The Ballad of Suzanne Cesaire Rejects Conventionality in Favour of Archival Speculation

The Ballad of Suzanne Cesaire

Suzanne Roussi-Cesaire was a writer and radical intellect whose words and work were overshadowed by her comparatively better-known husband, Aimé Cesaire. With The Ballad of Suzanne Cesaire (2024), Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich mounts a corrective to the occlusion of Suzanne’s contribution to the Surrealist Movement. In the spirit of its subject, the film rejects the conventional demands of a straightforward biopic, expanding on her moving-image piece Too Bright to See (Part 1) (2023) to ruminate on an intensely personal connection with an enigmatic figure.

During the Second World War, Suzanne wrote a series of essays for the magazine Tropiques from Martinique. She and her husband incurred the ire of Vichy-appointed stooges and garnered the respect of revered radicals like Andre Breton. Hunt-Ehrlich extensively drew upon interviews with the Cesaires’ children and existing historical records to visualise Suzanne’s words through actress Zita Hanrot. Simultaneously, the film incorporates Hanrot’s post-partum life as a corollary to Suzanne’s enduring legacy as a mother to six children and “an artist who didn’t want to be remembered.

The film’s essayistic structure is inspired by Roussi-Cesaire’s essay Le Grand Camouflage. Scenes of Hanrot reciting passages of that piece directly to the camera are interspersed with conversations she has, in and out of character, with Motell Foster, the actor playing her husband. Hunt-Ehrlich is captivated most by these sites of discourse, and the performative aspect which fuels re-enactments of her actors contending with Breton (Josué Guttierez) affirms an active engagement with history that dispenses with passive theoreticality.

If these conversations and actions amount to an unresolved denouement, that’s entirely the film’s strategy. Aided by sensuously haptic cinematography of verdure vistas, The Ballad of Suzanne Cesaire instigates a generative consideration of archival speculation through cinematic practice. Dense and dreamlike, Hunt-Ehrlich generously invites viewers to contend with myriad ramifications, all packed within a swift runtime.