Pawel Pawelikowski, Exploring the Unreal and The Dreamlike in “My Summer of Love”
by Erica Abeel
There sometimes circulates at film festivals an undercurrent of buzz quite independent of the loud praise awarded the “annointed” favorites. In Toronto 2004 this was the case with “My Summer of Love” from Pawel Pawlikowski, a Polish-born director based in the U.K., best known here for the 2001 “Last Resort,” and abroad for a series of idiosyncratic documentaries.
Concurrent with all the braying over Alexander Payne‘s “Sideways” — pre-sanctioned by the New York Film Festival — a discerning critical mass was falling head over heels for “My Summer.” A bidding war was sparked; distribs scented a film that, like “Swimming Pool,” exudes the kind of magic capable of seducing viewers from beyond the arthouse divide. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this movie, with its lesbian theme subverting the hot-teens-in-love genre, were to become this year’s swoony summer romance?
Set in a radiant West Yorkshire, “My Summer” (loosely adapted from a novel by Helen Cross) makes do with minimal plot. Two sixteen-year beauties at loose ends – spunky working class Mona and posh poseur Tamsin — form an intense friendship and fall in love. Their first meeting is stunningly conveyed through twinned shots of Mona’s eye, and the eye of Tamsin’s white steed rearing over her like in some 19th century romance. Casting a shadow over their rapturous summer is Mona’s older brother Phil, a former criminal and born-again Christian. Played with a feral volatility by the magnetic Paddy Considine (of “Last Resort“), Phil has converted the family pub into a spiritual center and is intent on mounting a giant cross on a hill overlooking town. The drama is triangulated when the Nietzche-spouting Tamsin (“God is dead,” she drolly informs Phil), is tempted to test his religious convictions.
But a bare-bones synopsis in no way conveys how gorgeously this film lives and breathes on screen — quite literally, feels blown forward through time, even in its fades and absences. Critics have seen in the film’s DNA elements of “Heavenly Creatures” (an influence the director vehemently disowns). Certainly, Tamsin, showing Mona through her luxurious Georgian manse and inducting her into a world of privilege and culture, echos Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder. Though perhaps the film’s manner comes closest to the dreamy ruminative rhythms of a “Ballade” by Pawelikowski’s compatriot, Frederic Chopin.
indieWIRE contributor Erica Abeel recently discussed these and other matters with the filmmaker (called back to England by a family emergency) over a speaker phone at the Regency Hotel.
indieWIRE: What drew you to this story?
Pawel Pawlikowski: Mona’s voice in the novel – I liked her humor, wit, cynicism and naivete. That she was in conflict with herself and her world.
iW: What did you, as a man, bring to a story about the passion of two girls?
PP: Well, the fascination that Mona experiences for Tamsin is hardly something that’s alien to me. And their relationship is not just specific to females. Though maybe females are more interesting, because their power games involve the imagination more. But then you get all kinds of sensitive men like myself.
iW: What part of you is in the film?
PP: I’m all three characters. I’ve been a Mona in my life many times, especially in my teens. And I have to admit to being a Tamsin, too, to a Mona — in different relationships we occupy different roles. I’ve been a Phil, too. I’ve struggled with faith — and am still strruggling. I inhabit and understand all three characters.
iW: How did you nurture the chemistry between these two relative unknowns, Nathalie Press [Mona] and Emily Blunt [Tamsin.]
PP: The first task was to cast well, and make sure there was chemistry between the two leads. The process took quite a long time. When I cast for the screen I have to get the feeling that the actor has the character they’re supposed to play lurking somewhere inside them. Screen acting is less about technique and the right look, than about the director intuiting, finding things inside the actors. After we had chosen Nathalie, I tested various Tamsins to see which one would feel best with her. Then we spent a lot of time rehearsing and workshopping, to facilitate natural performances.
iW: You’re known for your unconventional shooting style, refusal of a finished script and reliance on improv. Could you describe your method in this film?
PP: All the key scenes were written, like the Edith Piaf scene [where the girls, drunk on wine and each other, dance together], or where Tamsin seduces Phil. But some of the more textural scenes were written more sketchily, leaving room for new ideas — my brain never stops working and re-working. On rare occasions we improvised a scene into existence that wasn’t in the script at all. For example, when Mona shows Tamsin how men make love to women. That was the result of our thinking, what else can we do — “we” meaning Natalie and me — to make this rather static moment in the film more alive, offbeat, and memorable? Also: when Mona speaks with the voice of the devil – a scene that just occurred to me the night before, because I knew that Nathalie can do all sorts of comical voices. And traveling with Nathalie during the preparations, I noticed she does a lot of nervous doodling when she’s thinking – so I put that into the script in a scene where she draws Tamsin’s portrait on the wall. What I try to avoid in my films is the feeling of acting from a script. I wanted to sculpt the actors’ performance in such a way that it gives the effect of emerging in front of your very eyes. Of course it doesn’t happen spontaneously, but it should feel like that.
iW: Despite the class difference between the girls, you’re not aiming for the social realism often found in British films.
