VENICE — Though he’s not cheating in the conventional sense, a husband spends an awful lot of time with another woman in the French period drama Summer Nights (Les Nuits d’ete), the debut feature of director Mario Fanfani about a provincial solicitor’s secret penchant for cross-dressing. This melodrama, shot in softly penumbral tones, is set in the late 1950s, when the Algerian war claimed the lives of many young men and women slowly started to rebel, though the film’s treatment of the characters and themes is often too nebulous to have much of an impact. Beyond queer events and releases in liberal French-speaking territories, this’ll face an uphill battle for any kind of attention.
Michel (Guillaume De Tonquedec) has taken over the notary office of his late father, though he’s not afraid to do things a little differently. He’s got a young son with his devoted wife, Helene (Jeanne Balibar), whom he urges to take on a more significant role at the town’s very bourgeois social club because it will make him look better at the upcoming chamber elections.
In view of his growing responsibilities for the town and perhaps also as a husband and father, Michel has decided to stop going to his country house in the Vosges region, where for years he’s nominally been working on complex cases but in reality he lives out his fantasies as Mylene, a bourgeois woman who spends her weekends with Flavia, incarnated by Michel’s old friend, Jean-Marie (Nicolas Bouchaud).
Unfortunately, this particular story thread has not a lot of dramatic meat on its bones beyond the question of when and how Helene will find out and its resolution is entirely predictable. The script, written by Fanfani with co-screenwriter Gaelle Mace (Grand Central, A Common Thread), gives us some domestic scenes with Michel and Helene but no real insight in the state of their marriage and how his secret escapades might influence their relationship.
There’s also something of a missed opportunity in a subplot involving Helene’s decision to speak out against the war in Algeria — a big no-no for the patriotic middle class — as Summer Nights fails to convincingly draw the parallel between Michel’s desire to occasionally be true to himself as a woman and Helene’s decision to be her own woman instead of just someone’s wife.
An even more awkwardly handled subplot, which feels entirely tangential for most of the film, involves a rose-cheeked young soldier, Pascal (Mathieu Spinosi), who wanders into a bar with drag performers that Jean-Marie, who’s pretty much a non-character, frequents. He seems equally curious about and repelled by what he sees — he doesn’t say all that much throughout — and is taken in by Jean-Marie/Flavia after a particularly drunken night.
Pascal, who’s nicknamed Cherub, is of course introduced to the club’s motley crew of transvestite gals that includes Tinkerbell (Serge Bagdassarian), who puts her Rubenesque figure to good use when belting out show-stopping songs; the pretty featureless Suzy Corridor (Clement Sibony) and Callipyge (Jean-Benoit Mollet) and their ringleader of sorts, the world-wise Hermine (Zazie de Paris).
The film of course has to bring the stories of Michel, Pascal and the drag performers together but rather oddly, the results of this are very tame, with practically no drama or even any kind of interesting cross-pollination. There’s never a sense that Michel finds something in the larger group he hadn’t already found with his countless weekends en duo with Flavia. And the reasons for the little-developed character of Cherub to be among these prim if mostly big-boned ladies are pretty tenuous, since, like Michel, the soldier professes to be straight and there’s no indication he has any interest in cross-dressing himself.
Even the war, which happens entirely off-screen in faraway Algeria, remains more of a concept than something tangible that seems to have actual repercussions on the French people and French history, despite the presence of a soldier who thinks of deserting and a fabulous drag number about how boys are preferable alive. The press materials suggest both Michel and Jean-Marie are still scarred from WWII, though there’s only scant evidence of this in the film itself.
The actors do what they can with the material, with Balibar doing her best Julianne Moore impression as a fifties housewife who wants to break free and De Tonquedec dutifully underplaying his suppressed character. The drag performers are, of course, fabulous, but most of them lack a sense of individuality.
Summer Nights is named after the song cycle by Berlioz, and Michel performs its second song, Le spectre de la rose, at a crucial moment. The film was shot by cinematographer George Lechaptois in a boxy aspect ratio that feels right for this drama about boxed-in bourgeois people, and with especially the interiors often in the semi-dark, as if secrets might be hiding there and the bigger picture isn’t always immediately visible.
Production companies: 24 Mai Production, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Guillaume De Tonquedec, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Bouchaud, Mathieu Spinosi, Serge Bagdassarian, Jean Benoit Mollet, Clement Sibony, Zazie De Paris
Director: Mario Fanfani
Screenplay: Mario Fanfani, Gaelle Mace
Producer: Lola Gans
Director of photography: George Lechaptois
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Music: Rodolphe Burger
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 104 minutes