Summertime (La belle saison)

France (2015) Dir. Catherine Corsini

It seems any French film dealing with lesbian relationships will incur hasty comparisons, or at least a cursory nod towards Blue Is the Warmest Colour. For actor-writer-director Catherine Corsini, her latest outing possesses only the barest of similarities, proving quite quickly to be substantial enough to stand tall on its own merits.

Set in 1971, country girl Delphine (Izïa Higelin) is enjoying a secret relationship with another girl who tires of the secrecy and agrees to marry to a man instead. Hurt and disillusioned, Delphine decides to leave the family farm and move to Paris, where she meets Spanish teacher and feminist activist Carole (Cécile De France), who has a boyfriend Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour) who supports her causes.

Regardless Delphine acts on an impulse and kisses Carole, who shocks herself by responding in kind. Just as things get going, Delphine learns her father Maurice (Jean-Henri Compère) has suffered a stroke, and she returns home to help her mother Monique (Noémie Lvovsky) run the farm. Carole decides to join her on the farm too but the change of scenery puts a strain on their relationship.  

Just to get this out of the way, Summertime may not scrimp on the nudity and occasional Sapphic shenanigans but is considerably less explicit (and therefore much shorter) than Warmest Colour. The shared material between both films is the cautious leap into the unknown for one of our lovestruck ladies and how the decisions they make affect both their futures in a profound way.

The period setting of the early 70’s gives the film a sobering edge in showing us just far society has, and in many cases hasn’t, progressed in terms of our attitudes towards homosexuality and feminism. This comes after the global sexual awakening of the Swinging Sixties and while Paris has the reputation of being the City of Love, some parts of it were still a slow to adapt.

Highlighting the issue of homophobia being a primary concern back then is the case of a young man whose parents had him committed to an asylum to be “cured” of being gay, the poor soul drugged into an inert stupor. While such bigotry still exists today, at least this kind of nonsense thankfully does not, so we have made some advances in being a more tolerant society.

Carole’s group’s feminist campaign goes beyond protesting and distributing pamphlets, namely slapping random men in the street on their bottoms as they run by. She may have been surrounded exclusively by other like-minded females but romantic or sexual relationships never entered her mind. Not that she would ever condemn such a thing, but her reaction to Delphine kissing her is one of typical shock from a straight person.

The irony of this, which Corsini and co-writer Laurette Polmanss explore in a measured and frank manner, is that at the centre of Carole’s belief in freedom. She fights for the freedom of women in society, the freedom for people to be who they are and live how they want; yet when she falls for Delphine she want the freedom to live with Manuel yet still be with Delphine, something he finds hard to consent.

Corsini is clever enough not to paint all men as chauvinists – Manuel is ostensibly an example of this. Instead she reflects the attitudes of the time and the traditions of the conservative rural community. Even in Paris, it is not men per se who are the targets of the women’s ire but the patriarchal society itself. Of course, intolerance is not limited to men and the fallout of Delphine and Carole’s union yields dissent from both genders.  

Thus the emotional strain is born once again from the notion of freedom. While Delphine wants freedom from the shackles of her family and the conservative standards of the community, Carole finds life on the farm constricting and the inability to be open about her relationship with Delphine an oppressive millstone. The question of sacrifice is raised but who has given the most to the other?

At its heart this is a probing human drama which explores the complexities of loving relationships and the foundations upon which they are built. The same sex aspect is an attention grabbing and serves to increase add further obstacles to be overcome than a straight couple would, and while Corsini could have stayed with the convention, this widens the scope of social commentary.

For all the sensationalism and mild titillation of the sex scenes there is a raw honesty about this physical intimacy which Warmest Colour chose to exploit. Corsini uses it to gives the film its naughtiness and romantic flavour as the pair snatch a quick snuggle in the cow shed or sneak into each other’s room after dark. Again, nothing too explicit is shown but we are given sufficient indication of how genuine their bond is.

It is also superbly shot and DOP Jeanne Lapoirie does a fantastic job in creating tactile atmosphere of the two clashing locations – the Paris scenes are full of vibrant quick edits and close-up camera work for that sense of fast pace living and social intimacy, while the countryside is presented in wide shots that linger, spartan colours and an almost palpable resonance of sweaty tranquillity.

Cécile De France has a few racy roles on her CV yet as Carole she is at her most bare emotionally. Her maturity and experience shines through in every nuanced movement whilst balancing the vulnerability of the character’s caprice. Izïa Higelin is actually a rock star in France with only a few acting credits but she acquits herself superbly in this bold role, working smoothly in tandem with De France.

Summertime doesn’t intend to solve any of the issues it raises but it does serve as a stark reminder of how the influence of a patriarchal and intolerant society’s attitudes can make all the difference to our lives, good and bad.