Film Review: Summertime

Bold, beautiful and entirely engaging fictional love story involving two young female activists in France’s women’s movement decades back is perfect summertime catnip for the quality-seeking art-house crowd and ogling alley-cat filmgoers beyond.
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Director/co-writer Catherine Corsini’s Summertime will no doubt prompt comparisons to similarly well-told recent cinematic lesbian love stories like art-house hit Blue Is the Warmest Color, a contemporary sapphic French foray, and Todd Haynes’ acclaimed Carol, another period tale. Graphic but less so than the former and less stylistically focused than the latter, Summertime is every bit as convincing as its predecessors but more politically engaged.

But even as the film evokes the rebellious, anti-establishment spirit of its time (1971), it is no tiresome political screed. The setting’s post-1968 historic component, in fact, enriches the film beyond its stirring rendition of a love affair that proverbially navigates first calm, then rougher seas.

The narrative begins on an idyllic but simple country farm deep in the Limousin, a relatively forgotten rural area of central France. There, Delphine (relative newcomer Izīa Higelin) lives and assists parents Monique (veteran actor/writer/director Noémie Lvovsky) and Maurice (Jean-Henri Compère) with their farming chores.

Delphine, an only child whose help is indispensable, drives the tractor, hauls hay, helps birth the cows, etc. Her routine and fate seem sealed on the homestead, but this is the season of her discontent. With no romantic interest in men, she resists the advances of farmhand Antoine (Kévin Azaīs) and her mother’s insistent wishes that she marry him. Longing for liberation from so confined a life and leaving behind a broken but very secret relationship with another young woman in the area, she heads for Paris, where she secures a simple office job and attends a women’s meeting. Soon, she joins their activist group fighting for equal rights.

While part of these feminist activities, she encounters Carole (Belgian-born French star Cécile de France, familiar stateside in many films, including Chinese Puzzle, The Kid with a Bike, Boulevard Montaigne and L’Auberge Espagnole), an older Spanish teacher who is one of the movement leaders. As group outings and demonstrations unfold, like the women’s rescue of a gay man confined to rehab because of his orientation, a flirtation grows between Delphine and Carole. It’s easier for Delphine, who knows who she is, but more challenging for Carole, who lives with fellow teacher and boyfriend Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), a serious Maoist also dedicated to sociopolitical change.

Yet the attraction grows between the two women and a passionate affair ensues. But all’s not well back home: Maurice suffers a debilitating stroke and Monique requires her daughter to come back home to help with the farm work. She dutifully returns and Carole eventually follows.

It’s the summertime of the title and life on the farm in the lovely countryside would be pastoral paradise, except the two women must be careful to keep their relationship a secret from Monique, an incarnation of 16th-century peasantry thinking. Predictably, there’s trouble afoot that leads to some not-so-predictable actions and an ending that surprises and satisfies.

De France and Higelin carry the film beautifully, with the latter shouldering the more complex role. The supporting cast is also on target, but it’s Lvovsky as “mommie dearest who fearest queerest” who astonishes here, as she’s usually playing lighter, sometimes comic contemporary roles. The rural exteriors are exquisitely shot and the Paris scenes, also on location, are far from the Paris familiar to tourists or filmgoers. The film’s love scenes (let’s call them generous), conveying the intimacy, intensity and passion of new love, are in good taste (assuming there’s still a way to measure such things). The film goes out unrated.

Beyond its emphatic story of lesbian love and its emphatic backdrop of historic sociopolitical rebellion, Summertime might suggest small or dogmatic or maybe the familiar notion of simple country hick and older city sophisticate falling in love. Rather, Summertime is a classy, intelligent, gorgeous entertainment package. Corsini, whose outstanding filmography includes the remarkable Three Worlds and the Kristin Scott Thomas/Sergi Lopez drama Leaving, again shows she’s a director who can go both wide and deeply focused, not just in camera angles but in themes and storytelling.

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