Filmmaker of All Seasons: Catherine Corsini’s ‘Summertime’ is a ’70s tale of sexual liberation

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As one of France’s most highly regarded female filmmakers, Catherine Corsini might be regarded as a master (or is it mistress?) of varied moods and nuances. Among her most recent and acclaimed efforts to reach Yank shores are Leaving, the Kristin Scott Thomas/Sergei Lopez drama about adultery that evoked the melancholy of fall and winter; Three Worlds, a timely Parisian crime thriller and procedural that crosses ethnic and socioeconomic borders (and deserves a re-release and remake), and now the steamy, magnificently crafted Summertime, hot not just seasonably but for its intense depiction of love (near-explicit in its physical expression) between two women. The Strand release is also evocative of spring warmth in the telling of a young romance bathed in late-’60s/early-’70s nostalgia.

French star Cécile de France, familiar to cinephiles in films like Chinese Puzzle, The Kid with a Bike and Avenue Montaigne, and relative newcomer Izïa Higelin are the co-stars in this politically and erotically charged story. De France plays a Paris-based leader/activist in the highly vocal movement for women’s rights and equality for all, a Spanish teacher who lives with her Maoist boyfriend.

Higelin is Delphine, a younger woman aware of her gay orientation, who flees a restrictive farm life in central France’s sparsely populated rural Limousin region. She leaves behind simple, conservative parents, most notably her mother Monique (the ever-busy writer/director/actor Noémi Lvovsky), a bundle of weary passivity and buried prejudice.

Corsini’s evocation of the rebellious fervor in Paris during the tumultuous period provokes the question of whether she herself was of age to be part of it. “I was just a little young to experience this period but was aware,” she responds. Initially estranged by age, she was also ideologically estranged. But with Summertime she made some reparations: “I really wanted to pay tribute to feminist women, who have often been vilified, called sex-starved neurotics, but for years I haven’t really been a true feminist myself and I almost agreed with that vision of them. But I quickly came to realize that I owed many of the benefits I live by today to these women who fought and campaigned for them. Many of them were homosexual. Thanks to this movement, they were finally able to make themselves heard. Actually, homosexuals have really been instrumental in the emancipation of women in general. I was drawn to the vitality, the audacity of the feminist movement, which too often has been made fun of or depicted by caricatures of women involved. With Summertime, I wanted to show how women informed the movement with their beauty, engagement and courage. I don’t see anything quite similar [to that activist sentiment] today.”

Corsini co-wrote Summertime with Laurette Polmanss, who, with experience in the short-film realm, was, like co-star Higelin, new to features.

Corsini explains that it was her partner Elisabeth Perez (both professionally as Summertime producer and personally as life partner) who put her in touch with Polmanss. About Perez she says, “I had wanted to tell [the Summertime story] for a long time, but Elisabeth is the one who urged me to work on it, who gave me the courage to do it, and who guided me towards the film. I completely owe it to her. She suggested Laurette because I already had the story and the characters in my head but needed someone to talk with about the story and help me make the scenes more simple and fluid and find my ending. And I also wanted input on developing the men in the story so that they too were rich characters.”

As the saying goes, “fait (bien) accompli” and viewers will concur that even the male characters—a farmhand wooing Delphine, her hard-working farmer father, and Carole’s pre-Delphine partner Manuel—go far beyond the stereotypes, even villains, they could have been. They are further proof that what was critical to Corsini was that characters and actions stay clear of caricature or platitude.

Corsini and Polmanss’ varied gallery of characters—crossing genders, orientations, ages and socioeconomic boundaries—resonates well beyond paper incarnations or narrative conveniences. The coup most certainly is empowered by the well-chosen cast, and not just Belgian-born French star De France and Higelin as the leads. Also remarkable and perhaps most memorable for her authenticity is the quirky choice of Lvovsky, more associated with light, often comedic works. Yet, in Summertime she’s no mere hick, as she evolves from simple, resigned farmer’s wife and mother with expected biases into a simmering, then explosive time bomb.

With its frequent bold sex scenes (not fully explicit but flirting with the edge as the French so famously do), Summertime requires comparison to the recent art-house sensation Blue Is the Warmest Color. Offers Corsini, “I was very impressed by the film, but felt my film was important to do because [unlike Blue filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche ], I’m a woman and making this film seemed like a necessity. It also meant that my partner Elisabeth and I were for the first time doing a film together.” (Summertime is Perez’s first film as producer.)

As a filmmaker and artist close to her subject, Corsini was comfortable with going erotic. The scenes, she admits, were much more challenging to shoot. “I’m basically very modest, but I wanted the nudity and physical love shown in the film.”

But what about the actors and having to direct them in such sensitive situations in front of the camera? How did Corsini achieve their comfort level?

