The memes won’t let you forget, but 2019 was half a decade ago. That was also the year Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network––an odd return to the realm of his TV series Carlos, and subsequently picked up by Narcos-era Netflix––premiered at the Venice Film Festival. That was Assayas’ last feature, making the intervening period (Irma Vep for HBO aside) the longest dry patch of his 38-year career. The dexterous director returns this week to the Berlinale with the aptly titled Suspended Time, a personal essay wrapped up in an effortless comedy that shows no signs whatsoever of long gestation.

Naturally, it’s all the better for it. Appearing as both leading man and (not for the first time) director surrogate, Vincent Macaigne stars as Paul, a filmmaker surviving the summer of 2020 with his music-journalist brother Ettienne (Micha Lescot) and their new partners, Morgane (Nine d’Urso, preposterously attractive and aquiline) and Carole (Nora Hamzawi, another Assayas regular), in the agreeable surrounds of their childhood home. To kill the hours they talk films and books, trade memories of shared flats, eat Ettienne’s many crepes, play tennis, and help with odd jobs around the house (including a decent recurring bit involving a saucepan). Etienne hosts a radio show online––we see him dedicating an episode to the Stranglers keyboardist Dave Greenfield, who died of COVID that summer. Paul sometimes retreats to the trees for Zoom calls with his therapist (Dominique Reymond), and at other times to his room to speak with his daughter and ex-wife (played by Maud Wyler, bearing a notable resemblance to a certain someone). Rarely feeling the need to go up through the gears, the film breezes through its 105 minutes at a comfortable cruising altitude.

Assayas, who has dotted his ever-surprising career with brisk, self-aware, sophisticate-centered comedies, has rarely played things quite so close to home. Suspended Time (which the director refers to in the press notes as a “truthful, let’s say documentary version” of his 2008 film Summer Hours) begins with static shots of the building and surrounding area of his own youth, focusing in on specificities that ache with a kind of early autumnal melancholy. In voiceover, the director offers laconic observations on the ugliness of his father’s chair and how the roots of a long-standing tree have bled into the pathway. Throughout the film he returns to this essayistic format, employing static images of artworks onscreen (similar to those in Personal Shopper). In one such moment Assayas ruminates on film’s capacity to capture nature (as shot by the great Éric Gautier, Suspended Time is easily up to that task) over a David Hockney iPad sketch and some late Monets of the Seine.

The ease with which Assayas switches between his digressions and the central narrative is seamless, and perhaps wouldn’t have been quite so without the endearing, magnetic presence of Macaigne––an actor who has been giving receding hairlines a good name for more than a decade. In Suspended Time, he gets to lend his voice to Assayas’ appreciation for Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and Bob Dylan’s epic “Murder Most Foul” with the kind of irresistible energy that made me first fall in love with him in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden––wherein he delivered a mini-lecture on the merits of Showgirls long before that take was treated as canon. As Paul, he makes the somewhat age-eccentric romance with d’Urso’s Morgane appear fully believable, and Assayas almost allows them to close out the final chapter in romantic accord, only to throw us back in for a bittersweet epilogue. Here, a charming cameo from the young actress who plays Paul’s daughter rounds out a film in which the director’s passions and personal history seem less like the flavoring than the substance. It’s good to have him back.

Suspended Time premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B+

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