By Madeleine Wall.
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).
It’s always the old scandals that we return to, unresolved problems in need of resolution. From the ancient Greek tragedies of Euripides to the high school canon via Racine through the more recent explosion of interest in the plays of Sarah Kane, the figure of Phaedra is cursed by divine intervention to fall in love again and again with her stepson Hippolytus. It’s not incest—a cold comfort—but still a desire that, in the myth, leads to the destruction of both her and her entire family. In each iteration, though, something changes, and each era gets a version of the story to call its own.
This year, the ever-industrious Saïd Ben Saïd has commissioned Catherine Breillat—for the 75-year-old director’s first film since 2013’s autobiographical Abus de faiblesse—not to specifically reimagine the story of Phaedra à la her other literary adaptations, but rather to remake May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, in which a successful lawyer has an affair with her adolescent stepson. The intricacies of desire and social taboos are familiar territory for Breillat, and she complicates the story’s ancient dynamics with a film of multi-pronged violations.
We are introduced to Anne (Léa Drucker) as she practices an interrogation with an underaged girl who is about to take the stand as the victim in a sexual assault case, the middle-aged lawyer seen in medium close-up as she intently watches her client. Anne’s world is structured around rape and its consequences, and doing what she can to shield her clients after the fact. The cases that we are shown centre on vulnerable young women, with Anne carefully navigating the legal system for them. In the opening, she warns the girl that, on the stand, the victim often becomes the accused—a vulnerability that extends to systems outside the courtroom as well.
Anne spends her summer in a beautiful country home with her financier husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), and their two adopted daughters. Pierre is loving but often absent, and their biggest issues are anxieties about aging. Their idyll is disrupted by the appearance of Pierre’s adolescent son from his first marriage, Theo (Samuel Kircher), who has come to live with them after getting kicked out of school. The 17-year-old Theo is in the tradition of Tadzio in Death in Venice: beautiful and unblemished, eyes covered by hair and mouth always half-open. He’s introduced to us shirtless, his boldness balanced between precociousness and naïvete. He spars initially with Anne and the home she has created, his rough presence contrasting sharply with his hostess’ form-fitting white dresses (accessorized always with a glass of wine in hand).
It is only after Anne discovers that their home has been robbed—though, in French, “viole” is a synonym for multiple kinds of trespasses—and that Theo was responsible, that the pair enter into a kind of complicity. She agrees to hide the boy’s crimes from his father if he makes an effort to join the family. Watching this teenage boy play with her daughters, Anne joins in, with the unfair advantage of an adult playing childhood games. She plays to win: Breillat and Drucker imagine Anne as a woman obsessed with control. There is genuine warmth to her splashing around in the river with her children, but she cannot, at any point, cede the advantage.
Gradually, Anne and Theo grow closer—she lets him give her a stick-and-poke tattoo as he strokes her arm; she abandons a party to have a drink with him at a bar. Both are flattered by the attention the other provides. The relationship inevitably becomes sexual, and as he kisses her for the first time, their faces seem fused together as the shot is held uncomfortably long. Breillat then cuts to Theo on top of Anne, and we watch her watch him have sex with her, looking up as he gradually reaches orgasm. These are the same medium close-ups from the earlier interrogation scene, though, while Anne is passive on her back, the action is directed by her gaze.
Anne insists that nothing like this encounter can ever happen again, but of course it does, until they’re caught by her sister. Though Theo is clearly a willing participant, I’m reminded of a line from Louise Gluck’s “The Myth of Innocence”: “But ignorance / cannot will knowledge. Ignorance / wills something imagined, which it believes exists.” Theo is demanding, but there are moments of childish stumbling. After the discovery, when Anne breaks their relationship off, Theo can only reply that he’ll “date plenty of hot girls to make her jealous.” The adult understands that this must remain a secret, but the adolescent doesn’t, and Breillat frames Theo as a ticking time bomb, constantly looming over Anne and Pierre in menacing configurations.
Theo and his father go on a trip alone for the weekend, and tensions mount for Anne, who must continue the normal care of their daughters. Pierre returns alone, clearly knowing what has happened, and there is a remarkable scene where the two go about a regular evening. The priority for the couple is their family and their life together, and this confession must wait until the girls have gone to bed. Theo’s confession is told to us secondhand, by Pierre, who explains that while he was offering an apology for not being present for the quotidian moments of Theo’s childhood, his son broke down. Just as in the courtroom, though, Anne knows how to navigate the adult world in ways her husband and lover do not. Anne insists that Theo is lying, and Pierre picks the easier path of siding with her, despite knowing the truth.
It would be easy to make Anne a straightforward predator, but that would be less interesting for Breillat, who, as ever, eschews political correctness. Anne speaks of her sexuality as being defined by the AIDS epidemic, and she heavily alludes to her own sexual assault when she was young; frankly, one does not get into the kind of work she does by being a tourist. The life she has with Pierre and the girls was created to protect herself from the very world she engages with on a professional level. Theo has tried, and tries again, to destroy the quotidian contentment of Anne’s life, but finds out that filial ties are worth less than keeping the nuclear family intact. As the parents confront Theo for “lying,” we see only his face, again in medium close-up. Listening to these betrayals from his own father and also the woman he loves, the feelings of disbelief flicker quickly across his face. It’s a moment akin to a sequence in Breillat’s Bluebeard (2009) where a child enters a forbidden room, leaving footprints in the blood on the floor, having taken on more than she could have possibly understood. There will be consequences for Theo, but not for Anne, whose dalliance can be forgiven, though not forgotten—a happier ending than Phaedra’s, although Breillat ensures that this happiness remains tainted. There is an insurmountable gap between the world of children and the world of adults, that adolescence can only try to bridge; L’été dernier is about what falls through.
Catherine Breillat, France, Last Summer