‘Last Summer’ Review – The Mechanisms of Taboo / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


If you need a film with controversial or taboo subject matter to contort itself in order to express negative judgement on the fictional characters’ behaviour, Last Summer may not be for you. But it may not just be French provocateur Catherine Breillat’s newest film that you find affronting—she’s made a career of shocking narratives of abuses of power, youthful naivety, and forbidden intimacies coming from unexpected places. Her latest centres on an illicit and passionate affair between a middle-aged woman and her teenage stepson, and how harmful their efforts to reinstate or resist nuclear family order end up being.

The fact that Breillat’s first film in 10 years is a remake of a very recent original work (the Danish Queen of Hearts, directed by May el-Toukhy) may disappoint subscribers to her most original brand of taboo—and yes, there are many subscribers. The effectiveness of her greatest hits (Fat Girl, Romance, Anatomy of Hell) has always been debated in critical circles, but even her most divisive works have their fair share of devotees.

Hopefully no Breillat-heads are further disheartened by initial reports of Last Summer’s relative tameness. Despite the film featuring no sudden bursts of violence, there is an ugly psychological knot present in every scene, pulled taut every time Anne (Léa Drucker) and 17-year-old Théo (Samuel Kircher) orbit each other—emphasised by unflinching close-ups, sharp cuts, and the lack of a score underlining how we’re supposed to feel.

Of course, Breillat is an artist so creatively uninterested in telling us how we’re supposed to feel, and has built a career of telling stories that undermine how intimacy and relationships are supposed to conform. What if—her films ask so obtrusively and craftily—one could find intimacy and even eroticism in the most dangerous places? The answer is not “you should react like this,” but instead a flashpoint from which all sorts of twisted emotional conclusions and contradictions appear.

Théo is an unruly guest for his father Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), lounging about the home he shares with Anne, usually smoking indoors with his eyes glued to his phone, and rarely wearing a shirt. His insolence is clearly too much for his too-often distant father to remedy, and Breillat’s camera more than once lingers on Rabourdin’s face, expertly expressing awareness of his own parental inadequacies. Anne’s attraction is clear: having never raised a teenager, she’s more affected by the spirited flame of youth, but charmed by the teenager’s geniality with her and Pierre’s two adopted daughters (Serena Hu and Angela Chen).

These would be the ingredients for a typical romance if the lovers’ dynamic wasn’t so deeply troubling. Breillat wisely treats the scenes preceding the affair with a calm patience, maximising the audience’s confusing and alarming reactions without ever overplaying the scandal or danger. The director still calls our attention to the power dynamics that rule Anne’s life (and in many ways, favour her); the opening scene shows Anne at work as a criminal lawyer, where she grills a young rape victim to simulate the gruelling cross-examination her client will undergo.

“This is the true violence at the heart of the film: how power imbalances are so readily dismissed until they prove useful to protecting one’s interest.”

Anne understands how power dynamics between the mature and the vulnerable can be leveraged. While it may not be overtly signposted, Anne does not solely operate in two clearly separated modes of “reckless desire” and “sensible maturity.” Her experience and understanding of both mean her urges can always be interpreted as carefully calculated. If she acts like a teenager when she’s infatuated with Théo, and acts like an adult when her adult authority is being threatened, then she’s much more in control of her behaviour than she’d like to let on.

Last Summer bears some similarity to her 2001 film Brief Crossing, where a married woman shares a confessional, overnight tryst with a 16-year-old during the course of a ferry crossing the English Channel. There, the taboo love takes place in a hermetically sealed world, not grounded in any country, and regular life proceeds seamlessly the minute she steps off the boat. Last Summer revisits the relationship archetype with similar motives—a woman disaffected with marriage, drawn to a reminder of what sex and attraction used to mean to her—but with a more matured thematic focus.

This time, Breillat concerns us with the structures that rule Anne and Théo’s lives, and the codes of silence needed in order to maintain familial normalcy. Anne may have more to lose if her scandalous affair comes to light, but she also holds far more power than her stepson should he attempt to out her. This is the true violence at the heart of the film: how power imbalances are so readily dismissed until they prove useful to protecting one’s interest.

Breillat herself has made it explicitly clear she does not consider Anne’s behaviour towards Théo predatory, nor does she think their relationship is abusive. She wanted to shift the perspective of Queen of Hearts not to something more morally ambiguous, but to something more open and non-judgemental—but this choice inevitably invites more complications that can be frustrating or rewarding to unravel.

Responding to Last Summer in no way aligns you with Breillat’s reading of the relationship. But the way she frames and explores the queasy or romantic nature of the relationship does open us up to emotions and thoughts that we would not intentionally seek out. It is the ideal definition of fiction provoking us.

We do not have to align with the ideology of the characters, or even in our interpretation of the filmmaker’s, in order to be affected by art; a film’s success is about how effectively and artfully a perspective is made available for all to access and dissect. Even though we may subscribe to the thought that Anne is abusive, completely messed-up, and dangerous to be around, we only think so because of Breillat’s fine dramatic skill.

Read our exclusive interview with Catherine Breillat here.

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