Dir: Philippe Garrel. France-Italy-Switzerland 2010. 95mins


Even Rome in high season fails to warm up the turmoil of amour fou in That Summer, the latest chamber piece from veteran French director Philippe Garrel. The film’s French title Un Eté brûlant translates as ‘A Burning Summer’, but for all the awkward smouldering done by Monica Bellucci, the drama proves a dispiritingly tepid experience.

Bellucci and Garrel show their acting limitations quite damagingly at times never remotely work up any of the chemistry required to convince us that these characters are a couple.

Unlike the director’s widely liked 2004 drama Regular Lovers, this Venice competition entry is unlikely to generate much heat internationally, despite the normally bankable presence of Bellucci and art-house heartthrob Louis Garrel.

The film begins promisingly, and atmospherically, with a young man, Frédéric (Garrel) pacing about moodily, before taking a late night drive that ends with a dramatic crash – after which narrator Paul (Robart) reveals in voice-over that Frédéric has died, in what was clearly a suicide bid. Intercut with this is what must count as the film’s money shot – a long take of a naked Bellucci, reclining like Manet’s Olympia, gesturing alluringly to camera (or rather, to Frédéric, apparently resisting her invitation).

Paul’s intermittent narration establishes how he, a struggling actor, came to know Frédéric, a painter living in Rome with his wife Angèle (Bellucci), a film actress. Paul himself scores a bit part on a war drama about the French Resistance – nicely evoked in a tight pastiche that’s among the film’s better sequences – on which he clicks romantically with another performer, Elisabeth (Sallette).

Paul and Elisabeth visit Frédéric and Angèle in their more-than-comfortable Rome apartment, where, initially, they have a great time – the women bonding emotionally, while radical Paul tries to convince blasé, blocked Frédéric about the ideals of revolution. But things start to go wrong after a party at which Angèle dances, in an energetic one-shot sequence, with an admirer - to Frédéric’s jealous displeasure.

It turns out that she’s been seeing other men, while Frédéric frequents hookers, and once this revelation is made, the summer turns into a sequence of moping and recriminations, with Angèle going off with her new lover. The visiting couple, meanwhile, simply stick around and look on, politely bemused.

The film gradually works up a melodramatic head of steam, to sometimes risible effect. Angèle blows her top while performing in a ludicrously stiff costume drama, while Frédéric gradually mopes himself into a state of sullen inertia.

The film certainly doesn’t lack visual elegance, shot by Willy Kurant with an eye to warm colour that often compensates for the dramatic coolness. Bellucci and Garrel show their acting limitations quite damagingly at times – the latter barely able to do more than look either petulantly bored or miserable as sin - and the pair never remotely work up any of the chemistry required to convince us that these characters are a couple.

Support players Robart and Sallette – the former affably casual, the latter hugely watchable, with a disarming waif-like charisma – manage to offset the balance somewhat. But the most vivid presence here is Frédéric’s dead grandfather, who makes a ghostly appearance in the final stretch. He’s played by Maurice Garrel, Louis’s real-life grandfather and the director’s father, who himself died earlier this year, and who brings a dash of seasoned authority into the proceedings.

John Cale’s spare, piano-based score is modestly apposite, if over-used.

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, Faro Film, Prince Film

International sales: Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.eu

Producers: Edouard Weil, Conchita Airoldi, Giorgio Magliulo, Pierre-Alain Meier

Screenplay: Philippe Garrel, Marc Cholodenko, Caroline Deruas-Garrel

Cinematography: Willy Kurant

Editor: Yann Dedet

Production designer: Manu de Chauvigny

Music: John Cale

Main cast: Monica Bellucci, Louis Garrel, Céline Sallette, Jérôme Robart