Like some of her most memorable movies including 36 Filet, Romance, Sex is comedy And Anatomy of Hellthe new feature film by the French writer-director Catherine Breillat, Last summer (L’Eté dernier), perilously straddles the line between unnerving drama, dark comedy and erotic exploitation – which is exactly where the director wants to be.
At first glance, the plot seems to come straight out of a softcore stepmother movie, in which a successful lawyer, Anne (Léa Drucker), has an illicit affair with her stepson, Théo (Samuel Kircher), a rebellious 17-year-old who looks like a camera stand-in for Timothée Chalamet. But while the film might on the surface follow that pattern, including a handful of fairly direct sex scenes, Breillat is looking for something beyond mere Skinemax fodder, exploring the depths of desire in a bourgeoisie forced into a boring , cold existence, and the manipulation that can happen between two lovers with a significant age difference.
It comes down to
Only in France.
Premiere in competition at Cannes, Last summer feels like Todd Haynes’ lecherous French cousin may december, which previously played at the festival and chronicled the long and controversial relationship between a teenage boy and a woman twice her age. But while Haynes was interested in how such a love story could shake the American mindset and still sustain itself over time, Breillat’s more destructive instincts look for how it can ruin comfortable lives – not because of the large age gaps. than because of social conventions. that both limit and enforce.
The story, which Breillat has taken from the 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, is also a very Gallic take on the thorny subject of sexual abuse – which, not entirely coincidentally, is what the hard-working and combative Anne specializes in at her law firm. During the film’s opening sequence, she tells a young female client, who has hired her on a rape case, that sometimes the “victim becomes the accused” – and much of it Last summer is about how that applies first to Anne, and then to teenage Théo, who moves into the spacious mansion where Anne lives with the young man’s father, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin).
Théo, a chain-smoking lanky bad boy who was arrested for beating up a teacher at a prep school in Switzerland, where he lived with his mother, spends his time hopping around the house bare-chested, making as many bitch faces as possible. However, he is a rather funny older brother to Pierre and Anne’s adorable adopted daughters, Serena (Serena Hu) and Angela (Angela Hu), but seems to harbor a real hatred for his father, a closeted businessman with constant financial worries.
The setting is thus ripe for Théo to seduce Anne to bully Pierre, or simply because he is bored, and it’s not long before stepson and stepmother start frolicking in the countryside and eventually between the sheets. There are three lengthy sex scenes in the film, each shot in close-up – unlike many Breillat films, there’s hardly any nudity here – and each reveals a character getting pleasure at the expense of another. In the first, it’s Pierre about Anne in a scene without any passion. In the second, it is Théo who has an insanely demonstrative orgasm the first time he sleeps with his stepmother. In the third, Anne finally gets her due.
In the twisted world of Breillat, desire is not something mutually shared, but rather stolen or forced upon someone else, often when they are most vulnerable. (The title of the director’s last highly autobiographical feature film was Abuse of weakness.) At first it seems that Théo is taking advantage of Anne’s stalled love life through his killer looks and sinister charms. But if Last summer progresses, the tide is turned and Anne more clearly gains the upper hand, using her legal cunning to corner Théo.
An ordinary Hollywood movie would turn the third act into one Fatal attraction-like thriller, and while Breillat sometimes leans in that direction by introducing tape recordings and court cases, she’s way too cross-border to go there. By taking charge of her own libido, Anne risks harming both Théo and the increasingly vulnerable Pierre, and we begin to wonder if she even cares. It’s an all-or-nothing approach that the extremely persuasive Drucker (guardianship), who deserves more of these kinds of leading roles, portrays less as a case of stepmotherly evil than as a woman’s uninhibited search for herself.
Some viewers will object to the fact that Anne eventually wants her stepson to play and eat him too, but Last summer is a film that defies moral boundaries and narrative conventions. With her punky attitude – the soundtrack features a Sonic Youth original song – Breillat once again takes us to the limits of what is acceptable and asks us to question whether we should have limits at all.