Catherine Breillat on Last Summer

This article appeared in the October 12, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Read and listen to all of our coverage NYFF61 here.

Last Summer (Catherine Breillat, 2023)

Ten years after the release of her last feature, Abuse of Weakness (2013), Catherine Breillat returns with another tale of vertiginous desire. Unfolding in an idyllic country home seemingly cut off from reality, Last Summer tracks the affair between a steely attorney, Anne (a formidable Léa Drucker), and her 17-year-old stepson, Théo (Samuel Kircher), a spindly, James Dean–esque charmer. An adaptation of the 2019 film Queen of Hearts, by the Danish-Egyptian director May el-Toukhy, Breillat’s long-awaited return engages anew with the filmmaker’s perennial fixations: the friction between marital love and carnal desire, the rejection of victimhood, and the expression of a sexual freedom that disavows the strictures of propriety.

Since making her directorial debut with the visceral coming-of-age feature A Real Young Girl (1976)—which was withheld from theatrical release until 25 years after it was completed, because its financiers considered it too obscene for the general public—Breillat has distinguished herself as the high priestess of errant female sexuality. Throughout her career, she has continued to ruffle feathers, be it with her austere visions of (unsimulated) sex (Romance, 1999) or with her unflinchingly violent portrayals of sexual initiation (Fat Girl, 2001). Relative to Breillat’s previous, jarringly explicit ventures, Last Summer’s provocations are more cerebral, concerning the latent cruelties of heterosexual romance, even as Anne is seized by a lust that threatens to explode the foundations of her life. This is not to say that the film skimps on sex; rather, full-frontal nudity is eschewed in favor of scenes that capture lovers’ faces in startlingly intimate close-ups.

A day after the premiere of Last Summer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I met up with Breillat to talk about her new film. The following is an abbreviated version of our conversation, which was conducted originally in French.

What was it about Queen of Hearts that inspired you to adapt it? 

The producer Saïd Ben Saïd, whom I’d met nine or 10 years ago, sent me an email saying that he had acquired the rights to the film. He thought . . . well, that I could do it better. Or at least differently. I’m French, and we have a very different approach to film and life than the Danes. They’re tense and more strict. France is the country of [Alfred de] Musset and [Pierre de] Marivaux! First, I knew I had to change the adolescent boy. In the Danish film, he’s brutish and opaque. My Théo is more like [protagonist] Anaïs in Fat Girl: both have expressive faces.

After watching both filmsI was surprised that your film’s sex scenes were more subdued.

Queen of Hearts is much more explicit, but the thing is, I’ve already done that. My work has often pushed the boundaries of sexual representation. What interested me was the lie—denial has been a force in all of my films since 36 fillette (1988). There are no lies in that film, but it’s about shame, the shame of a young woman, as well as her self-denial. I don’t think you can make a film like 36 fillette anymore—contemporary sensibilities would probably consider it to be too dangerous. But at least one is allowed to watch it! Anyway, the lie at the crux of Queen of Hearts is staggering; it’s what makes the script genius. I became interested in applying this captivating lie to another kind of woman. Anne is not a predator; I had no interest in demonstrating a predatory woman who simply takes on this stereotypically masculine way of desiring. I wanted the teenager to pursue her. There’s a difference between giving in to something and taking it.

Your film seems to exist in a different universe, despite the fact that you were quite faithful to the dialogue and script of Queen of Hearts

I thought I had changed a lot of the dialogue, but after finishing my film, I rewatched the Danish film and realized that some of it is quite similar. Yet the films have nothing to do with each other. Cinema takes precedence over the script, whether you like it or not. Producers want you to believe that the script is the most important thing, but it’s a matter of approach—the actual shoot is where the film becomes itself. That’s where I tried to pull each scene toward a different kind of emotion, gesturing toward a fundamental trauma. I invent a lot when I shoot; I invent when I’m by myself at night. The act of writing and simply being around the actors can be inspiring. Suddenly, I saw Léa [Drucker] becoming a bit like Hitchcock’s Marnie.

So Anne is an ice-queen blonde? 

When the father demands that Théo admit to lying about sleeping with Anne, Théo is indignant, not because he needs his father to know he’s honest, as in the Danish film, but because Anne wants him to deny it. She wants everything tucked away, clean. We’re talking about denial, but we’re also talking about the fact that when people are in love, it’s not straightforward. Accusations, lies—they’re warped, because they’re human. On social media, Léa would immediately be found guilty. She would be torn apart. But human truths are more complicated than categories of “guilty” or “innocent.”

Speaking of guilt, the film begins with a moment of intense shame. The opening shot is a close-up of a trembling, weeping girl—one of Anne’s clients, discussing her sexual assault. 

That scene is fundamental. I put out a casting call on the internet and lots of people responded, but I was drawn to this young girl’s eyes. There is a heaviness to them. This girl wasn’t an actress. She drew the intensity of her performance from her own personal history of abuse. But I wanted to start the film this way, with this idea that you have a guilty conscience about sex, but that you must live and move past it, which is what Anne tells the girl.

Samuel Kircher has a great presence in the film. He has a tortured sensuality, like that of an Egon Schiele figure, and an insolence, too. At first I thought he was the same actor from Christophe Honoré’s Winter Boy (2022). Only later did I realize that that was Paul Kircher, and that Samuel is his younger brother. 

