David McKenzie’s Asylum is a flawed but breathtakingly compelling portrait of violent sexual obsession, deception, and mental illness. Unremittingly dark, this film also presents us with a woman who rails against the constraints placed on women in 1950s middle class Britain.
Stella (Natasha Richardson) is a bored housewife who makes her home on the grounds of a mental hospital outside London. She’s married to Max (Hugh Bonneville), a pompous overbearing psychiatrist who makes it clear that she is expected to devote all of her energies to helping him rise to the top of the hospital hierarchy. The servants who cook meals, clean the house, and care for Stella’s son guarantee that Stella never has anything productive to do.
Stella has a chance encounter with Edgar (Marton Csokas), an inmate who is repairing the gazebo in her garden. They are both instantly attracted and begin having steamy trysts. Edgar, who has been institutionalized after having murdered his wife, is denied release from the asylum. Frustrated, he escapes and re-establishes contact with Stella once he is safely ensconced in a squalid cold-water flat in London.
Meanwhile, Max’s rival, Dr. Peter Cleave (Sir Ian McKellen) puts two and two together and confronts Stella, demanding to know where Edgar is. When Stella refuses, he reminds her that Max, as her husband, can have her committed to the asylum. Stella, trapped and caught in the full grip of hybristophilia, runs to Edgar.
Why did I choose to start off this review of Partir (Leaving) with a synopsis of a completely different film? Quite frankly, the plot of Partir is startlingly similar to Asylum. Although Partir is set in twenty-first century France, both films are keenly rendered character portraits of strong-willed British women who’ve grown tired of sacrificing their happiness for their families’ sake and decide to follow their hearts to tragic results.
Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an Englishwoman who’s called France home for more than two decades. She is a stay-at-home mother who decides to go back to work after fifteen years out of the paid labor force. She is completing her training as a physiotherapist, something she’d planned to do before having children. Suzanne is married to Samuel (Yvan Attal), a pompous overbearing doctor, who reluctantly sinks a small fortune into fixing up a shed for her home office.
The man in charge of fixing up the space is Ivan (Sergi Lopez), a Spaniard who went to prison for “kid’s stuff.” When Suzanne causes an accident that causes Ivan to break his ankle, the guilt-ridden Suzanne to offer him a ride to Spain so that Ivan can visit his young daughter. The two, who already feel attracted, embark on a passionate affair.
Suzanne leaves her husband after confessing the affair and unsuccessfully trying to end it. Samuel, who seems to view Suzanne as more of a possession than an equal partner, resorts to blacklisting the couple to the point of starvation and freezing the bank accounts, not at all willing to give Suzanne a quick divorce.
Despite its derivativeness, Partir still managed to absorb me. This is in no small part due to Kristen Scott Thomas’ subtly commanding performance. Scott Thomas effortlessly conveys Suzanne’s conflicting emotions through her eyes and nearly imperceptible gestures.
I also like the fact that Corsini doesn’t feel the need to tell us everything. Many of the films climactic scenes end rather abruptly, requiring the audience to draw its own conclusions and Partir’s lean eighty-five minute run time guarantees that the film’s pacing doesn’t lag.
Partir doesn’t shy away from its feminist subtext, exploring the invisibility and frustrations of homemakers at length. Partir, in brutally honest scenes, depicts how easy it is for a vindictive husband to use his financial clout to punish an errant wife.
Given the date of its release and its serious subject matter, I anticipate Partir becoming a contender for Best Foreign Language Film. (It’s in French with English subtitles). Nominations for its cast and director are probably in short order, too.