‘Le Retour’ Review: Great Performances Anchor Catherine Corsini’s Messy, Controversial Drama

Cannes: Thin characterization hurts the director's story of three women spending the summer in Corsica.
a still from Le Retour
"Le Retour"

Catherine Corsini’s new filmLe Retour,” or “Homecoming,” opens with a moment of grief. A mother (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) is nervously traveling with her two young daughters when she gets a phone call. Something terrible has happened and she begins to weep. Though that interaction hangs over the rest of the action, which then jumps ahead 15 years, we don’t find out exactly the circumstances of that pivotal call until well into the running time of this disjointed film. By the time we do, the impact of what has occurred is less traumatic than it is confusing, a product of thin characterization and messy storytelling. 

At the same time, Corsini has tapped incredible actors for this sun-drenched saga of familial bonds in Corsica, which is best when it’s relying on their dynamics and worst when it’s going for big revelations. 

The woman in those first frames is Khédidja, a nanny, who has been invited to the French island in the Mediterranean by a wealthy family to care for their young children on holiday. Her two daughters have come along for the summer: 18-year-old Jessica (Suzy Bemba), studious and distant, and 15-year-old Farah (Esther Gohourou), who, feeling underappreciated, thrives on chaos. The trip is fraught: The girls were born in Corsica, but have no memories of the place, aside from the knowledge that their father died there. Khédidja withholds information about their past, which Jessica and Farah resent. 

The family mystery plays out in tandem with the tale Corsini wants to craft of emotional and sexual discovery for the teens. Jessica falls for the carefree Gaia (Lomane de Dietrich), the older half-sister of the charges her mother is watching. Gaia, a rich girl with few worries, can be both loving and patronizing. Farah, meanwhile, develops a hostile flirtation with a boy on the beach (Harold Orsini), who she first meets when calling him out for his racist behavior towards a group of kids playing with a soccer ball.

While there is joy to be found in the depiction of the spark of attraction and first love, the screenplay, co-written with Naïla Guiguet, stumbles in portraying the racial dynamics of these relationships — both Farah and Jessica are awfully forgiving of the microaggressions their romancers display.

“Le Retour” arrives in competition after a raft of controversies that initially led to the film being scrapped from the lineup before it was returned about ten days later. The delay was specifically related to the fact that a sexual scene involving the then-15-year-old Gohourou and Orsini was not cleared with France’s Commission des Enfants du Spectacle, though there were also reports of alleged harassment on set by both Corsini and other crew members.

In response, Corsini and her producer Élisabeth Perez said that there was an administrative error relating to the scene in question, and denied any harassment. “We want to emphasize that no complaint has been filed against Catherine Corsini, or against the film’s production,” they said in an open letter published by Variety. The scene in question featuring Gohourou, who also starred in the controversial “Cuties,” does not appear in the final product. It’s hard to imagine what purpose it would have served.

Meanwhile, Gohourou, who has defended Corsini, delivers a standout performance here alongside Bemba, and the film thrives in the awkward spaces between sisters who could not be more different. Bemba plays Jessica with a wide-eyed reserve, while Gohourou is filled with hilarious fire making even the clunkiest dialogue work. When they are separated, each pursuing their own personal investigations, you can feel the energy of the material lag. That said, de Dietrich is often alluring and funny as Gaia, a smart-ass party girl who talks back to her condescending father Denis Podalydès, himself doing good work in blowhard mode.

The actress who gets the short shrift is Diallo Sagna, the star of Corsini’s “The Divide.” The script deliberately obscures the source of some of Khédidja’s guilt and sorrow, but that unfortunately means the character remains elusive and Diallo Sagna has to play emotions that don’t make sense. Ultimately, Corsini seems less interested in what Khédidja is experiencing than what her daughters are, but that thin characterization has a ripple effect on the rest of the film. 

Corsini clearly has both affection and disdain for Corsica, which she paints as a place of beauty and rejection. Her camera relishes in capturing how the oppressive sun beams bouncing off the rustic structures and the crystalline qualities of the water against bare skin. Still, she recognizes an ugliness in this vacation town — the casual racism of the residents and the hedonism of the parties. 

There is juice in these contradictions, but Corsini struggles to tackle all of that and in turn give her protagonists fully rounded journeys. The result is a movie that registers as slight by its end, despite the talent found within its confines. What is nonetheless evident, however, is that Bemba and Gohourou are worth watching as they go forward in their careers. 

Grade: C 

“Le Retour” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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