Anne (Léa Drucker) is an esteemed lawyer: as uncompromising as she is in her line of work, she is free to enjoy her private life. In her ’40s she has it all, the job and the family she never thought would come. So begins Catherine Breillat’s newest film, Last Summer, which may be a remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 adulterous drama Queen of Hearts, but yields to the French filmmaker’s every wish. Even though we never get any backstory to Anne’s character, it’s hinted that her youth was not a pleasant one, as an early abortion took away the possibility to have children of her own. But now, in the summer of her life, she is a mother of two adopted girls and stepmother to an unruly teenager named Théo (Samuel Kircher), from her husband Pierre’s (Olivier Rabourdin) previous marriage. Amidst the idyllic rituals of daily life in the countryside, Anne seems composed and satiated. She is not one to look for trouble.
Yet, “trouble” can be just another word for “love,” a notion much contested more in the reviews of Breillat’s films than the works themselves. Her approach to filmmaking has long been described as “extreme,” even “soft porn,” but at the heart of her project lies a quest for purity in a messy, messy world. Last Summer is the director’s 15th feature and admittedly one she did not deem herself fit to make. After all, her previous, Abuse of Weakness, which premiered ten years ago, told a semi-autobiographical tale of an ailing filmmaker in such a frank and compelling way that one could easily imagine it being Breillat’s last. But with this new entry in the Cannes competition she confirms herself as one of the most accomplished in our times, and does so with subversive softness.
That said, Last Summer’s plot drive is incestuous, as Anne and Théo develop a gradual intimacy which quickly becomes sexual. Not to spoil or bury the lede, but the element of surprise is very minimal: the film does present Théo as a “problem child,” in the words of his parents, and his disdain for authority is evident in his avoidant attitude. Yet Anne’s initial draw to him is pure and friendly, which makes their subsequent affair much purer than one would expect. As in all Breillat films, affection and attraction are a transformative tandem, but firstly it never lasts, and secondly no one is allowed to leave both changed and unharmed.
Kircher is more than perfectly fit for a cherubic sweetheart whose occasional harshness invites us to imagine him as a future abuser; his elegant taste for pleasure and humiliation shine in impulsive gestures, a cunning smile, and eagerness to be with Anne against better judgment. Perhaps that’s why cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie (Benedetta, 8 Women) grants us many close-ups of his deceitfully angelic face: we can also be electrified by the fire in his eyes. In a way, Théo can be seen as the prototype for Breillat’s male characters who’d rather surrender to confusion and misogyny than admit their own soft side. And if they did, they’d be seen as laughing stock by the very women they want to impress. But in this case there is certainly more generosity towards both genders and a promise that desire can set them free, even for a little bit.
Unlike the underlying cynicism of Brief Crossing––another film with a similar age gap and dynamic––Last Summer finds Breillat more open to the tenderness of love’s initial stages: Drucker lights up, she orgasms, she laughs, and even her lexicon changes. There are three sex scenes in the film, and all of them are magnificent: the camera keeps to one face at a time for a long––delightful––amount of time as features become distorted by the seismic force of orgasm. Certainly a departure from Sex is Comedy‘s brilliantly funny meta-exposé of erotic scenes, Breillat’s latest gives love a chance. This protagonist doesn’t only surrender to her desires––they also seem haunted by feelings too good to admit within the framework of adultery and incest. The ambivalence of it all is a compelling force. And even if everyone is made to look pathetic at one point, we can safely say this is Breillat’s version of the old saying: “Love conquers all”.
Last Summer premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.