New York audiences might be the luckiest cinephiles this summer: French legend Catherine Breillat’s newest gem of a film Last Summer not only opens theatrically this weekend, but they were treated to a retrospective of the director’s work at Film at Lincoln Center. A very rare occasion, unfortunately, for the rest of the world––the reputation of Breillat’s earlier films precede her. Romance and Anatomy of Hell were both associated with the New French Extremity, considered provocative and often inappropriate for their explicit sex scenes and violent ways in which they frame male-female relationships. However, if you look at Breillat’s oeuvre as a whole, you’d find a strong thread of idealism, even hope her characters try to own up to (unsuccessfully). 

Last Summer is a close remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 film Queen of Hearts, where a successful lawyer begins an affair with her stepson. Anne (a fantastic Léa Drucker) gradually discovers attraction and love anew with Théo (Samuel Kircher, cherubic and cruel at once, like all Breillat-penned men) and has to keep the secret from her husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin). Talking to Catherine Breillat a year since its Cannes debut, ahead of the film’s US release, allowed for some reflection on time passing, audience reception then and now, as well as a deeper dive into a few scenes of radically tender intimacy.

The Film Stage: It’s been a year since you started promoting the film. And I wanted to ask, was there something that surprised you in its reception? 

Catherine Breillat: Yes, I’ve been touring the world! Last Summer was quite well-received abroad, but also in France. That was very new for me, as for the first time my actors were nominated for the Cesars, which are kind of like the French Oscars, and so was I! Even the French press that had been so awful to me throughout all my career turned around. They found this film beautiful and even went back to seeing the rest of my filmography. So all of this was a real surprise to me. On the other hand, the reception in the States means different things for me, because it really was thanks to America that I was able to continue to make films.

In that regard, I want to congratulate you on the retrospective happening now at Film at Lincoln Center. How do you relate to your own films as time passes?

Thinking back, I find that I was successful thanks to how scrupulous I was to make sure that [my films] would be out-of-time enough––that they couldn’t really be outdated, at least not formally. I always look for designs, clothes, and hair styles that seem timeless, like they could remain that way forever. As far as my works being rediscovered: not long ago, I was invited to Barcelona for a retrospective, which surprised me because they had stopped buying my films after Romance. It had really shocked them. So that retrospective started with A Really Young Girl, and I saw the house was packed. At that point I thought these people were all going to leave, since they don’t know what they’re in for.

But then nobody left! By the end of the movie, all these old women––[Laughs] I guess, people my age––but also younger ones, would come up to me and say, “This film is me!” That, for me, is the greatest proof for the contemporary energy of a film. And then beyond that, all of them speak to what seems to be the central topic of this half of the century that has to do with sexuality and desire… but not just desire. Also the mortification of desire, sexual shame, and fear and all of these things are also part of my filmography.

You have also said that you are your films––they are a part of you––so how do you personally relate to them as time goes by? Do you find yourself growing more distant to them or closer? Is there any ambivalence?

The way that I work, it’s true that there are times I watch things and think: “Who let me do this? Who let me film that?” But I work without censorship and all I can do is to make every moment the most sincere I can. Nothing of it comes from my imagination––I have none! Instead, I draw everything from memories, from this kind of computer I have in my mind that records everything I’ve ever heard or seen. Watching a film, I can tell you exactly which light comes where; there’s no process of invention. What I do is a kind of stitching things together and it’s not really something that I can change my relationship to. I question these standards myself: “How could I do that?” But I see at the same time that was the necessary thing to do.

It’s also quite fitting to bring Last Summer in the conversation, as it is a remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Queen of Hearts, but it still speaks to all of the themes of your work, as well as your formal signature.

Yes, there really was very little space for invention. One of the differences in comparison to the 2018 film was that the two young girls, Theo’s siblings, are adopted in Last Summer. For some of the lines, I went to a family member of my own to see how the children being adopted comes into the dynamics. We found these very good Franco-Chinese actresses [Serena Hu and Angela Chen] and that idea was useful to me, also, in terms of resetting [the film] differently. When it comes to the role of abortion or that scene where Théo is on top of Anne, her legs wrapped around him, and she comments on how thin he is: that was something I took from my own life. The experience of being with a young lover and marveling at the difference between the two bodies. So, really, everything is imported from a place that’s somehow personal.

And working with Léa Drucker as Anne, did you ever discuss or consider her a woman between two men?

I don’t talk to my actors; I let the script talk. Léa and I did talk a lot after I discovered how intelligent she was on set during the shoot. But before then, I only kept to my directorial role: to orient without speaking The only thing I did say to her for that scene on the grass was that she needed to empty her mind and see herself as Pauline at the beach, which is to say: “You are 15 years old and the most handsome boy at the beach is coming to flirt with you.” Apart from that, I didn’t say anything to her at all.

I know you get versions of this question a lot, but how did you translate this non-verbal intimacy in Last Summer’s erotic scenes while working with Drucker for the first time?

It’s the flesh that speaks to the spectator and what the actor can speak through, and I don’t really care about the psychological elements of it. I never read with my actors. I neither discuss the script nor spend too much time thinking about it with them. What matters is what’s within the frame and how we’re going to film it. There’s always huge questions around framing these intimacy scenes because they are what gives the most important information to the spectators. Whether it is the way in which we film [Anne] with her husband by deciding where the camera is going to be in relation to the bed; how much space his body is going to occupy; how and where she is going to touch him; how she touches his chest, his hair. Such details reveal the ways in which he is unlike Théo. This is how I build the content of my film. Anything more variable than that has no space on my set. 

What about the exterior scenes of intimacy? They are more subtle, but there are plenty in this film. 

There’s not really much of a difference. There’s the same number of people who are necessary to any scene: three on the camera, myself, the AD, the script supervisor, the sound engineer. So most of the differences, if you’re really outdoors in a particular context––like that scene, where you’re in the middle of the lake or body of water, where everybody has to be perched on some kind of floatation device––then it’s a whole other sort of thing. There, what’s at stake is still the same as what’s at stake within closed doors, which is to say the sincerity of the gesture.

Can you give me an example, perhaps from the scene on the lake where Anne takes the children swimming?

In that scene there is a moment where Anne playfully “drowns” Théo, and that’s quite important. At first, Léa didn’t dare to do it since it is quite a violent act. And I had to reassure her that his body would let her know when it’s at its limit; and it did. When Samuel emerged out of the water, he was really out of breath and that’s the energy that carries the rest of the love story forward. Similarly, making an actor blush is not something that can be artificially produced, and there’s something about how stunned Théo is by Anne’s violent act in that scene. As if it went beyond what he was expecting of her. These moments, in turn, open the possibilities of their relationship. There needed to exist the possibility that this was somehow an unconscious gesture of her desire to get rid of him for good.

This brings me to my final question, actually, and it’s about love. Would you say your films propose a philosophy of love, or rather a mathematics of love? People seem to always win and lose when trying to get their desire and love across…

I’m French and I come from the marivaudage tradition [a writing style characterized by an affectation of refinement] and [French Romantic poet and writer] Alfred de Musset’s No Trifling With Love, so it wouldn’t be surprising to quote Marquise de Flers from The Last Mistress: “The one who loves first loses.” I think that’s true.

Last Summer is now in limited release.

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