'Summertime' ('La belle saison'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
Strong acting and detail-oriented direction help overcome some wobbly tonal shifts.

Cecile de France and Izia Higelin play lovers against the backdrop of feminist activism in 1970s France in this film from director Catherine Corsini.

A 25-year-old country girl falls in love with a 35-year-old feminist from the big city in Summertime (La Belle Saison), the latest film from French director Catherine Corsini (Three Worlds, Replay). Though the narrative somewhat awkwardly morphs from a period drama about the French women's liberation movement in early 1970s to a more rural melodrama about being closeted and choosing between duty and family and personal happiness, the story’s anchored by strong performances from Belgian star Cecile de France (The Kid With a Bike, Hereafter) and French singer-turned-actress Izia Higelin (Mauvaise fille), who have a natural chemistry that’s not only credible but actually infectious.

This Locarno Piazza Grande world premiere will bow in North America as a special presentation at Toronto and could interest buyers who have no problems in selling a same-sex romance that’s not only unselfconsciously sexy but feels, despite its period setting, thoroughly modern in its zero-hangups approach to sex and sexual orientation.

Corsini is no stranger to big-screen lesbian love affairs, as her most famous work, the 2001 Cannes competition title Replay, also featured a tortured yet passionate relationship between two women, one of whom, played by Emmanuelle Beart, was a successful actress, while the other lived her acting dream vicariously through her partner. There’s a similar inequality in the relationship at the heart of this new film, written by Corsini with Laurette Polmanss, as the young farm girl Delphine (Higelin) moves to Paris and finds herself attracted to the feminist activist Carole (de France), though the latter is actually in a relationship with Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour).

There’s an experience and age gap that separates the women, certainly, and there’s a natural contrast between Delphine’s sheltered, conservative upbringing in the countryside (in the Limousin region) and Carole’s world-wise city slicker fighting for equal pay, contraception and access to abortion, all pretty much alien concepts in France’s farming communities, where women worked as hard as their husbands but without receiving any kind of pay or social security.

In an interesting twist on established coming-out narratives, it is Delphine who’s sure of her sexuality, initially. The hard-working, square-shouldered protagonist’s heart is broken by a local girl in a short but pitch-perfect scene early on, as her secret girlfriend matter-of-factly states she’s getting married soon, their relationship “wasn’t serious” and it’s all over. And she’s the one who pursues Carole, who initially rejects her advances and assumes she must be straight (though she has no problem with gay people at all, as demonstrated by a rather surprising interlude during which a group of activists help to kidnap a gay friend who's been locked away in an institution). 

The film’s early Paris scenes, with Carole and Delphine hanging out at loud and rowdy meetings of an activist feminist cell, feel like a welcome female corrective to 1968-and-later French activism portrayed in male-driven stories of directors such as Philippe Garrel (Regular Lovers). But when the strong-as-an-ox father (Jean-Henri Compere) of only child Delphine is suddenly hospitalized, she abandons the capital to help run the farm with her mother (Noemie Lvovsky) and an occasional assist of Antoine (Kevin Azais), a local farmboy who’s been pining for Delphine since they were kids.

Though the film doesn’t quite become apolitical, Corsini struggles to organically connect the more overtly political early going with the more personal struggles of the characters in the film’s second half. The tables have now turned, with Carole, who’s dumped her Paris boyfriend and is now staying at the family farm as a "Paris friend," certain in her desire for a life shared with Delphine and the latter unwilling and unsure how, if at all, to tell her mother and those around her. It’s an interesting role reversal of the dynamics between the two in the Paris scenes, though that’s finally not quite enough to make everything feel fresh for the remainder of the film.

If political concepts need words to be fully explained, Corsini’s deft, detail-oriented directorial hand often prefers wordless gestures to express evolving emotional states. Even the male supporting roles are further etched in that way, such as when Manuel slowly shoves a glass over the edge of the table to express his frustration over Carole’s confessions, or when Antoine’s sorely disappointed after he’s spied the girls kissing but can’t help but move in for a comforting, entirely silent hug with Delphine anyway after she’s moved her helpless father into the bedroom.

Editor Frederic Baillehaiche also smartly crosscuts between the latter scene and a tense confrontation between Manuel and Carole, suggesting both women need to give up their past and possible (preordained) future behind in order to be together, though Corsini never overtly connects this to the feminist notion of not necessarily needing a man in their lives to be either happy or successful. By comparison, a climactic scene at a train station benefits from the decision to not crosscut but stay with one character instead, so the absence of the other becomes soul-crushing, again signaling the director’s preference for emotions over politics.  

De France’s career really got off the ground in the early 2000s with two lesbian roles, in the pan-European comedy-drama The Spanish Apartment (2002), the first of three films featuring her character, and the body horror film High Tension (2003). Her Carole here is more mature and complex, and her mass of long, blond, wavy hair and statuesque appearance suggest something of her solar character and love of freedom and independence. She’s also a good match with relative newcomer Higelin, whose dark-haired stockiness helps evoke something of Delphine’s lunar side. Together, they are an almost textbook opposites-attract couple, though their chemistry is so real and natural you can't help but root for them to be together. 

Supporting roles are all beautifully detailed as well, from Lvovsky’s earthy stubbornness to the innate goodness of Azais’ character, which masks an emotionally clammed-up young man who’s too hesitant to go after what he wants outright, a characteristic he shares, somewhat paradoxically, with his object of affection: Delphine.  

Jeanne Lapoirie's widescreen cinematography is luminous without overdosing on the bucolic prettiness of naked women making love in the meadows, while Gregoire Hetzel's sparingly used score and some period songs fill the soundtrack. 

Production companies: Chaz Productions, France 3 Cinema, Artemis Productions
Cast: Cecile de France, Izia Higelin, Noemie Lvovsky, Kevin Azais, Laetitia Dosch, Benjamin Bellecour, Sarah Suco, Nathalie Beder, Bruno Podalydes
Director: Catherine Corsini
Screenplay: Catherine Corsini, Laurette Polmanss
Producer: Elizabeth Perez
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Anne Falgueres
Costume designer: Juergen Doering
Editor: Frederic Baillehaiche
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Brigitte Moidon, Aurelie Guichard
Sales: Pyramide International

No rating, 105 minutes

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