With Last Summer, Catherine Breillat Once Again Provokes Ideas of Hypocrisy and Morality

Last Summer screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 11, 13, and 19.

Director, author, and provocateur Catherine Breillat returns to the screen after a near ten-year hiatus with Last Summer (L’été dernier), an interpretation of the Danish film, Queen of Hearts (Dronningen) directed by May el-Toukhy and written by Maren Louise Käehne. Both films chronicle a destructive affair conducted by a respected lawyer, Anne (Trine Dyrholm in the original and Léa Drucker in Breillat’s version) and her seventeen-year-old stepson.

Remaking a film, especially one that was relatively recently released, will inevitably invite comparison. How does Breillat’s focus differ from May el Toukhy’s? Both films are erotically charged descents into carelessness, both show a dissatisfied middle-aged woman crossing a taboo. May el Toukhy’s film is more condemning of Anne’s actions, whereas Breillat relishes in the forbidden pleasures of the lovers.

The film begins with Anne posing questions to a young victim of sexual assault. Anne knows how the courts will try to undermine her credibility. Anne knows predators. The foreshadowing of the interaction imbues the film with a sense of Anne’s power and her hypocrisy. She will speak the line “You’re not credible” to another victim.

Anne is living with her white-collar businessman husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) and their adopted daughters Angela (Angela Chen) and Serena (Serena Hu) in a luxurious house on the edge of Paris. Pierre is about to bring his estranged son Théo (Samuel Kircher) from Geneva to live with them. Théo is sullen and resentful of both his father and the situation, he radiates “troubled teen” but also a Visconti like “beautiful boy.” Samuel Kircher is the son of Irene Jacob and his sylphlike masculine body is caressed by Breillat’s gaze, his careless youth and rebellion awaken something in Anne as he looks into her eyes unwaveringly with a stare that suggest a dare.

Although Anne makes love to Pierre, who is somewhat older than her, and jokes with him that she is a “Gerontophiliac,” age is something that is bearing down on her. During sex she tells a story of how when she was fourteen, she fell in love with a friend of her mother’s. A man whose wrinkles excited her. A man who made her think of a pre-corpse. He was thirty-three. Breillat later hints that there may have been a relationship between the two but Anne refuses to discuss it.

Returning home one day from work Anne discovers the house has been ransacked. Her bag and other items have been stolen. She calls the police and Pierre. She later discovers that Théo was responsible. Instead of turning him into the police she says she will stay silent as long as he makes an effort to be a part of the family. Théo complies and over time begins to develop a brotherly bond with Angela and Serena, although his relationship with Pierre remains volatile.

Breillat never makes it clear who seduces whom with Théo and Anne (although Anne makes the first openly sexual move). Of course, Anne should never countenance the affair, legally he is a child, but she is a woman drawn to edges: “Vertigo is not the fear of heights it’s the realisation you have an overwhelming compulsion to jump,” she tells Théo in one of his taped conversations with her.

Jump she does. Into a summer filled with the soundtrack of her youth (Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty Boots’ is a recurring motif, and Kim Gordon was involved with the music for the film). There is a sense of halcyon freedom for Anne who swims in a nearby river with Théo, Angela, and Serena, playfully dominating Théo in the water. During a stuffy but important party for Pierre’s associates Anne escapes with Théo to a local bar, inciting an argument with Pierre when she returns, “You know what I think of ‘normalpaths’” she spits at him.

Théo gradually becomes obsessed with Anne, a young man who told her that feelings weren’t for him. Their lovemaking is explicit and dangerous. At first Breillat focuses the camera on Théo’s face during sex, and then on Anne’s in their next encounter, holding for each orgasm. They find immense pleasure in each other’s bodies. Soon they are sneaking off into the woods and having sex whenever and wherever they can. Their bodies delight in Anne’s sexual maturity and Théo’s youthful perfection.

Anne tells Théo that her greatest fear is everything disappearing and that she would make that happen. That fear is almost realised when they are found out by Anne’s sister, Mina (Clotilde Courau) at a birthday party for one of the girls. Anne immediately breaks off the relationship making Théo promise never to tell his father. Théo lurks like threat behind Anne and Pierre and when Pierre decides to take Théo away on a weekend away in their cabin Théo details the affair which Anne vehemently denies as disgusting and the depraved imaginings of a two-bit bastard who is trying to destroy their family as revenge for Pierre having left Théo and his mother and being an inadequate father to the teen.

Breillat’s work damns Anne, but only faintly. Her behaviour is abhorrent, and she is a the “monster” who tilted headfirst into annihilation. Yet, even with her cold and vicious turn against Théo, and her ability to dominate Pierre, Breillat doesn’t quite turn the audience’s sympathy against Anne. The director has spent too much time establishing Anne’s motivations and desires to absolutely denounce her. Instead, we watch as the fallout crushes Théo who is expelled from the family yet still seeks Anne’s attention through whatever avenues he finds available to him, including legally.

Mad love, amour fou, is what Breillat is cinematically describing. The consuming passion that extinguishes all reason and regard for safety. Anne will do everything in her considerable power to keep her family, but Breillat poses the question does she even really want them? Of what interest is the milquetoast Pierre to her? Is it just the social position she needs to retain? The veil of success and a happy family?

In terms of Breillat’s filmography Last Summer is somewhat approachable — she is a director for whom the title ‘porno auteuriste’ has been ascribed, and in her body of work Last Summer could reductively, yet somewhat accurately, be called a melodrama. It is an indictment of bourgeois morality and respectability that is in keeping with Breillat’s sensibilities. Yet, for all of that, it is unlikely to provoke outrage. In many places it is a beat for beat remake of The Queen of Hearts, but where it diverges is that Drucker’s Anne is not the ice queen that Dyrholm embodied. The endings also vary, which speaks of Breillat wanting to avoid significant consequences for either Théo or Anne. What remains is a difficult film filled with moral and ethical quandaries that romanticises a relationship that should never have occurred and justifies it. However, if one is actively seeking out the work of Catherine Breillat, it is a given that what she creates will unsettle and disturb.

Director: Catherine Breillat

Cast: Léa Drucker, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau

Writers: Pascal Bonitzer, Catherine Breillat, (based on the screenplay by Maren Louise Käehne, May el-Toukhy)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!