They’re both the sons of Irène Jacob [star of 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique]. In fact, I found Paul first and I was crazy about him. We had done some magnificent rehearsals together, but alas, I was broke, and we couldn’t move forward with things. I couldn’t get the funding for the film at the time—I got a small sum from Canal+ but otherwise not a single French channel pitched in. Then Paul went on to do the Honoré film. I held auditions all over Paris, but I couldn’t find my teenager. My producers complained, “Catherine! You’ve seen so many young people who would be great!” I said, “No, they weren’t great. They had no charm, and I can’t shoot someone with no charm.” The film is supposed to be a love story. I called Paul again, and he was working on The Animal Kingdom (2023). I said I’d wait for him. I wanted my film to channel the sensibility of a ’50s Hollywood drama, and he was it. He was champagne where the others were so conventional and lackluster. Then Paul sent me a photo of Samuel, and I thought: he is my final hope! With Samuel, like Paul, his story is all there as soon as you look at him.

The first shot of Théo accentuates his lithe, shirtless torso, as he hovers over Anne in the hallway. Physically, he’s the opposite of his father, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), whom I think we see more naked than any other character. His body is aged and weathered. What interested you about this contrast?

But Olivier’s got a great body! A magnificent body, like a Greek statue. Sensual, too. I wanted the husband to be someone with a gravity to him. He’s not a character from a big city, but a grounded person who feels very human. You have to be able to believe there is true love between Pierre and Anne, though it’s a different kind of love—it’s not the same kind she has for Théo.

In the wonderful text you wrote for the recently published book Pier Paolo Pasolini: Writing on Burning Paper, you describe your work as “Pasolinian” in that its form of carnality is “cold” and “glacial.” Yet here you’ve made a film that takes place in the summer! 

Indeed, this is the opposite. We’re in the open air. The images are bathed in summer light. All the same, this idea of summer love means it shouldn’t have much importance. This is a love that’s destined to end. When summer is over you have to go back to your real life.

Then there’s the color white, which is something you tend to employ in all your films to uncanny effect. In general, you prefer primary colors, I think, but the white—in the furniture, clothing, walls—has always fascinated me.

Cinema is light! We’re watching beings of light, and the white signifies a certain transparency that connects to this. But more importantly, I want my films to be watched 50 years later without someone saying, oh, the style is out-of-date. I’m never guided by what’s in fashion. It prevents the film from being eternal when the feelings are supposed to be eternal. I like the kinds of dresses that American stars wore in the ’50s. The cuts of those dresses are rigid, boxy—clearly intended for women with large breasts. In Fat Girl, Arsinée Khanjian [who plays the mother] wears a dress like that, and that same dress was one that I had previously used in Perfect Love (1996).

As you mentioned before, your work has a reputation for featuring explicit sex, but here the sex scenes play out almost entirely as close-ups of the characters’ faces during the act. Paradoxically, I found that to be more provocative, more shockingly intrusive. 

I’ve done this before with a film I just recently restored, Dirty Like an Angel (1991). For me there are two poles. There are sex scenes that are completely explicit, yet we feel we haven’t seen anything—we’ve only felt that there are emotions simmering beneath, unreachable. Then there are sex scenes where we don’t actually see much happen on the surface, and yet we feel we’ve seen it all because we understand the entire emotional trajectory of the act and what led up to it. That’s achieved by focusing on the face. It’s about the sense of intimacy conveyed by a face when the body is acting in a certain way.

That reminds me of the scene in Fat Girl where Anaïs is watching her sister have sex. It’s her sister’s body going through the act, yet Anaïs’s expression is more troubling.

Faces can be more naked than the naked body, much more dangerous and indecent. With a body, once you’ve done the makeup and removed the bathrobe, there’s a thingness to it. I’m often criticized for the number of love scenes in my films. My financiers say, “One or two love scenes, that’s fine—but four? Oh no, you have to cut it. It’s repetitive.” No. It’s not repetitive. Each one tells a feeling, a state of being. Each one tells a story that can never be the same.

In the scene where Anne makes love to her husband, she literally tells a story! 

I like to think that’s my specialty: teasing out the meaning of the sex act within scenes of nudity and vulnerability. Just think about it—the physical act is very repetitive, mechanical, yet there’s something about it that can take you elsewhere. It’s thinking in motion. The physical side can lead to nothing. It’s how it transports you, mentally and emotionally, that tells the story. You can be having extremely intense or very boring sex, and yet there’s something there that is unique and even wonderful. It happens to all of us, getting bored when we’re sleeping with someone. It’s absurd: “Why am I sleeping with this guy? I don’t even want to. Nothing happens. It’s not that serious.” That [mental process] is interesting to show. In a love scene, you have to know what you want to say, and you have to be able to hit a different emotion each time.

I have to ask about the big moment when Anne is confronted by her husband about her affair with Théo, and she decides to lie. It’s a charged scene that somewhat departs from the rest of the film in terms of tone and style. How did you work through this scene?

That is also the best scene in the Danish film, one that shook me to my core, so I knew I had to completely reinvent it. At first I was scared. The scene took four days to shoot. We obviously took breaks, but the scene starts at night and finishes in the morning, so the shoot was prolonged. When the husband confronts Anne about the affair and tells her to sit down, Léa sat down in a very natural, realistic way. I didn’t like it. I needed movement that would apprehend the space, the furniture, and the entire situation, to bring out what I wanted to see. That’s when I told Léa, “You’re going to sit down very, very slowly. Your movement will be smooth, gliding. Nothing abrupt. You have to be like Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958)Nothing. Ice. Enigmatic. You’re so awake that you’re not even thinking anymore; all your energy is directed toward saving face. You can’t acknowledge what he’s accusing you of because you don’t know anything. You don’t know what you’re going to say because you’ve been annihilated.”

This is all my expressionistic side—I love expressionism. She gets up very slowly because there is a catastrophe above her that will consume her if she moves too quickly. So she moves as if her gaze is lifting her up and not her muscles. That’s cinema: finding images that are more symbolic than reality itself, images that will tell the truth and blow up the screen. Sometimes a hyper-composed image gets to the truth—seizes the spectator—more effectively than a natural image.

Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.

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