French provocateur Catherine Breillat returns with strange film about a transgressive sexual relationship between a middle-aged lawyer and her teenage stepson.
French provocateur Catherine Breillat is back with her first film in ten years. Adapted from the 2019 Danish film, Queen of Hearts, it is a dose of amusing hot trash in which a woman simply cannot stop having sex with her stepson. 51-year-old Léa Drucker plays Anne, a brilliant lawyer whose job is to protect children, unless they happen to be Théo (Samuel Kircher), her husband’s previously estranged 17-year-old son whose invitation back into his dad’s life comes with a side of dangerous liaisons.
Adding a queasy layer to the film is the fact that Kircher, like his character, was 17 at the time of a shoot that features full-bore sex scenes with a woman three times his age. This review is written with an awareness that we may be hearing more from Kircher about the experience over the decades to come, echoing Caroline Ducey, the star of Breillat’s explicit 1999 film Romance, who has gone public about her unpleasant experiences on set.
Which isn’t to say that Last Summer isn’t entertaining or nuanced. Anne is presented as a no-nonsense, bourgeois woman whose life all but gleams with respectability. Husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) is preoccupied with work and their sex-life is comfortable rather than erotic. When he starts to touch her, she asks if he wouldn’t rather rest. When he persists, she monologues through the entire tryst, telling him that she likes his lived-in body that has lost its youthful firmness. Anne and Pierre have adopted twin Asian-American girls whose happy energy forms a pleasant, irrelevant background buzz.
Théo is introduced as a teenage tearaway, he has a police record and is antagonistic towards his hitherto-absentee father. He and Anne’s illicit bond begins after he breaks into the family home and lets the blame fall on anonymous burglars. Anne figures out that it was him, but agrees not to tell Pierre on the condition that he joins in with family life.
There follows bucolic sequences that, at a squint, could pass as wholesome family bonding, as Anne, Théo and the twins go swimming in a river. The camera alerts us to the fact that things are not platonic by capturing the main protagonists in such intense close-up that it is obscene – drinking in the freckles that dot her entire body and filling the frame with his quivering scornful mouth.
There is a long build-up to their first kiss, and the sexual tension – I dearly regret to say – is palpable. Although most audience members will find their bodies screaming in objection, the fact of the initial transgression makes sense on a primal instinctual level.
Breillat utilises the grammar of comedy, couching this troubling affair as a big ‘Yikes, I had sex with my stepson again’ while Drucker draws on a hysterically shifty mode of performance. She – allegedly a brilliant lawyer – is moronic before Théo’s wildcard seductiveness. He is presented solely through Anne’s eyes as, alternately, irresistible and a danger to the stability of her family life. We are never invited to see from his point of view. He is a cipher, a Lolita perceived by Humbert Humbert at his most deranged with arousal.
Although Breillat tells this tale through Anne’s eyes, she is not uncritical of her leading lady, revealing her to be capable of irredeemable monstrosity. Hints are scattered about the film of an early trauma that may have forged an ambivalent approach to sex. But details are deliberately left vague.
Romance was about a young teacher compensating for the lack of sex in her relationship by entering increasingly dangerous scenarios with kinky strangers. Last Summer is a companion piece to this where the danger comes not from random horndogs, but from the professional and domestic ruin that will follow if Anne’s liaison with Théo becomes public knowledge.
Breillat routinely kneecaps her own stakes by using outrageous comic swerves that, while reaping the pleasure of a shocked laugh, means that the film is evasive, avoiding taking a position on its central relationship beyond: these things can happen. She is infamous for taking a frank approach to taboo subjects so it tracks that she is still pushing the bounds of conventional morality.
In one scene, Anne is berated by Pierre for not showing up to a social event with their friends. (She has been out getting drunk and flirty with Théo). With pure scorn, she barks back that she doesn’t care how things look to “normpaths.” This line may as well be Breillat firing early shots at critics who question her passionate depiction of a troubling relationship. History will be the judge of whether she comes out on top.
Published 26 May 2023