Last Summer Review: Catherine Breillat Breaks One of the Last Sexual Taboos in a Steamy Story of Love and Betrayal Cannes Film Festival
Still pushing the limits at age 74, French director Catherine Breillat is back in the Cannes competition with a film about sex between adults and children. This is the one taboo that liberals still won’t tolerate. She has worked with porn stars in the past. She was also one of the first people to show an erection in an arthouse film, which gave her the nickname “porno auteurist.”
Last Summer isn’t as graphic, but it’s just as disturbing. This isn’t just because a woman in her early 40s has an explosive affair with her teenage stepson, but also because of how Breillat shows a bourgeois family breaking apart, covering up the cracks with lies, and then put itself back together again, with silence and hypocrisy making sure that nothing bad is shown and nothing changes. So, this movie is very political, even though most of it is about a girl and a boy having sex behind the woodshed.
It should be said that tall, skinny Theo (Samuel Kircher) is not a child, except in a formal sense. We never find out how old he is, though. He hangs out at his father’s house smoking, gets drunk in bars, and brings home girls for sex, so he has a full set of adult vices. But no one thinks of him as an adult either. Theo is only at home to do his messy sitting because he was kicked out of school for hitting a teacher.
It’s not clear why he isn’t with his mother instead of his father, who he hasn’t seen much of since he was a child, but there’s no way he could live on his own. He is too young to be responsible for anything more difficult than picking up his socks. He can’t do that, in fact. He also misses social cues, talks out of turn, and is just plain annoying in a very teenage way.
So, when he develops a huge crush on his stepmother Anne (played by Lea Drucker, who does a great job of clearly switching between her character’s different selves), he follows her around like a child who wants to get his way. The steam of desire will always rise. It’s a hot summer, and their country house’s yard is full of lush greenery.
Everywhere they turn, they see opportunities. Theo only has to suggest that Anne come to see the really cool video game he is playing on his phone, which is not really Anne’s thing, for her to jump at the chance to cuddle on his bed. It isn’t exactly incest, but Breillat is breaking that rule as well. But it’s wrong in every way.
Anne is not only breaking up with Theo’s father Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), but she is also breaking up with her idea of herself. She is a family lawyer who works as a defender of children. She is strict with her clients and very in control of herself.
She runs a smooth household where even breakfast is a chance to be elegant. She spends her evenings making notes on reports from the government agency that takes care of children. Even in the yard, she wears tasteful linen shifts with high heels during the day.
She matches her own furniture often enough to make a nice symphony of cream and brown. She and Pierre have adopted two little Asian girls. She takes them to the local stables to ride ponies, wearing full hacking gear and bringing half-size riding crops. Theo is a bad apple. In spite of all this, the little girls still love him. It turns out that their mother does, too.
Breillat mostly uses their faces to show their pleasure, which is certainly genital. On their first date, she looks at how intently Theo is looking at Anne, how his breath catches, and how happy he is when it finally let’s go. We will stay with Anne the next time. Her mouth is tight and her eyes are shut. She reaches an ecstasy that is noticeably missing from the friendly nightcap sex she has with her husband.
These sequences are much more uncomfortable to watch than a tangle of legs set up by an intimacy planner, and they are also much longer than what is normal. Breillat doesn’t care about the plot or their situation. For example, a court case that could ruin Anne’s career goes by and is somehow settled offstage. She never cuts corners when Anne and Theo talk to each other.
The sheer power of this focus makes Anne’s later rejection of not only Theo but also the truth of what happened when it looked like she might be found out even more heartbreaking. When we hear a children’s advocate tell a young person that no one will believe his word against hers, it makes us gasp. This is the kind of demeaning dismissal she fights every day on behalf of her clients.
Is this really the abandoned lover from earlier scenes, who laughed at everything out of pure joy and risked everything? But at the same time, her lies sound completely true. And so does her meanness. She has too many things to keep safe.
Catherine Breillat hasn’t stopped trying to shock the elites, but it would be wrong to think of her as a cinematic shock jockey who cares more about shock value than substance. She uses anger as a tool. Every shot hits its mark Last Summer.