“Cécile was amazing, so comfortable with whatever she’s asked to perform, as she is more professional and has so much acting experience. I wrote the part for her, as I knew she’d be perfect. But Delphine was quite a challenge and it wasn’t easy. To stand up to the Cécile character, we didn’t need an ethereal figure, but rather a strong person. A girl who wouldn’t exactly be the ‘Parisian’ type, so that she’d look convincing enough on a tractor. Izïa had this, the raw and wild side. She has quite a fiery temperament and I think acting can cost her dearly, but that’s what makes her so touching. Her Delphine has the more difficult journey but Izïa can mix things up too much—the role she has to play and who she is personally. She has less experience as an actress, so there’s still the tendency for the performance to become too personal. There was a struggle with her understanding that she’s a prisoner of her rural origins. She did live that perfectly [in her performance,] but at the same time it was a challenge for her and to get her there. I do in fact believe she is the story’s most complex character, more the heroine of the story, as she’s really the one who advances it. She ultimately lived the role perfectly, even as she’s full of contradictions. But she was uncomfortable to the point that she resisted and just didn’t want to do it [the love scenes], just fully resisted and didn’t even want to show her body. I don’t know how I finally did convince her, but I did cry over this. I told her it was just acting and it was important for me. And she is the character I identify with most.”

For the film’s look, “I thought a lot about the great paintings, the Impressionists like Manet, Renoir and their models—painters who were after the sensuality and positive images of women. I was focused on the grace and beauty of my characters, of two women in love, and wanted positive images and not at all anything voyeuristic.”

Lvovsky as Delphine’s mother provides quite a jolt late in the story. Was Corsini tempted to moderate this turn? “No, as I always intended to bring the mother to this point. Unlike Noémi, to be sure, Monique is very rigid, maybe even beyond that. My own mother was the same with me when she realized I was in relationships with women. I adore Noémi and love working with her. She even made fun of her character’s hard, uncompromising nature.”

Corsini focuses on female activism and women’s lib during the historic and tumultuous years decades back when many factions and agendas rocked both the U.S. and Europe. So why her feminism theme, when the sometimes violent salvo of other disruptive sentiments and actions, whether anti-war or pro-everything else like free love, civil rights, labor, drugs, abortion and gay lib, were in play? “I realized that feminism, as expressed by all orientations, was the strongest element of that revolutionary period, as it puts the human element first, and that was the main principle in the writing of the film, especially as women back then had to fight so hard for their rights to abortion, and getting illegal abortions was so terrible.”

Like all her choices, Corsini’s locations were also critical, both in service to the film’s authenticity and its painterly look. A few key scenes were shot in Paris, but not the city so readily recognizable to tourists or cinephiles who best know the onscreen city. Corsini focused on unglamorous streets and buildings that evoke the early ’70s and the period’s young activists. For the more dominant rural scenes, Corsini went more personal with Limousin. “I spent my vacations there until I was 18 and so grew to love the beauty and the hidden aspect of the region which made it less well-known to potential visitors. The green, the nature of the area, its hidden, secretive quality, corresponds to the personality of Delphine, to someone not so knowable but beautiful. Even to women, generally. So I drew from memories, from sensations when I was a child and spent part of my youth in the countryside in the département of Corrèze. I also wanted to draw a parallel between the effervescence of Paris, especially at that time of activism, and the timelessness of the countryside.”

More of a city girl, Corsini grew up just east of Paris in the Seine et Marne département and moved to Paris at 18 to study acting at the prestigious Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique before becoming a filmmaker. Her films have covered a wide range in terms of tone and themes and several have premiered at Cannes. (She was Cannes’ Camera d’Or jury president this spring.)

For Summertime and its beautiful farm country scenes, Corsini not surprisingly often appropriated the golden hours long cherished by directors and cinematographers—the precious hours just before sunset. And the weather often cooperated. “Yes, I went for that, as those hours as the sun is setting are so beautiful and good for the screen. They provide stronger and more mysterious moments, the magic!”

She also went digital for the first time, using, according to IMDB, the high-end Arri Alexa, but she comments, “I’m not completely satisfied [with digital], as film [celluloid] is more beautiful, subtle, richer, and digital doesn’t have the same beauty. But digital allows me more freedom and many takes. Those were advantages for me, but it also means more work in editing and post.”

Corsini is going digital again with her next film—an as-yet untitled oddball family saga, adapted from a French novel by Christine Angot, that spans several decades and generations.

Summertime recently completed a strong run in theatres, which Corsini characterizes as “a great success,” and has just hit big screens stateside. Strand Releasing found the film at the Toronto Film Festival, where it bowed, and did the deal through Pyramide international sales, with whom it works a lot.

While a sequel to Summertime looks unlikely, Corsini sees feminism itself as an ongoing story: “To me, tomorrow’s revolutions and changes must be sparked by women.”

Because every French interview and the times we’re in warrant some comment on today’s politics, Corsini is reminded that female political leaders are already showing the way by ascending in places like Iceland, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. and, considering recent events, maybe even France by way of right-winger Marine Le Pen. Regarding the latter, Corsini quickly responds, “No, no. Hers are false values. Women need respect and clear vision. Her ideas come from her father [notorious right-wing National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen]. We need fresh thoughts. Women are constructive and can do this.”