Catherine Corsini’s new film “Le Retour”, or “Homecoming”, opens with a moment of pain. A mother (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) is nervously traveling with her two young daughters when she receives a phone call. Something terrible has happened and she starts crying. Even as that interaction looms over the rest of the action, which then jumps forward 15 years, we don’t find out exactly the circumstances of that pivotal call until this disjointed film’s running time. By the time we do, the impact of what happened is less traumatic than confusing, a product of subtle characterization and messy storytelling.
At the same time, Corsini cast incredible actors for this sunny Corsican saga of family ties, the best when relying on their dynamics and the worst when it comes to big reveals.
The woman in those first frames is Khédidja, a nanny, who has been invited to the French island in the Mediterranean by a wealthy family to take care of their children on vacation. Her two daughters have arrived for the summer: 18-year-old Jessica (Suzy Bemba), studious and aloof, and 15-year-old Farah (Esther Gohourou), who, feeling undervalued, thrives on chaos. The journey is fraught: the girls were born in Corsica, but have no memories of the place, apart from the knowledge that their father died there. Khédidja withholds information about their past, which Jessica and Farah resent.
The family mystery unfolds in tandem with the story Corsini wants to create for teenagers, an emotional and sexual discovery. Jessica falls in love with the carefree Gaia (Lomane de Dietrich), the older half-sister of the accusations her mother is watching. Gaia, a rich girl with few worries, can be both loving and condescending. Farah, meanwhile, develops a hostile flirtation with a boy on the beach (Harold Orsini), whom he first meets when he denounces him for his racist behavior towards a group of kids playing with a soccer ball. .
While there is joy in the portrayal of the spark of attraction and first love, the screenplay, co-written with Naïla Guiguet, stumbles over portraying the racial dynamics of these relationships: both Farah and Jessica are terribly forgiving of their microaggressions novelist displays.
“Le Retour” arrives in competition after a series of controversies that initially led to the film being dropped from the lineup before returning about ten days later. The delay was specifically related to the fact that a sex scene involving then 15-year-old Gohourou and Orsini had not been cleared by France’s Commission des Enfants du Spectacle, although there were also reports of alleged on-set harassment by both Corsini and other team members.
In response, Corsini and her producer Élisabeth Perez claimed there had been an administrative error related to the scene in question and denied any harassment. “We would like to emphasize that no complaints have been filed against Catherine Corsini, or against the production of the film,” they said in a open letter published by Variety. The scene in question with Gohourou, who also starred in the controversial ‘Cuties’, does not appear in the final product. It’s hard to imagine what purpose it would have served.
Meanwhile, Gohourou, who defended Corsini, gives a stunning performance here alongside Bemba, and the film thrives on the awkward spaces between sisters who couldn’t be more different. Bemba plays a wide-eyed Jessica, while Gohourou is full of hilarious fire that makes even the most awkward dialogue work. When they are apart, each pursuing their own personal investigations, you can feel the energy of material delay. That said, de Dietrich is often charming and entertaining as Gaia, a smart party girl who responds to her condescending father Denis Podalydès, himself doing a good job in braggart mode.
The actress who gets the little attention is Diallo Sagna, the star of Corsini’s “The Divide”. The script deliberately obscures the origin of some of Khédidja’s guilt and grief, but this sadly means that the character remains elusive and Diallo Sagna has to play out emotions that make no sense. In the end, Corsini seems less interested in what Khédidja is going through than what her daughters are, but that subtle characterization has a knock-on effect on the rest of the film.
Corsini clearly has both affection and contempt for Corsica, which he depicts as a place of beauty and rejection. His camera loves to capture how the oppressive sun’s rays bounce off rustic structures and the crystalline qualities of the water against bare skin. However, she recognizes an ugliness in this resort town: the casual racism of the residents and the hedonism of parties.
There is juice in these contradictions, but Corsini struggles to deal with all of this and in turn offers his protagonists all-round journeys. The result is a film that ultimately feels lighthearted, despite the talent found within its confines. What is still evident, however, is that Bemba and Gohourou are worth watching as they progress through their careers.
“Le Retour” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.