With this French-language adaptation of “Queen of Hearts,” the controversial “Fat Girl” filmmaker returns to the provocative power games that helped to earn her famous.
Review of “Last Summer”
It all started in the boy’s bedroom when Dad was out of town for work. L’enfant felt it was love, but to her, who was 30 or so years older, all the sex, deception, and audiotape were just a big mistake. She had given in to her wild nature and tried some… well, never mind.
The 2019 Danish drama “Queen of Hearts,” on which Catherine Breillat’s “Last Summer” is based, is a clear inspiration for the film, which is in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. However, the film’s most daring aspect is its departure from the more conventionally moralistic source, and especially Breillat’s refusal to call either party a parasite.
This thought-provoking domestic drama follows a middle-aged woman as she deals with the fallout from an affair she had with her stepson, who was 17 at the time. The affair was a betrayal of the woman’s marriage, her parental responsibilities, and her principles as an attorney.
Anne, portrayed by Léa Drucker (who played significantly more responsible parents in “Close” and “Custody”), is introduced defending a minor in a sex-crimes case, and she has the support of courageous producer Sad Ben Sad (“Elle”).
In an early scene with her husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), Anne makes the allegation that she is a “gerontophile.” Anne is very knowledgeable about the law. Although she says it in jest and with the intention of putting the older guy at ease, Breillat makes it abundantly obvious that this character does not have any special preference for teenage lads.
She is most definitely not a pedophile in the manner that movies so often portray, which is someone who has a reoccurring attraction to children and teenagers. The fact that she is absolutely taken aback by the direction in which her relationship with adolescent Théo (played by Samuel Kircher) goes makes the movie more compelling, as does the fact that the lad, who has an active love life with other people his age, does as well.
The unexpected nature of the prohibited turn in their connection adds to its danger; after all, who among us has not experienced an unforeseen and entirely irrational desire of some kind? Though Anne succumbs to the tabloid treatment, Breillat fights back (as Todd Haynes did earlier that week at Cannes with his film “May December”).
The director depicts sexuality without judgment, allowing audiences to react in any way other than the exploitative one we’ve seen in so many gender-reversed May-December movies, from “Stealing Beauty” to “Lolita.”
She actively challenges the male gaze by privileging female pleasure, while at the same time realizing that feminine pleasure may sometimes be problematic. Putting aside any questions about permission, the court would very probably consider this to be rape. This is a topic whose ambiguities have provided the filmmaker with a wealth of material to work with.
After over twenty years without releasing a picture, Breillat has finally given us the return we’ve been hoping for: a movie that, like “36 Gillette” and “Fat Girl,” addresses the confusing, impetuous, and all-too-often disastrous decisions that individuals make when love takes control.
The director chooses to present “Last Summer” from Anne’s point of view, which adds an additional subversive element to the experience by asking viewers to connect with Anne’s crime and then later with the cover-up that she orchestrates. During a brief but hot segment of the movie, Anne and Théo engage in some kind of clandestine intimacy by sneaking around behind the backs of the grownups in order to have sex.
At one point during their conversation, the lad pulls out a tape recorder (which seems rather archaic in this day and age of iPhones and sexting) and wants Anne to reveal specific information. She does this up until the questioning turn to their affair, at which time she shuts down because she is hesitant to confront the wrongdoings that she has already begun to excuse.
Drucker portrays Anne’s interactions with the youngster as if the time she spends with Théo causes her to regress to the same age she was when she was with him. Despite this, she is unable to silence the voice of duty that constantly nags at her. The fact that Théo doesn’t care whether Pierre finds out about their affair explains why things take a turn for the worst when he does. She is well aware of the potential consequences for both her marriage and her job. Suddenly, it’s Théo’s word against hers, and power games, which are the background of every sexual relationship, become the focal point of the conversation.
As the movie progresses, Anne adopts the role of a lawyer and vehemently denies and defends her actions, just as so many other unfaithful movie spouses have done in the past. In her opinion, it is the mature thing to do, in contrast to Théo’s evident immaturity (Kircher, who is the sibling of “Winter Boy” star Paul Kircher and is just as formidable a young acting talent). Kircher is an actor who is every bit as formidable as his brother.
Nevertheless, Breillat does not give her a pass that easily. “Queen of Hearts” carried the aftermath in a route that was more melodramatic, since it has been Breillat’s habit throughout their whole careers to address the unpleasant.
In this particular instance, it entails seeing Anne as she struggles to come to terms with the contradiction that exists between the beliefs she upholds (in her role as a lawyer, we see her rescue children from abusive circumstances) and the urges she acts on (most alarmingly in the closing scene, when Théo wants to restart their relationship).
Specifically in the latter sequences, when Anne’s fellow grownups deliberately determine what they’re ready to tolerate, the discrepancies between “Last Summer” and its source material help to expose Breillat’s fascinations as a director. The response may very well be “a lot more than most audiences,” bearing in mind the controversial director’s prior work.