As Catherine Breillat’s first film in a decade, Last Summer scans initially as an altogether more mannered affair for the director. Known for her sexually frank inquiries into desire, taboo, and transgression, Breillat’s latest drops us into the upper-crust world of Parisian couple Anne (Léa Drucker) and Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), as well as their two young daughters. Anne is a respected lawyer who works with abused children, and, by her own admission, her sister is her only friend. These details establish a few things. In her professional capacity, Anne is a champion of the young, and we witness her refusal to take chances with the safety of the children; she is also decidedly “domestic,” and though we’re not yet privy to an interiority that might suggest if she feels strongly any which way about it, what is clear is that her life is guided by a certain work-and-home structure.
Breillat’s films are often predicated on an essential rupture in characters’ perspectives or stabilities — whether self-imposed or externally urged — and here that disruption comes in the arrival of Théo (Samuel Kircher), Pierre’s troubled, 17-year-old son from a previous marriage. Théo presents an immediate dissonance: his visage is mopsy but his charm is devil-may-care, and his particular adolescent male confidence pours out into an otherwise staid family dynamic, particularly when he starts to bring local girls over. Anne is immediately intrigued by this outsider presence, and it doesn’t take long before an amour fou begins between her and Théo.
An adaptation of May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts (2019), Last Summer is ironically and by far the tamer of the two films, at least when it comes to graphic depictions of sex. Never a mere provocateur, Breillat has always taken her characters’ desires quite seriously, and without the affronts to conservatism that she traded in earlier in her career — particularly the five-film run from Romance (1999) to Anatomy of Hell (2004) — it’s perhaps easier than ever to see her fascination with the complexities and contradictions of desire. With Last Summer, she’s stripped away what some would reduce to simple tawdriness and laid bare Anne’s psyche in her presentational restraint — the compositions are gentle, close-ups on small intimacies like stolen kisses or light touches, reflecting both the insidious predation at play and the deeply vulnerable state Anne has found herself in.
The problem, however, is that Last Summer’s middle section is built entirely around the encounters of this brief affair, and while it’s no fault that the director has moved away from the irruptive force of her early, more confrontational portraits of feminine desire, the accumulation of these scenes and their relatively subdued rendering proves enervating by the time the liaison is made known. A few visual juxtapositions fare a little better — a shot of Anne kissing Théo contrasted with one of Pierre crying into Anne’s neck stands out — but outside of the intrigue presented by Breillat’s aesthetic pivot, it’s all largely perfunctory. This amounts to a lot of tilting toward anxiety without managing to actually build much during this stretch, and the lingering impression is of Breillat hustling through these couplings in order to get to the third act’s thornier material.
Which is perhaps wise, as this culminating section does work to course-correct a bit, exploding both Anne and Théo’s psyches in surprising ways while avoiding the trap of the erotic thriller the film at times suggests it might become. Instead of anything more melodramatic, Breillat sticks to incisive survey, cataloging the depths of self-delusion and -preservation we harbor beneath our curated façades and arriving not far from where the tryst began: with two fragile individuals facing uncertain futures. And so, while Last Summer’s imbalance certainly hamstrings its cumulative power, it works more often than not thanks to Breillat’s bid at authorial reflexivity and her commitment to taking seriously both our ugly and admirable recesses of character.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.