Bad Idea, Right?
By Matthew Eng

Last Summer
Dir. Catherine Breillat, France/Norway, Sideshow/Janus Films

Certain faces immediately invite trust. The actress Léa Drucker possesses such a face, one likely familiar to habitual viewers of French cinema who may have cottoned to her over the last few years in films by Lukas Dhont, Axelle Ropert, and Xavier Legrand, the latter of whom directed her César-winning performance as a menaced divorcée in Custody (2017). In Close (2022), Dhont calls upon Drucker to divulge the film’s terrible twist to its young protagonist in a scene whose poignancy stems from watching a beacon of sincerity struggle to prevaricate. The trustworthiness of Drucker’s face manifests less in its specific features than in how she tends to hold them on screen—steady, straightforward, declining to dissemble or hide. But trust can be violated, just as surely as an honest face can casually conceal a conniving mind or a heart unaware of its own capacity for deceit.

Catherine Breillat toys with Drucker’s perceived approachability in the opening moments of Last Summer. When we meet Drucker’s Anne, a lawyer who specializes in consent and custody cases concerning minors, her gaze is hardened and unflinching as she sternly browbeats one of her clients, a teenage assault victim, in preparation for the opposing side’s slut-shaming cross-examination. Anne prides herself on being this tremulous young woman’s only protector in a realm where “victims often become the accused.” Though the film never enters a courtroom, we immediately and unequivocally know that Anne excels at her job, but also that she has chosen and devoutly adhered to a path of ethical resistance.

Anne lives on a scenic and serene estate in the French countryside with her adopted young daughters (adorable, scene-stealing Serena Hu and Angela Chen) and her older husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), a downcast businessman frequently in transit. The marriage is neither a garden nor a wasteland, but something more lovingly mundane, as evidenced in an early sex scene where Pierre’s undressing lasts as long as the abbreviated intercourse. The encounter involves both time-honored tenderness and brazen fetishism as Anne describes her adolescent attraction to what she remembers as the wrinkled, desiccated, corpselike body of her mother’s 33-year-old male friend.

The soothing sureness of the couple’s life is irrevocably disturbed by a spindly, tousle-haired 17-year-old with an angelic face and a hideous dragon tattoo running up his right flank. This is Théo (Samuel Kircher, the youngest son of Irène Jacob, making his screen debut), Pierre’s estranged, roughneck child from a previous marriage, recently suspended from his Swiss school for assaulting his math teacher. When Théo comes to live with the family, his petulant and perpetually shirtless presence is at first a nuisance for Anne, until he softens, charms, and becomes a lure to which she finds herself oddly susceptible.

Absent from screens for the past decade, Breillat here adapts the 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, brought exclusively to Breillat by producer Saïd Ben Saïd and written with the prolific, journeyman screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer. She has always bounded towards potentially radioactive subject matter and stances. (In recent years, Breillat has been vocal in her aversion to the #MeToo movement, in which she herself was implicated by her onetime leading lady Asia Argento.) Her last film also memorably centered an older woman’s mystifying and destabilizing fascination with a younger, disreputable interloper. And yet the engrossing and catharsis-denying Abuse of Weakness (2013), was deliberately desexed, a semi-autobiographical self-reckoning in which Isabelle Huppert’s Breillat proxy signs checks, suffers seizures, and barely registers any temptation to the brawny scam artist (Kool Shen) who plummets her finances (and pride) into the gutter. No such abstinence is apparent in Last Summer.

In collaboration with her gutsy leads, Breillat creates a frisson of erotic curiosity between Anne and Théo that is never articulated but fully and friskily embodied. This curiosity is untraceable to any single event, yet it hangs heavily in the air during a playful swim in a lake and the gliding, twilit drive back home. The characters’ connection plays out via sidelong glances, held stares, grazed skin, and candid, coquettish conversations, captured in prolonged close-ups and two-shots that chronicle the real-time solidification of an attraction that will soon prove too galvanic to ignore. When Pierre leaves for another of his business trips, we know it is only a matter of time before Anne breaches an illicit boundary with her stepson—not of consent (the age of which is 15 in France) but of legally defined incest.

The pair’s unbroken, open-mouthed first kiss fills the screen for what feels like an eternity, continuing Breillat’s trademark depiction of ambiguous and discomfiting intimacy pushed to durational extremes. Ten years have not remotely slackened the daring and thoughtfulness of Breillat’s compositions, realized with lustrous tactility by her new cinematographer, Jeanne Lapoirie (BPM [Beats Per Minute], Benedetta). At certain points, Breillat and Lapoirie purposely withhold the actors’ visages in crucial scenes. During the pair’s first sexual encounter, Anne is little more than a body and it is Kircher’s ruddy, panting-to-the-point-of-wheezing face that we watch for roughly a minute of missionary thrusting. In the next encounter, the camera fixes on Drucker’s face as Anne comes down from the high of an ecstatic orgasm and settles into beatific, teeth-baring quietude. This framing is not confined to the fornicating; in a pivotal dialogue, Anne is but a strained voice as Théo, in close-up, presses her for details about a virginal trauma from her past that she adamantly refuses to recount. It is all the more forceful when Breillat subsequently reveals Anne’s bereft face, suppressing tears over the kind of injurious violation that she has made it her life’s work to remedy.

Drucker is seamless and unself-conscious from first shot to last in the meatiest role of her career, subtly drawing the character’s infinite, intricate depths to the lucent surface of her lightly expressive face. When Anne flees a gathering with her and Pierre’s stodgy friends to get drunk with Théo, the blithe, blushing, and increasingly lascivious countenance which Breillat’s camera savors could conceivably belong to the PTA president of a local école, only heightening the peculiarity of this escalating dynamic and our identification with this unconscionable protagonist. The actress’ restrained approach renders the hailstorm of feelings, impulses, and anxieties that Anne undergoes—and sometimes surrenders to—exactingly legible and profoundly persuasive, belonging not to an ice queen or a fire-breather but an ordinary, fallible woman who can play the imperious baddie while being far more familiar here than most directors and actresses would have dared allowed. Drucker is matched at each turn by Kircher, whose turbulent intensity alarms and then saddens, and especially Rabourdin, who drains his hangdog husband of enough vitality that his guilt, gullibility, and incomprehension are not merely pitiful but devastating.

Last Summer is not so much a provocation or the immersion in perversion that those who know only of the logline and Breillat’s career might be led to believe. This is a master class in emotional precision, one grounded in the knowledge that even the most durable of moral compasses can shatter in the face of a monstrous and deranging need. Breillat makes no apologies for Anne’s choices, but neither does she allow her the comfort of narrative closure. Her summer with Paul will endure, in the flesh or in the mind, like the pinpoint glint of the wedding band that persists over the final fade to black. The institutions carry on, just as the twinge of desire aches to no end.