Catherine Breillat’s Competition title explores the fallout of an affair between a woman and her teenage stepson

Last Summer

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘Last Summer’

Dir/scr: Catherine Breillat. France. 2023. 104mins

A successful lawyer with a wealthy husband and two adopted daughters, Anne (Léa Drucker) has everything to lose. But that doesn’t stop her from embarking on a steamy illicit affair with her troubled 17-year-old stepson, Theo (Samuel Kircher), after he moves into their home in the leafy suburbs of Paris. The relationship soon sours and, when Theo confesses the details of the affair to his father, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), Anne snaps into defensive mode, bringing the considerable force of her manipulative skills to an increasingly volatile and uncomfortable situation. Despite the suitably transgressive nature of the subject matter, Catherine Breillat’s first film in a decade is an oddly muted affair: uncomfortable, certainly, but lacking the disruptive, confrontational jab and genuine shock factor of her earlier pictures.

Lacking the disruptive, confrontational jab and genuine shock factor of Breillat’s earlier pictures

The film is an adaptation of May el-Toukhy’s multi-award-winning Danish film Queen Of Hearts, which starred Trine Dyrholm in the lead role and which utilised its longer running time to explore more deeply the twists and treachery of a narcissistic female predator. Breillat’s version, while not superficial exactly, does seem to skimp on some of the character details, motivations and background to this torrid bout of amour fou. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to question the timeline of this incest-adjacent encounter, but it all moves disconcertingly rapidly, skipping through a couple of scenes of skin-tingling sexual tension before proceeding directly to the bedroom. Last Summer should be a title of interest on the festival circuit – it is, after all, Breillat’s first film since her autobiographical account of being targeted by a conman, Abuse Of Weakness, in 2013. But it seems less likely that this version of the story will match the profile and awards haul of the original.

Anne, in her own mind at least, is one of the good guys. She fights for the rights of young people in court; she intervenes to call child services when her gut tells her that there is an immediate threat to one of her clients. All of which makes the disconnect between her professional self and her private conduct even more jarring. This is deliberate, of course, but the screenplay rather skates over the surface of her delusions and her fearsome self-interest.

Instead, Breillat leans on the costume and design choices. Anne’s wardrobe – immaculate shift dresses in laundry-challenging shades of ivory and cream – speaks of a woman who has assumed control over every aspect of her life, someone who is unlikely to tolerate mess. But she also has a rebellious streak. She drives a vintage Mercedes convertible, she criticises her crashing bore of a husband for his conventional nature or “normopathy”; she subscribes to what she describes as her “vertigo theory” – that she has an impulse to chuck herself off a metaphorical cliff just because it’s there. The music choices – several tracks by uber-cool ex-Sonic Youth rock chick Kim Gordon – also contribute to our understanding of the character of Anne, who is part of the establishment, but also kicking against it.

All this partly clarifies why Anne assumes that she will get away with her actions, but it falls short of explaining the affair itself. Breillat’s camera lingers on the sensual beauty of the sullen Theo, and Kircher delivers an insouciant, seductively heavy-lidded performance. The space between the characters is increasingly loaded with sexual tension. Even so, it is something of a jump to believe that the characters would act on their desire. And all the uncomfortably overlong scenes of breathless, panting abandon fail to convince otherwise.

Production company: SBS Productions

International sales: Pyramide International

Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd

Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Editing: François Quiqueré 

Production design: Sébastien Danos

Music: Kim Gordon Body/Head

Main cast: Léa Drucker, Olivier Rabourdin, Samuel Kircher, Clotilde Courau