Much happens, if not nearly enough, from the moment a shot rings out in the opening of the visually restrained, emotionally turbulent French drama “Leaving” and the film’s blunt ending, when you learn who shot whom and why. In between, a married woman, Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), and a single man, Ivan (Sergi López), fall in love, leading to bedroom panting, glazed post-coital smiles, domestic stress and storm, and a world that should be shattered but often comes across as canned.
Suzanne, a British expatriate, lives in comfort in Nîmes in the South of France, where she graciously tends to her doctor husband, Samuel (Yvan Attal), and their two teenagers, David (Alexandre Vidal) and Marion (Daisy Broom). The doctor speaks to Suzanne crisply, efficiently and without much evident affection, which, at least for the filmmaker Catherine Corsini, offers enough motivation to push Suzanne into Ivan’s furry embrace. A Spanish day laborer, Ivan has been hired to clean out, ahem, a nearby derelict stone shed where Suzanne’s new office will be. (Adding insult to tortured metaphor, the renovations are being paid for by Samuel, as he will later bitterly complain.) After years of keeping house, Suzanne wants to return to work as a physiotherapist doing, you know, body work.
That bid for independence will be brutally repressed. The designated heavy soon turns out to be Samuel, though my pick for villain is Ms. Corsini, who shares screenwriting credit with Gaëlle Macé. After Suzanne and Ivan’s portentous cleanup job, the screenwriters offer yet more plot contrivances, including an accident and an impromptu trip, atmospheric changes that find the new acquaintances yielding to each other’s charms. Ms. Scott Thomas and Mr. López go through the motions well enough: she widens her eyes, he smiles widely, and he tries to bring the heat meant to thaw her characteristic frost. But the surrender to Eros fails to translate despite the boudoir choreography. Ivan must be doing something right, however, because before you know it, Suzanne has become a love zombie with a faraway, private stare.
Ms. Corsini, whose earlier films include “The New Eve” and “La Repetition,” bathes her performers in a soft, pretty light that’s been coaxed onto the screen by the talented cinematographer Agnès Godard. The southern France locales have their own appeal, including the touristic, which is crucial to a film of this type. Taken together, the attractive landscapes, Suzanne’s handsome modern house, her smart clothes and even her nice-looking, generally polite children are meant to represent Suzanne’s life or, more truly, lifestyle. But because these elements (house, clothes, children) just function as signifiers for an unhappily, ostensibly trapped bourgeois woman who registers as more generic than specific, you never feel that they mean anything to Suzanne — so nothing feels at stake when she abandons them.
Mr. Attal brings some sympathy to the near-ridiculous role as the increasingly vengeful, seemingly all-powerful cuckold. Samuel not only demands that Suzanne return home, but also makes her economically autonomous life next to impossible, or so Ms. Corsini insists. How Samuel, a doctor of obvious if not extravagant means, has the entire local population in his pocket (no one wants to help out the lovers) as if he were an aristocrat ruling over the estate serfs remains unexplained. Here, a contemporary French white woman who yearns for liberté, égalité and fraternité is as much a prisoner of her circumstances as women were once upon a time and still are in some cultures, though truly it’s all the clichés in this film that make her a captive.