Last Summer Review | Hazy, Kinda Hot, Not Very Humid

by Andrew Parker

Provocative and accomplished French filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s latest effort, Last Summer, plays into her unwavering stance that no topics are off limits when it comes to storytelling. A depiction of a somewhat incestuous affair between a teenager and an older woman, Last Summer retains Breillat’s ability to keep viewers unnerved and on edge without resorting to gross or transgressive techniques, but it’s also a flat and inert story that has had a lot of its colour drained from it. Last Summer is a film where Breillat wants viewers to draw their own moral and ethical conclusions, but so little evidence and detail is given that pondering over such matters proves fruitless and frustrating.

Anne (Léa Drucker) is a French lawyer who specializes in cases revolving around young people stuck in the foster care system. She’s passionate about her work, and lives a seemingly idyllic life with her businessman husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), and their two adopted daughters (Serena Hu and Angela Chen). That dynamic changes when Pierre’s obstinate, rebellious, and delinquent teenage son from a previous marriage, Théo (Samuel Kircher), has to come and live with them after the kid’s mom can’t handle him anymore. Immediately the slovenly, uppity, and confrontational Théo causes friction within the household, but Anne makes an effort to connect with the young man on his own terms. This creates a slippery slope when the mother and stepson begin to form and attraction, beginning a sexual affair that could ruin Anne’s family and professional life if it were ever to be discovered.

For her first film in a decade, Breillat (Fat Girl, Bluebeard) has chosen to remake May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, and while many of the themes from that film remain intact, Breillat isn’t adding much to them. If anything, Last Summer takes away a lot of the punch, impact, and reasoning, making for a curiously lesser film from a writer-director who usually has better instincts around this sort of touchy subject matter. Breillat delivers the bare minimum here, offering up an empathetic, non-judgmental look at female desire and the youthful danger in mixing up feelings of lust with love, but that’s about it. Last Summer removes the base of the original film and adds nothing in its place, making it a curious entry into the pantheon of films that didn’t need to be redone in the first place.

Breillat has crafted a boundary pushing melodrama with curious gaps where context should be found, something that isn’t helped by often jarring editorial gaps that serve little narrative or stylistic purpose. Breillat nicely accomplishes the task of making her film appear summery and hot, but her propensity for letting her actor’s facial expressions tell most of the story isn’t working. The characters in Last Summer are blank slates going through the motions, and the performers seem adrift at times, lost in repression even when at the heights of passion, anger, or joy. Breillat shows a particular love for focusing on the visage of Kircher’s feral, budding sociopath, which only has two settings: complete coldness and shit eating grin. Visually repetitive, Last Summer brings its material down by depicting the drama as low stakes and dull, with a sense of mundanity that borders on derision. All conflict in Last Summer rings hollow because there aren’t any hooks to hang it on.

While Last Summer finds intriguing ways to tie Anne’s current situation into her particular line of work, Breillat seems to be playing this undercurrent for irony rather than drama. And if that’s the case, the joke is floundering. Last Summer is much better in its tender, less sexy moments where it’s about two people who are experiencing an attraction they’ve never considered before. There’s only lust between Anne and Théo, but also a kinship that brings a profound sense of closeness. Similarly, the relationship between Anne and her husband isn’t a loveless one, or even one that appears to be on the rocks before the affair begins, and it’s a nice touch to see how their partnership can keep bending without breaking.

Breillat is a filmmaker who’s anything but shy when it comes to pushing a viewer to their limits, but Last Summer bears the hallmarks of a director working under an ill advised, self-imposed set of limitations. If it weren’t for the taboo subject at its heart, Last Summer would feel like just another movie about someone in a committed relationship having an affair with a younger person. It’s a shrug of a film from someone that normally doesn’t pull punches. It will lock the viewer into the subject, but then forget to push them in the direction of deeper contemplation.

Last Summer opens at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, Dave Barber Cinematheque in Winnipeg, and ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa on Friday, July 5, 2024. It opens at Metro Cinema in Edmonton and Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton on July 6, Cinecenta in Victoria on July 7, and The Cinematheque in Vancouver, Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon, The Revue in Toronto, and in three Montreal area theatres on July 12.

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