When it comes to crafting intense, serious-minded movies that really do justice to the disruptive and soul-shaking experience of falling in love, few filmmakers do it like filmmakers working in France do it these days. The Closing Night film in this year’s BFI Flare festival, Catherine Corsini’s superb Summertime (La Belle Saison) is another case in point, delicately and intelligently presenting the romance that develops between two women in the early 1970s.
Delphine (Izïa Higelin) is a country girl who’s diligently worked on her family farm for years but who’s enjoying a taste of independence and freedom in Paris. There, during a feminist protest, she meets Carole (Cécile de France), an older woman who’s in a relationship with a man but who’s gradually swept up by Delphine’s passion for her. But when Delphine’s father suffers a stroke, and she returns to the farm and a way of life she still feels deeply connected to, the women’s relationship is tested, to stay the least.
A (sometimes explicit) love story between two women of contrasting goals, backgrounds and temperaments caught up in mutual attraction, Summertime’s obvious reference point is Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Corsini’s movie definitely seems to have taken some inspiration from that film thematically and also stylistically (note the camera’s lingering gaze on Delphine as she smokes or reads alone in the early scenes).
Yet Summertime carves out its own identity as it progresses and involves the viewer on its own terms. The opening Paris-set scenes are a little bit too insistent in demonstrating that Second-Wave Feminism Was Fun: happy and giggling, Carole and her sisters take to the city streets to stage protests and interventions scored to Janis Joplin tracks. But the love story develops compellingly, and the film really hits its stride when Carole joins Delphine for a visit at the family farm, the two women keeping the true nature of their relationship hidden from Delphine’s quiet and watchful Mother (Noémie Lvovsky) , who’s briefly – and very touchingly – liberated by Carole’s restless presence, as the three work side by side on the farm. (The farm scenes suggest a version of the feminist utopia Carole’s promoted - but not a version she’d want to hang around in for too long.)
For those of us who’ve been used to seeing de France short-haired and self-contained in films such as The Singer and The Kid With A Bike, her passionate performance here is a pleasurable surprise. She’s well-matched by the excellent Higelin who makes Delphine a compelling – sometimes frustrating – mixture of forthrightness and reticence. And after Haynes’s Carol, which blanded out Highsmith’s knotty characters to a disappointing degree, it’s refreshing to see a film that recognises that two women in love aren’t magically exempt from the selfishness, casual cruelty and communication failures to which all relationships are subject.
In a scene whose significance isn’t realised until the film’s sublime final moments, Delphine talks about the boggy terrain of her native land, the way it seems to hold her back, the way she sinks into it. A number of recent films – from John Crowley's Brooklyn to Lamberto Sanfelice’s Chlorine - have focused on the rites of passage of young women faced with a choice between familial responsibility and desire for something different: a choice that’s been defined in these movies as a choice about place. Summertime is a distinguished addition to that company. A distinction between country and city life is also at the heart of this movie, but Corsini is balanced in her presentation of it, showing the seductions and drawbacks of both urban and rural spaces in gay experience. And unlike Brooklyn, whose conclusion felt contrived and fake to me, Corsini judges her ending perfectly here, building the drama to a heart-rendingly poignant finale that’s truly worthy of this most beautiful and believable of love stories.
Summertime screens at BFI Flare on 26 and 27 March.