REVIEW: Kristin Scott Thomas Brings Everything She's Got to Leaving

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Catherine Corsini's Leaving is a cheery little number that opens, and pretty much ends, with a shotgun blast. In between, Kristin Scott Thomas, as Suzanne, an affluent doctor's wife living all-too-comfortably in the south of France, falls desperately in love with Sergi López's sensitive, brawny, Spanish ex-con construction guy. As the result of this forbidden attraction, she makes some passionate, intuitively guided decisions and some rash, lousy ones. But as the ominous crack of that shotgun suggests, this isn't a story that's going to end well.

Leaving is a bit too dry and controlled, as well as too relentlessly bleak, to be a satisfying melodrama. In its subject matter, it bears a passing resemblance to Luca Guadagnino's recent I Am Love, but it doesn't have that picture's lush, swirling rhythms. Even so, it's also hard to turn away from: At first I wanted to write it off as one of those stereotypical stories about a middle-aged woman who embarks on what we used to call, euphemistically, a journey of self-discovery. But Corsini -- who's been making movies in France since the early '80s, though she isn't particularly well-known in the United States -- seems to be after something both rougher and more delicate here. And whatever that elusive, paradoxical "something" is, the superb Scott Thomas helps her reach it.

Suzanne is one of those women who doesn't seem particularly unhappy or beaten down. But her husband, Samuel -- played by a thin-lipped, buttoned-up Yvan Attal -- clearly likes to keep her on a short leash. He makes derisive comments about her "going back to work": She's raised the couple's two kids, now teenagers, who sit at the kitchen table munching their breakfast with desultory disinterest; now she'd like to get back into her old line of work, physiotherapy. To that end, Samuel is magnanimously and generously, as he keeps reminding her, building her an office on the couple's property. Enter López, the hot -- but also super-nice -- construction guy. And what an entrance he gets: He walks in on Suzanne as she's listening to some reflexology tapes while massaging her feet -- I almost expected him to announce "Hello, ma'am, I'm here to fix your faucet," before zipping off a pair of Velcro-sided pants.

But Corsini quickly establishes the sturdy camaraderie that springs up between the two characters: Suzanne helps Ivan clear some junk out of a storage area, and it's only when he mentions that she's ill-suited for this kind of rough work that you notice how well-toned her exceedingly slender limbs are. Of course she can handle it -- and it's a good thing, too, because the affair she and Ivan will embark on will cost her just about everything she's got.

The love scenes between Scott Thomas and López have a believable, animalistic tenderness -- their passion for each other comes with an inherent mutual respect, something that Suzanne clearly isn't getting out of her marriage. López is a marvelous actor, even when he's playing the heavy (as he did, to chilling effect, in Pan's Labyrinth); here, he's a quiet, sturdy presence and, Velcro pants or no, very, very sexy.

But it's Scott Thomas who makes the picture work. Even when she was younger, she has always been something of a gaunt, haunted actress. That's a quality she's used to great effect quite recently, in pictures like Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, in which she plays a ghostly, reserved woman reacclimating to life after being released from prison. But you need to reel back many years to Scott Thomas' charming debut, in Prince's unfairly maligned 1986 Under the Cherry Moon, to get an idea of what she's doing here, as a full-fledged grown-up, in Leaving.

In Under the Cherry Moon, Scott Thomas played an icy socialite princess brought down to earth by Prince's dashing rapscallion pianist. (I'll always remember her character's elegant rendering, under Prince's tutelage, of extremely useful terms such as "recca stow.") In that movie, as in this one, Scott Thomas channels a sweet, open-hearted girlishness that's almost at odds with her very bone structure. That quality is particularly touching to see here, now that Scott Thomas has reached middle age. When things turn south for the illicit lovers, Scott Thomas wears a suitably careworn, vulnerable look, and there's so much submerged pain in her performance that you simply ache for her character. But in the movie's early scenes, as Suzanne and Ivan happily embark on their romantic adventure, Scott Thomas looks like a different person altogether.

I can hardly believe it, but the word I wrote down in my notebook is "cute." In those early scenes, looking blazingly happy and completely open to the experience that stretches out enticingly before her, Scott Thomas' Suzanne -- even with those alabaster cheekbones, that patrician nose -- looks simply adorable. That's not what we expect of Scott Thomas. Which is exactly why it's such a pleasure, at this stage of her career, to keep watching her.