PP: I’m not interested in that kind of authenticity, but rather, a more unreal and dreamlike state. And I don’t want to be compared to directors who have a lot of spontaneous emoting and swearing in their films, and just let their operators capture that with hand held camera. It’s a cul-de-sac, it doesn’t lift the material at all. It’s just a cliched reproduction of what we think is normal behavior.
iW: You invented the character of Phil, who wasn’t in the novel. Why did you include him?
PP: I needed another strong character who would put Mona’s character and the girls’ relationship in a different context. And I needed to add something to the theme of enchantment.
iW: Are you trying to conflate Phil’s search for God and religion and Mona and Tamsin’s passion?
PP: There is a parallel, yes, but it’s not intended to be a comment about faith and love. Simply, both brother and sister are enchanted by something — one with a person, the other with the idea of God. And partly, Mona turns to Tamsin because she loves her brother, who’s become unreachable. And then the brother becomes fascinated by Tamsin too. Of course, Tamsin is also drawn to the brother — his masculine energy — and she’s tickled by the idea of finding faith, since she of course believes in nothing. It becomes quite a complicated web of emotions.
iW: You’ve been quoted as saying you aim to tell the story visually. How do you organize the film without the usual narrative underpinnings?
PP: A novel is the drama of consciousness — what people think and say to you, the reader. How do you externalize that? What works for me in film is the type of plot that doesn’t require too much information. Because what brings down most movies is information having to be fed into dialogue. To understand the plot you need to listen to a lot of bad dialogue that basically tells you how you get from A to B to C. Movies sink when too much information is being fed into the dialogue. But if you manage to tell a story that seems to move effortlessly in small strokes, that are visuals, yet keep adding to the dramatic tension, you can make cinema with it.
iW: So an example would be when the girls are lying on the overgrown tennis court, and the images progress from noon, to nighttime, to Mona watching Tam through a window eating dinner with her family?
PP: Exactly. Those scenes are strokes that build tension and character, but are not dependent on plot and information. When the plot is tenuous and simple, it allows you to create scenes which are richer, more ambiguous and more alive than scenes that merely serve the plot. That’s cinema for me.
iW: How did you arrive at some of those heartstopping images — like the long shot of the cross on the hill with a chimney on the bottom right?
PP: The secret of that shot, done with a 600mm lens, was we waited for the light to come down to a certain angle, and reflect itself in the flat surface of the cross. Then we underexposed slightly the rest of the landscape. I spent days and days location scouting, hiking with a camera and taking stills. Once you find the locations they become part of the film’s vocabulary, and you can invent a scene in terms of that place.
iW: What determined the film’s luscious palette?
PP: I wanted a film that would transcend the usual colors of the English countryside, which is usually shown in brown, green and grey, and half tones. In this film I wanted strong saturated colors. I wanted to “estrange” the landscape. Because the film was removed from every-day reality, dealing with elemental passions.
iW: Would it be fair to say your themes have a Slavic inflection?
PP: Yes, the characters who live in my head aren’t English.
iW: I thought of Turgenev—
PP: Good, not bad. The most intense period of my life was in my early teens when I lived in Poland. And later I developed a passion for the Russians — Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol. I always look for certain characteristics that I need for my hero. Mona hasn’t accepted the equation between time and money. Or her place in life. She’s the type of person who yearns for something that’s not available, and never will be. It’s definitely not anything material. She hasn’t quite accepted the kind of logic of life that you have in the West.
iW: Which filmmakers have influenced you?
PP: I don’t know about “influence,” but there are some filmmakers and films that just made me want to make films. I love Terence Malick — “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands.” And early Scorsese: “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets.” The Czech New Wave – early Milos Forman. And Polish filmmakers of the 50’s: “Ashes and Diamonds” [Andrzej Wajda] left a mark on me.
iW: Your background is primarily in documentaries. Do you prefer making features?
PP: No. And there’s not such a huge difference between the docs I made and feature films. I always try to distill my films into something very simple, but layered; show the world slightly against the grain, as something deeply ambiguous and full of mystery. The trouble is it’s hard to find money for the very personal type of docs I used to make [in the late 80’s and early 90s]. Now very few docs have esthetic merit. The whole Anglo Saxon tradition is either just following people around, verite style, or explaining stuff in words, using images and scenes as mere illustration.
iW: Any new projects?
PP: I’ve got two different scripts I’ve written and I’m waiting to see which one will get funding. I imagine it will be the cheaper one.
iW: Why did you make this movie?
PP: [Laughs] It’s not as simple as that, but I wanted to make a film about characters who are capable of love or faith, or at least attempt these things. Which are anachronistic. I want to immortalize people who haven’t lost the capacity to yearn. The aim is to salvage a certain image of humanity; reclaim some territory from the banality and materialism that surrounds us. And from simplistic fundamentalisms that are creeping up on us from all sides.