In Suite Armoricaine, a college campus is something of a minefield, where reverie and nightmare are barely indistinguishable. When art history professor Françoise (Valérie Dréville) escapes Paris for a teaching appointment in Rennes, the historic capital of Brittany where she spent her childhood, she hopes for serenity and solitude. But the transition unsettles her. She’s moved to tears by the recounting of an old memory, has cryptic dreams involving a Sphinx, and is gripped by stage fright before entering the lecture hall to face her new students. At least her eczema, apparently a psychosomatic reaction to Parisian life, has disappeared at last. But her relationship with the man she’s lived with for several years, and who’s now reduced to a disembodied voice on the phone, is also waning. She’s thus left with the dangers of being a lonely woman with a penchant for self-reflection.
There’s an undeniable kinship between Pascale Breton’s film and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, where Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy teacher for whom examining life is also the only mode for enduring it. But while the latter takes a more realistic and traditional storytelling approach, Breton embraces the uncanny. Rennes feels unbearably nocturnal, teeming with deceivingly mundane characters who turn out to know exactly how to destabilize Françoise. The entire film can sometimes feel as though it takes place inside one of her nightmares masquerading itself as a harmless dream.
The film’s most striking events take the shape of small gestures, or noises, with long-lasting ripples. As when one of Françoise’s classes is interrupted by a sudden thud. A student has inexplicably collapsed, but refuses to leave the room without catching the end of the lecture. The fall feels coherent with the film’s themes, if not its plot. Françoise’s lectures themselves are like dreams so delicate it’s impossible not to dread a disruption that could suddenly awaken us from their trance. Students are utterly quiet, as if transfixed by Françoise’s performatic teaching. She turns all the lights off and projects photographed paintings on the wall on a scale so large it’s as if Françoise herself had paused a dream and gotten inside it to deconstruct it. And the film’s images become especially haunting because of the eerie mix of mystery and melancholy that Dréville wears on her face through every single scene.
Breton helps build the film’s oneiric allure by repeating certain scenes twice, from different perspectives, and minimizing the environmental sounds to the point where it feels like the dialogue is emanating from a vacuum, outer space, or the unconscious. The filmmaker also presents close-ups of students intently looking at Françoise, foreshadowing the students’ potential to disrupt Françoise’s sense of being. This intricate choreography of strangeness is sometimes betrayed by the interweaving of Françoise’s story with a much less moving plot about a geography student, Ion (Kaou Langoët), whose estranged alcoholic mother comes to see him on campus and sets up shop in his dorm room with her new homeless boyfriend. Although Breton suggests certain intersections between Françoise and Ion (their scholarship both involve the scanning of images), those often feel cosmetic, whereas Françoise’s dream-nightmare existence alone is never short of haunting.