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Suspended Time (Hors du Temps)

Olivier Assayas's autofictional Covid drama is light and gentle like a spring breeze, however mostly unremarkable - from the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


It is spring 2020, and the world has just started grappling with the Covid pandemic. Chubby-funny, forty-something-year old filmmaker Paul (Vincent Macaigne) and his haughty, permanently shade-wearing musician/radio presenter brother Etienne (Micha Lescot) live in a large countryside masion, which they inherited from their father. The setting is idyllic, with bellflowers painting the landscape blue, and cherry and apple blossom adding the perfect touch of heavenly bliss. The weather is sunny and breezy. They are in the company of their beautiful partners, respectively Morgane (Nine D’Urso) and Carole (Nora Hamzawi). Strict lockdown rules have been implemented, and people are still coming to terms with the bizarre new requirements (the now all-too-familiar masking and social distancing). Paul communicates with his mother, his little daughter and her mother via Zoom, as most of us did back then. They feel trapped inside a timeless bubble, a relatable sentiment to anyone who was living on planet Earth that year.

Most of the film consists of petty family arguments, particularly as Paul lapses into what his brother describes as “neurosis”. He takes all of his clothes off before entering the house and insists that groceries should be left untouched for four hours upon arriving in the house. Etienne complains that such amount of time may lead to a bacterial infestation in the dairy products. The duel is on: virus versus bacteria! Which one is going to win? While Paul is very concerned about the pandemic, Etienne is far more precious about mundane house rules. He complains about the television volume at night and becomes infuriated at the prospect of his sibling walking on the freshly mopped kitchen floor. Ironically, it is the “neurotic” brother who manages to enjoy the pandemic: Paul finds pleasure in the suspension of time, while Etienne struggles to live in this temporary state of isolation.

This highly personal film is dotted with autobiographical elements, and Paul is clearly a proxy for the French director (who happens to be a little older, at the age of 69). There are repeated allusions to his work, including the casting of Kristen Stewart (the star of 2017’s Personal Shopper, and incidentally also the president of the jury’s at last year’s Berlinale), filming in Cuba (a riff on 2019’s The Wasp Network) and even a brief mentioning of 1996’s Irma Vep. These references are vaguely fictionalised (they are not literal mentions of Assayas’s work). The name of an artist called Guillaume Assayas is briefly displayed, and that too is presumably made-up.

Assayas goes beyond self-referencing. This is a movie intoxicated with artistic namedropping. While Etienne constantly talks about musicians such as The Stranglers, Primal Screams and the Beach Boys, Paul is particularly fond of painting and literature: David Hockney, Monet and Gustave Flaubert are amongst the countless artists named. It feels a little silly and idiosyncratic. Unless you are the biggest die-hard fan of Olivier Assayas and are curious to find out more about the smallest of his interests.

Olivier Assayas’s 18th feature film boasts honesty and spontaneity. The dialogues are relatable (if hardly revealing). The characters feel human and endearing. The trifling malaises of the bourgeoisie are recognisable. The best scene is in the epilogue, when Paul finally meets his daughter in person (presumably late in spring), and breaks some very unexpected news. She is unable to comprehend the significance of her father’s gesture. The naivety of the child combined the fatherly warmth of the adult are guaranteed to put a smile on your face. On the other hand, the film fails to inspire and engage. The topic of the pandemic and its domestic repercussions is so universal that it’s hardly revealing. Much like a gentle spring breeze, Suspended Time is pleasant and warm, however also innocuous and fugitive. At times, you will barely feel it, and you won’t even remember it the following day.

Suspended Time just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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