It may not offer anything particularly fresh when it comes to gay-themed cinema but Catherine Corsini’s new drama Summertime (La Belle Saison) manages to draw you in with its earnest storytelling and a couple of genuine performances from her lead actresses whose charm is irresistible from start to finish, thanks to their undeniable on-screen chemistry.
A classic summer-of-love tale where status quo vs. progress, family ties vs. personal happiness and the struggle to come out of the closet are the central themes, Summertime is set in the 70s and travels back and forth between Paris and the French countryside, making the most of its gorgeous cinematography and attentive period detail.
Delphine (Izïa Higelin) lives with her parents and helps them running the family farm, loving the countryside life but not the fact she can’t be herself out in the open. Whilst sneaking out in the dark to meet her secret girlfriend, only to find out she’s now getting married to a guy, Delphine has to dodge the timid yet not-so-subtle advances of country boy Antoine (Kévin Azaïs) who’s desperately in love with her. When the limits of her situation push her to seek out a new life in the city, Delphine moves to Paris and despite her desk job and living in a small room, she loves the freedom and the bustling energy around her.
One day she bumps into a group of girls who are carrying out a feminist protest and she helps the beautiful Carole (Cécile de France) to get away from a man who’s trying to attack her. It’s clearly love-at-first-sight, at least for our protagonist, and when Carole invites Delphine to the feminist group’s meetings, the girl believes Carole reciprocates her feelings only to find out she has a boyfriend. Yet, a stolen kiss reveals Delphine’s secret to Carole who at first is confused and takes some distance but eventually gives in to the idea of exploring a side of herself she didn’t know.
Just as their love is finally blooming, Delphine’s father has a stroke and she has no choice but return home to help her mother run the farm. Carole can’t stand her absence for long though and decides to reach her in the countryside. As easily imaginable, although Delphine tries her best to keep their relationship in the shadow, the truth is bound to find its way out and conflict of course ensues.
Corsini does a fantastic job at avoiding the easy way into melodrama and overall succeeds at giving an honest and authentic portrayal of what life would’ve been like for two women in love in France at the time. It’s of paramount importance for a period film to make the audience feel immersed in that setting and the filmmaker skillfully crafts both 70s Paris and farm life in the French countryside with savvy use of cinematography and production design. We get a vividly palpable sense of the era and a distinct feeling of the two worlds pulling Delphine in different directions.
Summertime may tell a story we’ve seen many a time before but has the merit of placing classic coming-of-age and coming-out themes within the more universal scope of our need to figure out what we really want out of life and if we’re brave enough to pursuit it. Delphine’s struggle to become open about her sexuality at the core is more about her struggle to admit to herself what’s the kind of life she wants to pursue. It’s not just about the contrast of old vs. new and abiding to family-related responsibilities vs. following a completely opposite path. Truth is Delphine loves running the farm and that’s a key element in her character’s journey that makes it way deeper than your average sexual identity and affirmation story.
The same goes for Carole who is an independent and sexually-liberated young woman fighting for the advancement of women’s rights, falling in love unexpectedly with another girl but in the end, having to figure out as well what’s her path in life. Both actresses are brilliant in their respective roles and impeccably sell both their characters’ individual arcs and their relationship with each other. The erotic scenes are exquisitely rendered, especially when framed in the bucolic setting and they’re always tasteful, even when rather explicit. Corsini’s graceful filming proves that less is more and that you don’t need a sex scene to last 20 minutes like recently seen in another French film, Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013) and probably, the fact a woman directed Summertime says a lot about the sensibility behind it.