It may seem reductive to compare French filmmaker Catherine Corsini’s “Summertime” (“La Belle Saison”) to the acclaimed “Blue is the Warmest Color” simply because both revolve around the ups and downs of lesbian lovers awakening to their mutual desires. But it goes much further than that: Both movies find a young, provincial woman falling for an older intellectual, while grappling with the means of expressing her identity, sexual or otherwise.
Though “Blue” casts this plight against a much broader landscape of events, “Summertime” — which mostly unfolds in 1971, against the backdrop of the burgeoning feminist movement — achieves a similar fusion of sensuality, tenderness and soul-searching.
At first, writer-director Corsini (“Three Worlds”) adopts a quietly unassuming approach to portraying the life of 23-year-old Delphine (Izïa Higelin), who lives in the French countryside with her stern parents, as they look down on her apparent inability to find a husband. “Loneliness is a terrible thing,” says her father as they plough the fields, and Delphine’s somber expression suggests she’s already figured out as much. In short order, she flees the parochial setting for Paris, where she’s swept up by the liberating energy of a local women’s rights group. Corsini and her cinematographer, Jeanne Lapoirie, effectively capture the energy of the counterculture with the swarming crowds of angry women singing folk songs and delivering stump speeches, while Delphine watches, entranced.
It’s here that she comes across 35-year-old Carole (Cécile De France), who initially seems to be off-limits: She’s settled into a cozy romance with her boyfriend and has no apparent regrets. But once the two women spend more time together, it doesn’t take long for their chemistry to deepen. While the development of their attraction feels a bit rushed, it also introduces an intriguing set of dueling challenges: Delphine has already come to terms with her homosexuality but attempts to hide it, whereas Carole never knew she harbored such appetites in the first place.
In any case, Corsini does a fine job of illustrating their evolving lust. Before long, the pair are munching crackers together, fully nude above the covers of Carole’s bed. In one of the more amusing moments, Carole marches out on her balcony to facetiously shout “Down with bourgeois society!” in her birthday suit, putting a playful emphasis on the liberation movement in question. The emerging focus becomes the personal developments that exist beyond the constraints of any given revolution.
That process comes to a head during the movie’s prolonged third act, when the casual fling becomes a passionate affair and Carole follows Delphine back to her parents’ home after her father suffers a stroke. Lying to Delphine’s suspicious mother (Noémie Lvovsky, like Corsini, an actor-director) about the nature of their relationship, the pair wander about in the woods and listen to lively music while writhing about naked in the grass. It’s all far too warm-hearted to last long, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that eventually Delphine’s conservative community begins to gossip, while the couple argue about whether or not to come clean.
But “Summertime” owes less to its plot development than the credibility of its performances among this trio of women as they present a fascinating set of conflicting perspectives. De France is a terrific firecracker of ideological energy, even as her cheery attitude belies deeper concerns about her romantic interests. As Delphine’s mother, the great Lvovsky presents a richly ambiguous portrait of a woman divided between her affections and traditional values. However, Higelin stands out as the movie’s true discovery, as she copes with a series of internal and external battles while struggling to find the words to express them.
By the time it arrives at the apex of its dramatic conflict, “Summertime” has gone through many of the same beats found in “Blue is the Warmest Color” without the elaborate focus on sexual communication. Yet even as a tamer narrative, “Summertime” never lags. Once problems arise from a potential local suitor interested in asking for Delphine’s hand, “Summertime” barrels toward a bittersweet train station climax that borrows one of the oldest clichés in the book — but the actors make it work, providing a welcome reminder that sometimes a typical scenario can offer plenty of emotional weight. However, it’s the movie’s epilogue, set in 1976, that brings the full thematic intentions of the material into focus. While abrupt, the closing scenes offer a comforting means of addressing the social progress at the heart of the movie: The semblance of a happy ending with the hint of new beginnings.
“Summertime” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.