Still breaking boundaries at the age of 74, French filmmaker Catherine Breillat returns to the Cannes competition with a film that squarely confronts the one taboo that is still ring-fenced from liberal tolerance: sex between adults and children. In the past, she has worked with porn stars, was one of the first to show an erection in an arthouse film and earned herself the moniker “porno auteuriste.”
Last Summer is less graphic, but just as disquieting – not simply for the fact that a woman in early middle-age has an explosive affair with her teenage stepson, but for the way Breillat shows a bourgeois family fracturing, papering over the cracks with lies and ultimately repairing itself, the salves of silence and hypocrisy ensuring that nothing unpleasant is exposed and nothing changes. A highly politically charged film, therefore, even though it mostly concerns itself with a woman and a boy having sex behind the woodshed.
It should be said that willowy Theo (Samuel Kircher) is not a child, other than in a legal sense, although we never learn his exact age. He lounges about his father’s house smoking, gets drunk in bars and brings home girls for sex, so he has managed to chalk up a full range of adult vices. But he isn’t anyone’s idea of an adult, either. Theo is only around to do his messy lounging because he has been suspended from school for hitting a teacher. It isn’t clear why he isn’t with his mother rather than the father he has seen only intermittently since early childhood, but there is no question of his living independently. He is too young to be responsible for anything more onerous than picking up his socks. Actually, he can’t even do that. He also misses social cues, speaks out of turn and, in a very adolescent way, is plain annoying.
So, when he develops a huge crush on his stepmother Anne (Lea Drucker, giving a marvelous performance in which she veers convincingly between her character’s multiple selves), he pursues her with a child’s determination to have his way. Inevitably, the steam of passion rises. The summer is hot: the garden of their country house lushly verdant, opportunity beckons at every turn. Theo only has to suggest that Anne come and take a look at the totally cool video game he is playing on his phone – not exactly Anne’s thing – for her to leap at the excuse to snuggle on his bed. It isn’t exactly incest, although Breillat is certainly breaking that barrier as well. But it is every kind of wrong.
Anne is betraying not only her marriage to Theo’s father Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), but her idea of herself. She is a family lawyer working as a children’s advocate; she is severe with her clients and rigorously controlled in her own life. She runs a smooth household where even breakfast is an opportunity for elegance. Her evenings are spent annotating reports from the child protection authorities. By day she wears tasteful linen shifts with matching high heels, even in the garden. Often enough, she matches her own furniture: a tasteful symphony of cream and beige. She and Pierre have adopted two little Asian girls; she takes them to the local stables to ride ponies, wearing full hacking kit and carrying half-size riding crops. Theo is a rogue element In all of this, but the little girls adore him. And so, it turns out, does their mother.
Breillat shows their pleasure, which is very definitely genital, largely through their faces. Their first, she focuses on Theo gazing intensely at Anne, his breath catching, his final release joyful. The next time, we stay with Anne. Her eyes are closed, her throat tight. She reaches an ecstasy into notably absent from the amiable nightcap sex she has with her husband. These sequences are much more uncomfortable to watch than a tangle of legs arranged by an intimacy coordinator would be; they are also much longer than current convention dictates. Breillat is cavalier with details of plot or their predicament; a court case that threatens to ruin Anne’s career passes by and is somehow resolved entirely offstage. Where she never skimps is in the encounters between Anne and Theo.
The sheer force of this concentration makes Anne’s subsequent rejection, not only of Theo himself but of the truth of events once there is a threat of exposure, all the more devastating. To hear a children’s advocate tell a young person that nobody will believe his word against hers – the kind of demeaning dismissal she fights every day on behalf of her clients – makes us gasp.
Is this really the abandoned lover of previous scenes, who laughed at nothing out of sheer happiness and risked everything? And yet, in the same instant, her mendacity rings perfectly true. So does her cruelty. She has too much to protect.
Catherine Breillat certainly hasn’t pulled back from her vocation to dumbfound the bourgeoisie, but it would be a mistake to think of her as merely a cinematic shock jock, going for effect over substance. Outrage is her weapon. In Last Summer, every shot finds its target.
Title: Last Summer (L’Eté Dernier)
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Catherine Breillat
Cast: Lea Drucker, Samuel Kircher, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Sales agent: Pyramide International