It takes a kind of charming naïveté these days to purport to represent the vagaries of sexuality onscreen without so much as a sideways glance at realist cinematic conventions. Where touchy controversies abound and careful hedging around them has become the norm, one’s best defense for wading into forbidden territory would invoke, typically, either real biography or approximated realism: such events really did happen, for instance, or they are the faithful and well-intended equivocation of what could happen under certain circumstances, given certain interactions, etc. Caveats, then, dominate discourses of gender and sexuality that seek authority without personal subjectivity; the converse — explicit first-hand accounts of trauma, discovery, and acceptance — would appear to privilege a more unbridled and direct inquiry into their narratives without fear of moral falsehoods or censorship. This is, of course, somewhat reductive a picture of our sexual politics, but it demonstrates a certain set of expectations going into the contestation between sexual truth and social power.
If truth and power fundamentally explicate diverging ideas and aims, what constitutes fidelity to either? Returning with his twelfth feature, Denis Côté layers his work with a deft calibration easily mistaken for aimless posturing. That Kind of Summer, a film even more thematically constituted by pandemic-era sensibilities than his previous Social Hygiene was, languishes in the halfway zone between pleasure and policing, isolation and community, setting up a premise both promisingly utopian and leeringly totalitarian. A retreat for hypersexual individuals in the Canadian countryside doubles as a temporary commune wherein participants, inclusive of the patients, therapists, and even the housekeeper, navigate their individual and interpersonal relationships with the problematic of eros. The rules of this game are set out in the film’s opening shot, honed in on Mathilde’s (Marie-Claude Guérin) face as she details the retreat’s therapeutic goals — healing and introspection — to be achieved with limited phone usage, deterrence against drugs and compulsive sex, and, arguably, communal solidarity.
Mathilde, the founder of the retreat program, is now pregnant and has placed its forthcoming iteration in the hands of German therapist Octavia (Anne Ratte-Polle). Her charges are three variously troubled women, and her companion (and assistant) is Sami (Samir Guesmi), the only male present within the camera’s idyllic frame. The housekeeper, Diane (Josée Deschênes), remains by and large an onlooker, preparing the group’s sumptuous lobster dinners and attending to the cottage in general, upkeeping its air of mellow romanticism. While prohibition structures the twenty-six days of summer, neither the ethos of the commune nor that of the camera espouses any proclivity for regimentation. Côté’s grainy Super 16 lens roams through the corridor spaces and into personal ones, indulging in the banality of the women’s restless action. The women, similarly, aren’t boxed into corners or labels as the average institutionalization drama would have. They sometimes sneak out of the house and into the forest or the neighboring town, but it’s not even clear that someone would catch or stop them.
Instead, That Kind of Summer delights in the ambiguities of the liminal, almost fantastical imagination its title suggests: a summer possibly construed out of desire, with reality and fiction commingling in a mode of representation simultaneously documentarian and creative. The women tell stories and recount their sexual exploits to Octavia: Léonie (Larissa Corriveau) details matter-of-factly her violent sadomasochistic inclinations as product of sustained sexual abuse by her father, while Gaëlle (Aude Mathieu) revels in her hypersexuality without being inclined to rationalize or stigmatize it, much like Eugénie (Laure Giappiconi), who finds herself saddled with intrusive sexual impulses. These narratives, and Léonie’s in particular, seem intent on provocation, as if whole-heartedly encased in misogynist fantasy and gleefully displaying the failure of the female sex to actively renounce or reclaim its brutal tribulations.
Such a notion, however, seeks to conflate truth with power: in Côté’s walking reverie, neither he nor his characters lays any sweeping claim to moral or scientific supremacy. Sami, normally a tantalizing vehicle for the male gaze, is shrouded in ambivalence in his professional capacity, but Côté does not simply negate phallocentric tropes in favor of feminist ones. Rather, That Kind of Summer eschews judgment of sexual joys and sins, endowing its woodland setting with juxtapositions of both sensuality and anxiety. Amidst the retreat, the women are given one full day off to let loose, indulge, and, in all likelihood, relapse; predictably, all three of them go their various ways in search of insatiable pleasure. Even Octavia, otherwise composed in speech and therapy, finds herself entangled in the wistful summer air, battling the melancholy of a dying relationship.
Yet, a curiously subversive strand problematizes the film’s labeling as purely observational. Its fictitious, fantastical atmosphere doesn’t detract from charges of voyeurism, of the pervert’s treasure masquerading as arthouse intellection. Are the politics present inherently problematic, or do they tacitly empower? Crucially, the beauty of Côté’s film lies precisely in these mercurial waters which, far from fetishizing their inhabitants, relish in the inherent unknowability and incommunicability of desire. Frequently, desire is both deliverance and denigration, and to quarantine one over the other (or even to impartially assimilate them under some miasma of the human condition) is to solve a mystery whose solution, for all purposes, does not even exist. We might ironically consider the alternate title Sexual Hygiene, for That Kind of Summer offers as cruel realization the inconclusive outcome of sexual retreat. For the freedom peddled in its nights of song, dance, and intimate solidarity, the cost incurred is a gnawing insecurity as to the morning after. Whether celebratory or otherwise of the process, the film situates us less in the position of voyeur, and more as cuckold. We all have our predispositions toward sex, but whether and how we realize them remains an open question best pondered through the film’s mysterious final shot, of tranquility and catharsis, but also of an uneasy, helpless finality.
You can currently stream Denis Côté’s That Kind of Summer on Mubi.