Between Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” sequel “Glass Onion,” the terrible quarantine “Purge” ripoff “Songbird,” and Doug Liman’s inert Covid heist movie “Locked Down”, movies have tried — and usually failed — in depicting the everyday horrors and quirks of the pandemic. Admittedly, turning the absence of interaction and drama into good cinema is an unenviable challenge. Olivier Assayas is the latest to try and, unfortunately, the latest to largely fail. 

Set in April 2020, “Suspended Time” follows Paul (Vincent Macaigne) a frustrated filmmaker confined to his late parents’ picturesque country house with his wife Morgane (Nine d’Urso), his short-tempered brother Etienne (Micha Lescot), and Etienne’s wife Carole (Nora Hamzawi). In the very first scene, Paul receives an Amazon package like it’s radioactive material — it’s just a pair of socks — as a confounded Etienne asks why it all need be such a choreography. Paul explains that the virus can stay on surfaces for four hours, that people are dying worldwide, that if it wasn’t all so serious, we wouldn’t be shut in our homes. These were the sorts of facts that we clung to to stay sane for those first months, and in this “Suspended Time” gets to something distinct and meaningful: our neuroses became performance art for participating in what the world was going through. Being a bit strange and over-reactive was a counterintuitive way to connect with others, and show that we cared. Trust Assayas to find significance in a big dollop of anti-bacterial hand gel. 

What follows, in the absence of any real events, is essentially a series of vignettes that illustrate the absurdity of the pandemic. Paul continues stress-buying, while Etienne makes more pancakes than a small factory. The brothers find themselves increasingly at odds, cleaning different parts of the house in different ways and generally doing all they can to create some illusion of control over their lives. But the whole thing has a “Remember how crazy this was?” sensibility that feels like the opposite of fertile ground for good cinema. 

More interestingly, though, Paul undergoes a mourning period for his parents, perhaps the first since he lost them, and also mourns the jet-setting filmmaker lifestyle he’d embraced out of a kind of emotional avoidance. He even mentions a trip to Cuba, a reference to Assayas’ 2019 Havana spy thriller “Wasp Network”. Personal intention in Assayas’ films can sometimes be overstated, but with “Suspended Time”, he leaves no room for misunderstanding: Paul’s surname is Assayas. 

Assayas has long been Europe’s king of meta, with self-awareness permeating virtually all of his films from high dramas like “Clouds of Sils Maria” to his cuter, smaller work like 2018’s “Non-Fiction”. “Suspended Time” is most like the latter of all his recent films: it feels as if it was made for the sake of Assayas sharing his wry observations collected over the years, and it suffers a little in lacking the bigger journey that Selena (Juliette Binoche) goes through in that movie. (It also suffers from a lack of Juliette Binoche, but that’s a hardship most movies have to deal with.) 

Amid Paul and Etienne’s bickering, the women feel like background characters and make no real impression. Morgane is just a sounding board for Paul, a dainty right-hand woman not given the space for her own thoughts and feelings. In his own way, this might be Assayas trying to tell us that women don’t occupy great space in his life, nor do they really challenge him. Or it’s just a shortcut. Similarly incomplete is Paul’s reverence for the British painter David Hockney, whose pandemic art inspired Paul to re-examine his relationship with nature and reminded him that, in the end, all you need is love. Paul expresses this idea as if it’s never been said before – with Morgane an always-uncritical listener – and it’s a strange note for Assayas to place so prominently. Especially when the lessons we see him learn about his parents appear much more profound, anyway. 

Voiceover about the significance of each room, with memories of his parents, are when “Suspended Time” gets closest to something profound. There’s a painful sense that, without his parents around, black-and-white pictures of years gone by are all that these memories can be. It’s a canny way to share the sorts of angsty thoughts we have in moments of ennui. But “Suspended Time” never really brings its two big ideas together: the everyday challenges of the pandemic, alongside existential worries about what’s behind us and what happens after we die, feel too separate to build into something bigger. It all resembles a bit of a Notes app list of unrelated thoughts rather than a finished piece that truly engages all its ideas, something we know that Assayas can do like few others. 

Partly a goodbye to his parents and partly a hello to an uncertain new era (Assayas turns 70 next year), “Suspended Time” is an honest expression of doubt and vulnerability from a filmmaker willing to admit he doesn’t really have the answers. But its over-reliance on pandemic rituals stops it from being able to explore its deeper feelings in a full way, and places it in a genre that no one seems able to crack. Maybe it’s time to stop trying.

Grade: C+

“Suspended Time” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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