Cannes 2023 review: L’été dernier (Catherine Breillat)

L’été dernier is a very strong return for Breillat, who shows she still has the chops to put a difficult story to film and manages to keep characters that at heart should be unsympathetic to an audience human and relatable.”

In 2019 Danish director May el-Toukhy made the provocative Queen of Hearts about a middle-aged woman starting an illicit affair with her teenage stepson. The film was quite successful on the international festival scene and garnered lead actress Trine Dyrholm a lot of praise. When French producer Saïd Ben Saïd, never one to shy away from risqué material (Paul Verhoeven’s recent films Elle and Benedetta, for instance), bought the rights to remake the film he contacted Catherine Breillat, thinking it would fit perfectly into her oeuvre of provocative films about burning and uncontrollable desire. Breillat, in a bad place physically and psychologically at the time, accepted the challenge after watching el-Toukhy’s original and being attracted by the lie at the heart of it.

Anne (Léa Drucker) is a successful lawyer who mostly handles teenage abuse cases. Married to an equally successful businessman, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), and living with two adopted young daughters in a beautiful country-style home, everything in Anne’s life seems perfect. That changes when Pierre’s son Théo (Samuel Kircher) from a previous marriage comes to live with them. Théo is a bratty teenager at that confusing age between child and adult. When Anne catches him in a pretty big lie she strikes him a deal: she will keep his secret if he starts to behave and be part of the family. Théo, surprised by Anne’s actions, cleans up his act. He also falls in love with her. After an understandable moment of hesitance Anne, in that phase of a marriage where there is still love but you’re also going through the motions, reciprocates. Afterwards they vow that this should never happen again, a vow that they obviously can’t keep. But an affair like this, certainly with a risk-taking teenager in the mix, is not something you can easily keep hidden.

The main strength of L’été dernier lies in Breillat’s impressive direction, especially in the mise-en-scene and the way she directs her actors. There are several scenes of love-making in the film, each with its own character and focus. In particular with the first two scenes between Anne and Théo there is a definite difference in how the sex is portrayed, and that is mostly down to who Breillat chooses to focus on. The first time it is animalistic and lustful, and the camera is kept on Théo, fully focused on his own pleasure. By contrast, when they break their vow and have sex for a second time the camera switches to Anne, in a state of ecstasy, replacing lust with something deeper. The camera lingers on Anne’s face even after the moment of climax, completely still as if she has just died; that post-orgasm moment the French call ‘la petite mort’.

Breillat keeps the devil in the details, leaving the audience to infer information from the tiniest of gestures or from throwaway lines. When Théo asks Anne about her first sexual experience she doesn’t want to talk about it; there is something painful there. We have already heard that the girls were adopted because Anne can’t have children after a botched abortion when she was young. Combined with the fact that most of her cases involve sexual abuse, and that one case with a young rape victim is a recurring element in the story, it is a matter of connecting the dots to get a better image of Anne and a youth never lived. Théo is that passionate teenage fling that she was deprived of when she herself was his age.

Given the taboo nature of the affair there is obviously a lot of tension involved, in particular when the secret gets out and Anne goes to great lengths to preserve her reputation and save her marriage. She suddenly finds herself pitted against her young lover, and Théo doesn’t take that well. Kircher, a non-professional in his first acting role, impresses as the sulking and later vindictive Théo, but he is at his best when he is the horny teenager who just wants to get it on as often as possible. The way he skulks around Anne like a predator in the forest outside their home, or in the background when Anne is in conversation with Pierre, pacing back and forth like a caged animal, is imposing and downright scary; it signals that Anne is in deeper trouble than she thinks. Drucker, in a more sexual role than ever before, is excellent in her initial hesitance, then her later abandon when she can no longer control herself. Her demeanour becomes more youthful and playful, but when she has to fight for self-preservation she becomes frighteningly ice cold. Rabourdin’s role isn’t particularly difficult, but his natural appearance of a hulking brute is perfect casting.

In comparison to the Danish original the character of Anne is less predatory; in fact, Breillat makes Théo the predator, even if it takes two to tango. Breillat is less interested in the scandalous nature of the relationship, and more in the relationship itself and the lie at the heart of it. This results in a distinctly different ending, and it’s all the better for it, because it makes L’été dernier less judgemental and also gives the story a more ambiguous ending. Despite some odd leaps of logic, L’été dernier is a very strong return for Breillat, who shows she still has the chops to put a difficult story to film and manages to keep characters that at heart should be unsympathetic to an audience human and relatable.

(c) Image copyright: SBS Productions