Cannes 2023 review: Le retour (Catherine Corsini)

Le retour is a quiet and resilient tale of shifting identities and the unearthing of shared history.”

In the aftermath of The Divide, in which we saw her explore the challenges of those within the French healthcare system, both medical professionals and patients, as they endure the obstacles that surround them over the course of one night, Catherine Corsini has returned to the more familiar idyllic settings with which she is most associated for her recent film, Le retour (Homecoming). It is a fascinating character study that focuses on the trials and tribulations of a woman returning to her roots in Corsica after several years. This single mother takes up a job working for a wealthy family, taking along her two teenage daughters who have to adapt to an entirely new way of life while learning more about their family and their origins, which have remained out of sight for as long as they have been alive, the reasons for which are explored throughout their stay on the island. A quiet, meditative drama that features many of Corsini’s unique qualities, both visual and narrative, the film is a strong exemplification of her skills as a storyteller. The detail with which she examines some profoundly challenging subjects is encapsulated perfectly in this film, which is often quite daring, even when it plays into the traditions that we have come to expect from the director.

As its title suggests, the theme around which most of this film orbits is homecoming – unlike a film that focuses on characters moving to entirely foreign places, this film examines the experience of uprooting your life by returning to a place to which you are inextricably tied, particularly through culture. The film presents a delicate and profoundly moving depiction of what it means to return to a place from your past – for Khedidja, this represents going home to the place she remembers, and unearthing the secrets of the past she had previously wanted to keep hidden from her memory. Meanwhile her daughters, who were likely too young to remember their migration off the island over a decade before (if they were even born at that point), have to acclimate themselves to this new life, but still feel the familiarity that proves how the island and its people are embedded in their identities. Le retour examines the psychological and social impact of returning to one’s homeland, and how it is not always the smoothest transition for some, as many tend to overlook the challenges that come with adjusting to a new way of life, especially with the spectres of the past lingering.

Corsini masterfully puts together a striking social drama that focuses on both the intimate and broad aspects of the theme of returning home to a place you barely recognize. It manages to be very tender and extremely touching at some points, but also doesn’t retreat when the opportunity to develop some of these themes emerges. The three women at the heart of Le retour find themselves at a metaphysical crossroads as they confront the change that awaits them in the move to Corsica, unsure whether this is a temporary change of location, or something more permanent, a conversation none of them are initially willing to have, in fear of certain issues arising in the process that could heighten the growing interpersonal tension. Corsini evokes themes that are integral to how these characters function, examining the social roles they play and how challenging it can be to adapt, since even the most progressive factions of society have certain traditions embedded within, these ideas being reflected in the characters, who are three-dimensional, well-constructed individuals in their own right. The film is superbly well-cast, with Aïssatou Diallo Sagna reuniting with Corsini after her breakthrough performance in The Divide, while young actors Esther Gohourou and Suzy Bemba make an immediate impression, allowing the film to creatively explore these characters and the various challenges that surround them. Le retour is as much about the physical act of returning home as it is about exploring one’s femininity and identity. The prospect of budding queer love between one daughter and a young woman she befriends is quite typical for one of the director’s films, and executed with just as much tenderness as we have grown to expect from her. It is gorgeously made, with Corsini proving that her films capture the simple beauties of the natural world like very few of her contemporaries, who rarely find the perfect balance between characters and their surroundings – it often seems like Corsica itself is positioned as a character of its own, with the distinct energy that radiates throughout it becoming as pivotal to the development of the plot as the more traditional, character-based elements. A film formed from the striking power of a simple but evocative story, which centres around the most sincere form of human interactions, Le retour is a quiet and resilient tale of shifting identities and the unearthing of shared history. Both occur in tandem as we observe these characters navigating their environment and reconciling the past with the present, which makes for an effective and meaningful drama about life and its unexpected challenges.

(c) Image copyright: Emmylou Mai / CHAZ Productions