Home Entertainment ‘Suspended Time’ Review: Olivier Assayas’ Sunny Indulgence Returns Us to the Early...

‘Suspended Time’ Review: Olivier Assayas’ Sunny Indulgence Returns Us to the Early Days of Lockdown

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If any part of you has been curious as to how French filmmaker Olivier Assayas spent the early days of the global pandemic, along comes “Suspended Time” to answer your question, with very much the answer you might expect: pretty comfortably, thanks for asking. Alternating a thinly fictionalised portrait of the artist isolating at his family’s country home with fully autobiographical narration by the director himself, this mildly amusing but vastly indulgent bagatelle feels a tardy entry in the first wave of lockdown cinema — too late to feel fresh, but still too soon to have accumulated much meaningful perspective on an experience we all remember too well. Assayas devotees will take some pleasure in its formal fillips and self-references. Others need not apply.

At its most interesting — and quietly gossipy, if you are so minded — “Suspended Time” could be read as a reply work of sorts to “Bergman Island,” a more ornate but similarly self-reflexive 2021 film by Assayas’ ex-partner Mia Hansen-Løve. Written in the wake of their separation, Hansen-Løve’s film mused somewhat tartly on the challenges of preserving one’s sense of self while maintaining a relationship with an older artist who regards you as a subject as well as a lover. Played by Tim Roth, said artist was plainly modeled on Assayas. Now, Assayas’ latest features a clear Hansen-Løve proxy: Flavia (Maud Wyler), now split from the helmer’s alter ego Paul (Vincent Macaigne), sternly smokes and dispenses passive-aggressive criticism over Zoom as they negotiate the upbringing of their daughter Britt (Magdalena Lafont) in a time of moderate crisis. As public celebrity flame wars go, this is as civil and sun-dappled as they come.

Flavia is only an intermittent presence in “Suspended Time,” however, and the film dwells minimally on their past — instead presenting Paul, pandemic anxieties notwithstanding, in a placid and happily loved-up present. It’s April 2020, and the filmmaker is waiting out the lockdown in his rambling rural childhood home in Chevreuse, a sleepy commune south of Paris. The house, cluttered and creaky and book-lined, is still in much the state of luxuriously bohemian disarray that his late parents left it, with a tennis court nestled in the sprawling, verdantly overgrown garden. It’s pretty much the model of where everyone would like to have isolated for months on end, give or take the additional presence of Etienne (Micha Lescot), Paul’s rakish music-journo brother.

Paul and Etienne’s respective girlfriends, Morgane (Nina D’Urso) and Carole (Nora Hamzawi), complete a ragtag domestic quartet, and the film’s scant dramatic conflict hinges on the minor irritations that bristle between them — familiar to anyone who felt a little too close to their nearest and dearest in those strange, out-of-time months. There’s minor-key comedy in the brothers’ odd-couple differences — Etienne is coolly unflappable, if a bit of a poseur, while Paul is a twitchy neurotic — that flare up when they attempt to cook together or squabble over the ethics of Amazon purchases. But only once Carole departs, and an unleashed Etienne finally gets candid about Paul’s self-absorbed failings, does that friction gesture at something deeper.

For the most part, however, this is an uncompellingly pleasant house arrest, shot with bleached, summery warmth by Eric Gautier, and filled with meandering, high-minded conversations about Paul’s literary and artistic hobby-horses. “Enough about David Hockney,” Morgane instructs him toward the film’s end — speaking for the audience, though not soon enough. Beyond such occasional interventions, neither of the female characters is drawn in terribly illuminating detail.

Running semi-jokes about mask-wearing anxiety and hygiene theater feel entirely played out by 2024, and well beneath Assayas’ abilities as a writer, while Paul’s sporadic fretting about career stasis and creative blockage is countered by others reminding him of his rampant privilege. That the film calls out its own navel-gazing only makes it feel more removed from any potential audience: What’s our stake in Assayas arguing with himself?

It’s when Assayas drops the autofiction conceit to directly articulate his relationship to the house and its surroundings — via his own characterful, faintly melancholic voiceover — that “Suspended Time” takes on greater emotional heft, emerging as something of a parallel piece to Assayas’ lovely 2008 drama “Summer Hours” in its reflection on family spaces, heirlooms and their lingering resonance. It’s genuinely moving to hear Assayas talking about his father’s untouched office chair, or the regular running route he carved out as a teenager dreaming of eventual escape, now retraced with older, more complacent steps. Droll as Macaigne’s skewed Assayas impersonation is — to the very select audience that will even recognize it as such — this auteur curio might have been richer as a first-person documentary, minus the Covid-era observations that feel specific to everyone and no one at once.