Cannes 2023 review: Let Me Go (Maxime Rappaz)

“Quiet, meditative and powerful, Let Me Go is a fascinating examination of the human condition, as seen through the perspective of one person trying to improve her life and make the future for her and her son slightly brighter.”

In what is certain to be considered one of the year’s most audacious debuts, Maxime Rappaz immediately establishes himself as a bright young talent with the release of Let Me Go (Laissez-Moi). It tells the story of Claudine, an ordinary middle-aged seamstress raising her son in a small, remote town near the Swiss Alps, doing her best to give him a better life, all the while pursuing her own desires, which manifest in her weekly visits to a local hotel where she engages in near-anonymous affairs with the men who pass through, using their lives as the foundation for the carefully edited stories she tells her disabled son. Over time she begins to yearn for more, which coincides with one partner’s decision to stay behind and pursue a relationship with her, something that she was not prepared to consider until now, leading her to wonder whether it is possible to start a new chapter in a book she had seemingly already closed. A film that carries itself with a sophistication that can only come through understanding the merits of telling a simple story that never intends to do more than is entirely necessary, Let Me Go is a poignant examination of a few powerful themes. Each is intricately woven into the film by Rappaz, whose incredible control over the material, coupled with an abundance of compassion for his characters and their different perspectives, makes for a poignant examination of the human condition.

At a cursory glance, Let Me Go does not immediately come across as being particularly complex – it is a simple, character-based drama that covers common themes and explores a variety of ideas with sensitivity, taking care to follow a particular structure, so as not to become too unwieldy in terms of the psychological aspects of the story. However, there is a quiet complexity that drives the film, and this comes through in the examination of feminine identity. The character of Claudine is constantly shifting between identities – most of the time, she plays the role of a mother, caring for her son and helping him through a world that is not designed for someone with his level of disability, as well as contributing to her community through her line of work. However, her weekly routine of shedding this persona and adopting that of a mysterious, glamorous woman who seduces the various tourists passing through the town, shows her efforts to reacquaint herself with her sexual identity and to avoid being seen as past her prime, which in turn allows her a second chance at love, occurring later in life but still with the same passion as in her younger years. Rappaz navigates a very narrow thematic tightrope with this film, creating a beautiful but thought-provoking drama that investigates the concept of desire and the role it plays in establishing one’s identity, and while it can feel impenetrable at first, it starts to make more sense as new details about these characters are gradually unearthed.

As is often the case with these simple character studies, Let Me Go is driven by its performances more than nearly anything else, and with an actor as gifted as Jeanne Balibar in the central role, Rappaz placed the film in good hands. As a consistently interesting and thoughtful actor, Balibar was a perfect fit for this material, creating a character in collaboration with the director that is three-dimensional, complex and meaningful, while never becoming too defined by her eccentricities. Instead, Claudine is a character that is put together through finding the intricate details that would normally be absent in a broader examination of these themes, but which form the foundation for her performance, which grows far more complex as the film progresses. Balibar relies on her incredible expressivity to bring this character to life – every emotion is etched onto her face, which conveys every sensation, feeling and insecurity felt by this woman, who is simply trying to survive in a world that has regularly counted her out, leading to a concerted effort to redefine her femininity and take the opportunity to improve herself. By far one of the best performances of the year, and one that could possibly stand alongside all of her previously acclaimed work, Balibar’s portrayal of Claudine in Let Me Go is an absolute triumph, and the kind of spirited performance that helps reconcile some of the more intentionally ambiguous aspects of the film and its many abstract ideas. Let Me Go has broad overtures of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (which is not a comparison that I make lightly), particularly in how it constructs the story around an atmospheric account of the intersections between femininity and desire, as well as the use of repetition as an artistic device, a narrative tool that creates a deeply affecting account of the main character’s life as she seeks a way out of the cyclical nature of her existence, which is pleasant but uninspiring, leading to a certain middle-aged malaise from which she is desperate to escape. The film is extremely simple, to the point where it fits in neatly with the canon of excellent social realist dramas, but not opposed to a few moments of abstraction, both visually and narratively, which add to the overall experience as we explore the trials and tribulations of Claudine as she continuously tries to redefine her identity through small but impactful changes to her everyday life. Rappaz is a major talent, and considering this is his debut as a director, it is exciting to imagine where his career could develop from here. It is not particularly easy to make a film that is this simple but evocative, with the level of detail required to convincingly develop his ideas showing a director with an immense set of skills, and the willingness to lay them all bare throughout this film. Quiet, meditative and powerful, Let Me Go is a fascinating examination of the human condition, as seen through the perspective of one person trying to improve her life and make the future for her and her son slightly brighter.