It’s perhaps unfair to say that divorce dramas have had too great a resurgence in recent years. The genre is by its nature a prime, extreme avenue for filmmakers to explore questions of family, separation, and bureaucracy, but this vehicle for Big Themes can frequently falter if the subject is taken merely on face value, and not burrowed into and inhabited. With this in mind, Axelle Ropert would seem to be an ideal director for this sort of endeavor: she directed Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (2013, also known as Miss and the Doctors), one of the finest romantic comedies of recent years, a film that constantly expanded outward from its love triangle of brother doctors slowly falling in love with the same woman to capture the sense of city life and its ineffable connections.
Ropert’s newest film, Petite Solange, playing in the International Competition at Locarno, falls into more conventional lines. Its eponymous character, a 13-year-old played by Jade Springer, leads a relatively average life with her parents Antoine (Philippe Katerine), a music store salesman, and Aurélia (Léa Drucker), a theater actress specializing in wronged women, along with her bookish elder brother Romain (Grégoire Montana). Indeed, aside from an evident brightness of spirit, the most distinctive fact about Solange initially is her last name, Maserati, an Italian name inherited from her father, which is commented on numerous times throughout the film.
But the family begins unhappy, with Antoine engaged in a surreptitious affair with his coworker and Aurélia frequently absent, and things only worsen as the film goes on. What sets Petite Solange apart from a run-of-the-mill divorce film, however, is the question of Ropert’s interest. Solange remains front and center throughout the film, with most of the divorce aspect conveyed in overheard shouts, tentative tête-à-tête conversations with her parents, and the normal vagaries of familial interaction. More than anything, this is a patient, quotidian film: for much of it the only substantial shift in these dynamics is Romain practically fleeing to the relative refuge of a graduate degree program.
Instead of constant struggle, Ropert opts for a certain creeping sense of unease, a slow evolution in Solange’s character and outlook on life. Sometimes, this runs the risk of cliché: a certain subplot with Solange becoming more and more troublesome in school as a result of domestic stress feels too pat. But more often, Ropert’s signature interest in little subplots, reflecting the unsettled and capricious nature of life, comes through, especially in a tentative flirtation Solange has with a piano-playing bad boy at her school.
All of this builds to a sudden release, a rupture in the film’s final 20 minutes that jumps an indeterminate number of years to a greatly changed Solange. Springer’s performance shifts radically in this moment, and it illuminates the extent to which the film principally relies on her initially ebullient presence, along with Ropert’s careful sense of direction and the beautiful 16mm cinematography by Sébastien Buchmann. This is not a radical film about divorce, but it continually demonstrates an interest in burrowing just a little deeper, going in a slightly more interesting direction, and the agglomeration of these choices results in something gratifyingly warm and complex.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1,