'The Summer House' ('Les estivants'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
The Discreet Charm of Bruni Tedeschi.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's latest bourgeois comedy-drama is set in a luxurious if slightly dilapidated mansion on the French Riviera and co-stars Valeria Golino, Pierre Arditi and Yolande Moreau.

Franco-Italian actor-director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi continues her series of semi-autobiographical films with The Summer House (Les estivants). The multihyphenate here keeps things even closer to home than usual, not only casting her own mother as her character’s mother again but also her own daughter as her character’s offspring, with actress and pal Valeria Golino playing her sister (in real life, the former first lady of France, Carla Bruni). On top of that, Bruni Tedeschi actually plays a filmmaker who is trying to work on the screenplay of her next project. But she keeps getting sidetracked by the family members and friends gallivanting about the clan’s titular abode on the gorgeous French Riviera. If this sounds like a recipe for a sun-dappled, alcohol-imbibed comedy-drama about the foibles of the bourgeoisie, well, that might be because it is pretty much exactly that. Fans of Bruni Tedeschi’s previous films, It’s Easier for a Camel, Actresses and A Castle in Italy, will appreciate this, too. That said, this Venice out-of-competition title is unlikely to win her any new fans.

The Summer House is dedicated to the memory of French filmmaker Patrice Chereau; Gerald Falce, who acted in two of Bruni Tedeschi’s previous films; and Virginio Bruni Tedeschi, the director’s real-life brother, who died of AIDS in 2006. The latter was clearly an inspiration for this work, with the ghost (Stefano Cassetti) of the brother of filmmaker Anna (Bruni Tedeschi) roaming the grounds of the titular villa and, in the second act, an actor (Vincent Perez) showing up to talk about playing the role of Anna’s character’s late brother. 

But the subplot involving her sibling is but a tiny thread of a much larger tragicomic tapestry. Anna's Franco-Italian dynasty is also comprised of her sister, Elena (Golino); their mother, Louisa (Marisa Borini); Elena’s French husband, Jean (Pierre Arditi), a former captain of industry who had to fire thousands when his company went bankrupt; and Anna’s daughter, Celia (Oumy Bruni Garrel). Friends visiting include Nathalie (actress and co-screenwriter Noemie Lvovsky), who is Anna’s co-screenwriter; Stanislas (Laurent Stocker), who is Jean’s secretary and perhaps also Elena’s former lover; and older gentleman Bruno (Bruno Raffaelli), who loves nothing more than singing opera and lieder, with Louisa accompanying him on the piano. 

Anna’s partner and the father of Celia is Luca (Riccardo Scamarcio, playing the role of Bruni Tedeschi's ex, Louis Garrel), though he appears more often in Anna’s imagination than in real life. As for the domestic staff, they include Jacqueline (Yolande Moreau), who has run the household for years and whose husband has recently gone off his rocker; the lustful cook (Francois Negret) who discovers Nathalie is single; housekeeper Pauline (Guilaine Londez), who is still not over the death of Louisa’s son and Anna and Elena’s brother and Gerard (Joel Clabeult), who hopes to negotiate a better compensation for the employees but who nonetheless has already introduced his son Francois (Brandon Lavieville) to the staff as well. 

Before introducing the large cast, Bruni Tedeschi kicks things off with a hilarious, Paris-set prologue, during which the suspiciously aloof Luca unexpectedly breaks up with the even-more-harried-than-usual Anna. The reason for her anxiety is that, right after their meeting in a café, she has to defend her next film project in front of the committee that decides on production grants in France. Not only is there room for a very unexpected — not to use the word random — wordless cameo from Frederick Wiseman, but Anna also has to hear things such as “You are aware that your screenplay is fragile?” effectively addressing possible criticism of her work while also scoring a few laughs.

Knocked into a bit of a private and professional stupor in the space of half an hour, Anna arrives at the family abode on the Cote d’Azur a few hours later. From that point on, the film will barely leave the grounds of what looks like a magnificent mansion. (Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie and production designer Emmanuelle Duplay classily showcase the luxury on display.) That said, appearances may be deceiving, and Jacqueline is quick to note that “the house is rotten, and the atmosphere, too.”

Though the cast is very large, Bruni Tedeschi and her team of female co-writers — Agnes De Sacy, Noemie Lvovsky and Caroline Deruas — establish all the characters and their relationships with just a few quick brushstrokes. In short, none of the characters seem really happy and over the course of the story, quite a few will fall apart —  or, at least in the case of Anna, further apart. 

The feature’s showpiece occurs toward the end of act one, when during an alfresco lunch ugly secrets are spilled about Anna’s childhood trauma involving “the finger,” which, even decades later, gets a tragically laconic response from her own mother, who justifies her reaction by recounting a childhood trauma of her own. The most moving revelation, though, comes from Golino’s Elena, who gives an impromptu speech about a terminated pregnancy that feels achingly sad and authentic. 

Unfortunately, the movie never quite reaches that level of emotional intensity again, as Bruni Tedeschi reverts back to exploring and showcasing lighter agonies, imperfections and eccentricities. The act of kissing becomes a cute leitmotif that zig-zags through the narrative, including for some of the oldest characters. But even though one of the visitors goes missing when they go swimming, The Summer House is finally more of a choral character piece than a narrative-driven drama. And because it would be impossible to develop that many characters in just over two hours, it is finally up to the actors to really breathe life into their creations. 

Though physically they don’t look much alike, Golino and Bruni Tedeschi are convincing as sisters with a long-standing rapport (they already co-starred in three other features, with the earliest dating from 2002). One of the lighter highlights is a lovely scene of them singing Nada’s "Che freddo fa" that's a rare moment of pure joy. More in general, singing and music bring the characters happiness, even if the heterogeneous music on the soundtrack occasionally injects more wistful notes. 

It is a bit surprising to realize that Bruni Tedeschi’s own role is one of the more underwritten ones, as Anna’s main occupation seems to be to try and get the absent Luca on the phone in short scenes that go from obsessive to simply repetitive. Raffaelli and Moreau manage to bring more shadings to their characters, even though they have less screen time.

The final scene, a sort of cinematic act of wishful thinking, does powerfully suggest what may be one of the attractions of making movies inspired by her own life for the actor-director. 

Production companies: Ad Vitam Production, Ex Nihilo, Bibi Film
Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Pierre Arditi, Valeria Golino, Noemie Lvovsky, Yolande Moreau, Laurent Stocker, Riccardo Scamarcio, Bruno Raffaelli, Marisa Borini, Oumy Bruni Garrel, Vincent Perez, Stefano Cassetti 
Director: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi 
Screenwriters: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Agnes De Sacy, Noemie Lvovsky, Caroline Deruas 
Producers: Alexandra Henochsberg, Patrick Sobelman, Angelo Barbagallo
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Caroline de Vivaise
Editor: Anne Weil 
Casting: Marion Touitou
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Playtime

In French, Italian, English
127 minutes