Review: Warm Burst of Romantic Bliss in ‘Summertime’


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Izïa Higelin, left, and Cécile de France in “Summertime.”

Credit
Strand Releasing

Delphine and Carole meet in Paris in the early ’70s, a time of post-’68 agitation and fertile ground for French filmmakers mining their nation’s recent history for resonant stories. Catherine Corsini’s “Summertime,” with the clarity of hindsight and a deep reservoir of empathy, examines the commingling of the personal and the political from a fresh angle. This is a film about the struggle for sexual freedom and women’s rights, and also about the power of region, class and custom in the lives of its characters.

Carole (Cécile de France), a professor of Spanish literature and a political activist, is part of a feminist group organizing for equal pay, abortion rights and access to contraception. Delphine (Izïa Higelin), who is younger and less worldly — like someone in a 19th-century novel, she has come to the capital from the countryside — is intrigued by the group’s militant energy, but mostly she is drawn to Carole. They fall in love and experience a giddy burst of liberation and romantic bliss that is complicated when Delphine is called home by a family emergency.

Comparisons between “Summertime” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” — Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial and acclaimed tale of lesbian love — are inevitable and instructive. Ms. Corsini’s film is shorter and less sexually explicit, but the salient difference is that she doesn’t set her heroines’ relationship apart from the rest of their lives, even though they are sometimes compelled to keep it secret. Another way to say this is to note that “Summertime” is committed to feminism in a way that “Blue” is not. It insists that female desire can be understood only in relation to the larger social question of women’s freedom. This is still a radical proposition, in France and elsewhere.

How free are Carole and Delphine? Is one freer than the other? The answers are not as simple as they might seem at first. Carole may be older and more sophisticated, but Delphine has a clearer sense of her own sexuality, and in Paris, she seduces Carole away from her mopey, half-woke boyfriend. But when the scene shifts to Delphine’s family farm in Northern France, the dynamic between the two lovers shifts as well. Delphine is both in her element — she moves with more confidence and ease amid the tractors and livestock than on crowded city streets — and at risk of exposure. Carole, with her chic clothes and intellectual airs, seems less serious than she did among her fellow militants in Paris.

Ms. Corsini, whose previous films include “Leaving” (2010) and “La Repetition” (2001), has a subtle sense of character and an observant, easygoing way with actors. While the physical contrasts between Ms. de France and Ms. Higelin are striking, the differences of temperament and background that separate their characters rarely feel simplified. And perhaps the most memorably complex performance in the film belongs to Noémie Lvovsky as Delphine’s mother, Monique, whose inscrutable, stoical face is full of untold stories and unexpressed longing.

Carole sometimes looks at Monique with pity, seeing her as the uncomplaining victim of patriarchal oppression. While “Summertime” doesn’t entirely contradict this view, treating male domination as an unfortunate fact of rural life, it doesn’t use Delphine’s family to score easy ideological points. Delphine loves Carole, but she also loves her parents. More than that, her connection to the land is a powerful source of her identity. As the summer advances, the contours of a terrible, inevitable choice become clear, and a cold blast of reality intrudes on the warmth and sunshine of a beautiful romance.

“Summertime” is not rated. It is in French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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