outright, though a handful of scenes ride the line between reality and musical fantasy in entrancing ways. One in particular sees Suzanne frolicking down and empty street, as if to let out the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. The others, however, feel more grounded and introspective. For instance, the first time she and Raphaël share music — a vital step for a young romantic like Suzanne — the duo breaks into a coordinated interpretive dance while seated at a café. Their arms flow across the table like water, before the duo returns to what can't help but feel like a dissatisfied equilibrium. They're in sync for fleeting moments before reality creeps back in. Dance takes center stage on occasion because it's a more abstract, less straightforward mode of expression than the otherwise naturalistic dialogue, which beats around the bush, and meanders, and lands on little of substance. Suzanne and Raphaël are often unable to express themselves during their daily emotional realities — withheld conversations, both in public and in private — so these absurdist, imaginary asides become release valves for unspoken desires. The filmmaking, like the protagonist at its center, is lighthearted and mischievous, especially during scenes at the family table. For the most part, the film captures character dynamics from a comfortable, stable distance, and only cuts into Suzanne's close-ups when the wheels are turning in her head, and she's trying her best to hide her grin — unsuccessfully, of course. Watching Lindon navigate conversations with Suzanne's family is a delight, as she zips between topics in the hopes of covertly gathering information on how to dress or how to act (though she barely deviates from her plain white shirts). Lindon creates moments of comedic gold when Suzanne thinks she's being sly, but her enthusiasm is barely-contained. And of course, when Suzanne first approaches Raphaël, Lindon, the performer, walks a hilarious line between awkward teen and someone whose idea of flirtation has been filtered through far too much TV (or too many YouTube makeup tutorials, which she royally flubs). Although, this easygoing, comedic tone is by no means a default setting. While it dominates the scenes of Suzanne sneaking around and following Raphaël like she's on some secret mission, the few scenes that deviate from her perspective tell a different story. They're brief, but they follow Raphaël in his private moments backstage, lost in a haze of loneliness and a middle-aged dissatisfaction he can't quite pin down. He brushes off even the kindness of his more learned peers, and during a scene late into the film, in which he feels trapped down a hole of his own insecurity, the camera moves a little closer to him that we've grown used to, shaking uncomfortably and refusing to cut away — a stark aesthetic departure from the breezier, more conventional filmmaking when Lindon films herself. The frame never really locks on Raphaël, certainly not long enough to let his anxieties play out; we can't really get to know him, though it feels fitting. He doesn't seem to know himself, which adds vital context to why he seems so aloof and mysterious to Suzanne's gaze. At first, the scenes between Suzanne and Raphaël feel like an exciting meld of these two styles, staying at a safe distance but inching ever closer as the duo stands outside the theatre. It's as if Suzanne, the character, were behind the camera, both eager and hesitant to capture the full scope of this secret romance. Although, as the film wears on, the scenes no longer feel effortlessly conceived; they feel staged and awkward, in a manner that seems intentional on the filmmakers' part, as if the romance has run its course without really having begun. Perhaps that's condemnation enough.Lindon's dramatic hand proves deft in her debut feature. She captures what it feels like to live through a specific moment in time, when you think you've found the answer to your discontent, only to realize the question might be deeper and more complex. At a mere 73 minutes, the film doesn't dive into the details of the ensuing complications; the story seems to end right at their precipice. Perhaps that's a failing of filmmaking perspective, but it's also an expression of where that perspective begins and ends for its young protagonist. One might've asked for more from a seasoned veteran, but for someone just starting her career, and capturing experiences from which she's only a few years removed, one could rarely hope for more honesty about confusing, all-consuming uncertainties of youth in an adult world.