THE STORY – Anne is a respected lawyer who lives in Paris with her husband, Pierre, and their two young daughters. Théo, Pierre’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, moves in, and Anne eventually begins an affair with him. In doing so, she risks jeopardizing her career and losing her family. Théo is a fragile figure, and as time goes on, the relationship turns destructive.
THE CAST – Léa Drucker, Olivier Rabourdin, Samuel Kircher & Clotilde Courau
THE TEAM – Catherine Breillat (Director/Writer) & Pascal Bonitzer (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
Catherine Breillat has nothing to prove to anyone. One of France’s most masterful provocateurs, her willingness to take on taboo subjects through a female lens has led to some of the most compelling films of the past few decades. Neither a debilitating stroke nor getting grifted out of hundreds of thousands of Euros by a conman slowed her down, but it’s been a decade since her last film, Abuse of Weakness. Given that the film was based on her novel recounting the recovery from her stroke and subsequent conning, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the end of her storied career. However, she’s back with something of a first: “Last Summer” is the first time she’s remade another film, in this case, the 2019 Danish film “Queen of Hearts.” While the plot remains primarily intact, Breillat offers a different take on the psychology of the main characters, putting her own stamp on the material and proving once again that she’s one of the best filmmakers alive.
Anne (Léa Drucker) is a high-powered attorney defending young women accusing men of sexual assault. She lives in a country estate-like house with her husband and two young adopted daughters. When her husband’s problem-child son from his previous marriage, Théo (Samuel Kircher), becomes too much for his mother, he comes to live with them. At first, Anne is happy to have him, even if his moodiness begins to affect her husband’s mood as well. One day, when they’re alone, the boy kisses her, and she doesn’t stop him. If anyone is aware of the power dynamics at play here, it’s Anne, but she allows the affair to continue. Will she be able to stop it before they get found out?
Unlike most provocateurs, whose focus on taboo acts and ideas is the provocation in and of itself, Breillat prefers to provoke by allowing all of her subjects the same measure of humanity – watching a woman have sex with her stepson has its own measure of shock value, but how would that make “Last Summer” any different from any number of erotic thrillers in which married men have steamy affairs with teenage girls? No. Breillat provokes her audience by showing why Anne is so turned on by the attention and how Théo becomes more emotionally invested in their affair. In most erotic thrillers with this kind of scenario, the young lover has a screw or two loose and will stop at nothing to be with their older paramour, despite how wrong it is. Théo may be a little crazy, but he’s not full-on insane, and instead of trying to break up Anne and her husband, he’s more focused on Anne acknowledging what happened instead of brushing him off. The two seem to make a genuine connection, and Théo can’t understand how Anne can so easily cut him off, especially when her body says yes, even though her mouth says no. That’s a sticky moral situation, a genuine provocation instead of the empty titillation and shock of most such films.
As the woman who should know better, Drucker gives a fearless performance. When Théo suddenly comes on to her, you watch this woman become a teenager herself, practically giddy from the attention. The actress modulates her performance beautifully, moving from the rush of forbidden sex to the shame of having violated both her marriage and the power that she knows she holds over Théo as an authority figure. It’s a fascinating performance of a complex character. Kircher is more believable when he’s in rebellious teen mode than in the film’s later scenes when he has to sell trickier character beats. Still, he nails the teenage swagger and how it gives way to confusion when the power scales keep tipping back and forth. Théo may think of himself as an adult, but he’s far from it, and he’s playing with forces he doesn’t realize he doesn’t understand until it’s too late. This leads to some powerful moments in the film’s last act, where we can see the harm this has done to both the young man and the woman and how their lives will never be the same. While “Last Summer” could certainly have pushed things further, both erotically and psychologically, it makes its points well enough that it doesn’t need to. Breillat understands how to be provocative without being exploitative, which makes this film far more interesting and, in many ways, better than most films with this kind of story.