You wouldn’t expect a traditional romance from the woman who (un)famously said “actors are prostitutes actors because they play other people’s feelings” and signed a letter in favour of “men’s right to hit on women”. The unapologetic 74-year-old French director thrives on controversy. It is refreshing that a talented female filmmaker should challenge the doctrine of infallibility of the anti-rape campaign born in the US just six years ago. a movement that reshaped cinema practices across the globe. Last Summer is exactly what you would expect from Breillat: a middle finger to those who see women as victims. It works, if only partly.
Anne (Léa Drucker) is a child protection lawyer. She has a comfortable life with her husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), his son 17-year-old Theo (Samuel Kircher) and their two adoptive twin daughters, aged around five. Theo is unpleasant and unruly, however the family manage to forge a barely peaceful existence. Anne and Pierre have a sex life, if not entirely satisfactory. At one point Anne tells him: “you no longer have the touch of youth, but I’m a gerontophile”. Not quite the compliment a man would like to hear.
In the movie’s first scene, Anne asks one of her underage clients about her sex life with a touch of sadism. She explains: “at court, the defence will often try to paint the victim as a perpetrator”, as if attempting to justify her intrusive questions. Breillat is setting the ground for what will happen next. Anne begins an affair with her stepson, thereby subverting the power dynamics of gender. What follows is an unbalanced game of cat-and-mouse, as both Anne and Theo fight for their place in a family no longer able to exist in its current form. The female becomes the oppressor. And she is prepared to incorporate the demeaning tactics that she learnt in court into her own private life. She domesticates the angelic looking and demonic acting adolescent. The hunter gets captured by the game. Ultimately, Breillat challenges the patriarchy by making a female wear the shoes of a male, and vice-versa. The gender role reversal from hell.
Our protagonist is neither a monster nor a heroine. She is neither adorable nor repulsive.And she is worthy of neither our pity nor our admiration. She is just a woman who opted to put herself through the wringer in order to keep certain privileges. A petit bourgeois citizen who conveniently enjoying her perceived social achievements. She has a good job, a nice house, and a loving husband. She will not give up her status. She will use her body as she wishes, even if that means breaking societal paradigms and putting her entire family at the risk of collapse.
Despite its subversive topic and interesting premise, Last Summer has at least a couple of handicaps. The first one is that the twists and turns are highly predictable, and this has a negative impact on the film’s ability to hit, shock and thoroughly enrapture viewers. The second one is that the sex scenes are genuinely awful. There is little doubt that Breillat wanted to make those interactions anti-erotic, even cringey, but instead they look lame and poorly staged. This is particularly significant for a director who has previously used real sex in her movies (such as Romance, from 1999). I wonder whether she was required to use an intimacy coordinator on set (the fast dissemination of this fairly new role is a direct repercussion of #MeToo). That’s likely the case, specially after Caroline Ducey (the lead of Romance) accused the director of encouraging porn star Rocco Siffredi to rape her for of the cameras,
Last Summer premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It premieres in the UK in October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival.