Overview: In the wake of a breakup, a young woman from the country moves to Paris, where she joins up with a group of feminist activists and begins a relationship with one of its leaders. Strand Releasing; 2016; Not Rated; 105 minutes.
Here, Queer, etc.: So much of queer cinema is consumed by trepidation – that slow and cautious build-up to The Moment Of Discovery is often effective but painfully commonplace – that it’s nice when a film comes along that gets straight to the point. Unlike so many of its contemporaries, Catherine Corsini’s Summertime isn’t about a journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening. The main character, Delphine (Izïa Higelin), begins the film at the end of a relationship with another woman. Delphine has security and confidence in her sexuality that you would hardly ever see in a character prior to just a few years ago, much less a character whose perspective the film inhabits.
With a certain slyness, Summertime embodies particular tropes of popular queer narratives and turns them on their head. In the opening scene, Delphine tells her father that she doesn’t want to get married, a phrase for which, in this instance, the word “loaded” seems insufficient. But the film immediately clarifies that this isn’t a matter of confusion or self-obliviousness. She’s kissing her girlfriend in the very next scene. When she joins a group of feminist activists and protesters, she isn’t drawn to a passionate beauty who becomes her guide on the road to sexual self-awareness, as is so often the case. Instead, she plays that role herself, guiding a woman named Carole (Cécile de France) towards a greater understanding of her sexuality. Queer film has been lacking stories told from this particular perspective, and Summertime is eager to fill that niche.
Handheld Hand Holds: It’s not just in terms of narrative that Summertime re-evaluates and enhances popular cinematic constructs. It also does so, well, cinematically. Corsini makes use of a recognizable 2010s indie visual language – a handheld camera embedded within crowds, finding faces in close-up and letting dialogue drive the scene’s rhythm. Corsini takes things a step further. She uses dialogue as a backdrop rather than a motivator. The camera will find Delphine and Carole sitting quietly while the people around them talk, focusing on their body language, their wordless communication. The film is all about that sort of subtle physicality, and Corsini is confident enough to avoid drawing unneeded attention to it. The movement of two lovers’ clasped hands as they’re pulled swiftly apart so no one will see them takes up very little screen real estate, but it still communicates a powerful emotion. Much of the credit here goes to Higelin, who gives a monumental performance built of the tiniest physical motions.
That emotion is fear, by the by. The back half of Summertime takes place in Delphine’s rural hometown, where people are about as open-minded as you might expect. Delphine and Carole continue their relationship, but every moment is overshadowed by Delphine’s fear of being found out. Here, the film again subverts the norms of queer cinema. It almost tells the traditional gay romance narrative in reverse. The film would normally start here, having her escape this oppressive environment and become liberated by city life. But that all-too-recognizable fear is all the more potent when it comes from a character who has been established as so self-assured. Summertime at times seems like a mirror-universe version of a gay romance film, making it an emotionally compelling and cinematically engaging experience.
Overall: Summertime’s unique narrative structure is buoyed by confident direction and stellar lead performances.
Summertime is being shown at the Reel Q film festival this week: http://reelq.org/festival/2016-festival-reel-q-31/