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‘Last Summer’ Review: Catherine Breillat’s Stepmom Seduction Story Bends the Boundaries



Like some of her most memorable films, including 36 Fillette, Romance, Sex is Comedy and Anatomy of HellFrench writer-director Catherine Breillat’s new feature, Last Summer (L’Été dernier), dangerously straddles borders between unnerving drama, dark comedy and erotic exploitation — which is precisely the place the director wants to be.

On the surface, the plot seems to come right out of a softcore stepmom flick, following a successful lawyer, Anne (Léa Drucker), having an illicit affair with her stepson, Théo (Samuel Kircher), a rebellious 17-year-old who looks like a camera stand-in for Timothée Chalamet. But while the film might follow that template at first blush, including a handful of rather direct sex scenes, Breillat is after something other than mere Skinemax fodder, probing the depths of desire among a bourgeoisie constrained to live out dull, cold existences, and the Manipulation that can happen between two lovers with a significant age gap.

Last Summer

The Bottom Line

Only in France.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Léa Drucker, Samuel Kircher, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, Serena Hu, Angela Chen
Director, Screenwriter: Catherine Breillat

1 hour 44 minutes

Premiering in competition at Cannes, Last Summer feels like the salacious French cousin to Todd Haynes’ May December, which played earlier in the festival and chronicled the long and controversial relationship between a teenage boy and a woman twice his age. But while Haynes was interested in how such a love story could shock the American mindset and yet sustain itself over time, Breillat’s more destructive instincts search for how it can wreak havoc on comfortable lives — less because of the major age differences than because of social conventions. that both constrain and compel.

The story, which Breillat adapted from the 2019 Danish movie Queen of Hearts, is also a very Gallic take on the thorny topic of sexual abuse — which, not at all by coincidence, is what the hardworking and combative Anne specializes in at her law firm. During the film’s opening scene, she tells a young female client, who’s hired her for a rape case, that the “victim sometimes becomes the accused” — and much of Last Summer is about how that applies first to Anne, and then to teenage Théo, who moves into the spacious country home where Anne lives with the young man’s father, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin).

A chain-smoking lanky bad boy who was arrested for punching a prep school teacher back in Switzerland, where he was residing with his mother, Théo idles away his time prancing around the house bare-chested and pulling as many resting bitch faces as possible. He is, however, a rather fun-loving older brother to Pierre and Anne’s totally cute adopted daughters, Serena (Serena Hu) and Angela (Angela Hu), but seems to harbor a real hatred for his dad, a tight-lipped businessman with constant financial worries.

The setting is thus ripe for Théo to seduce Anne in order to spite Pierre, or just because he’s bored, and it doesn’t take much time for stepson and stepmom to start frolicking around the countryside and, eventually, between the sheets. There are three long-ish sex sequences in the film, each of them shot in close-up — unlike many Breillat movies, there is hardly any nudity here — and each one reveals one character getting pleasure at the expense of another. In the first, it’s Pierre over Anne in a scene without any passion whatsoever. In the second, it’s Théo having an outrageously demonstrative orgasm when he first sleeps with his stepmom. In the third, Anne finally gets her due.

In Breillat’s twisted world, desire is not something mutually shared but rather stolen from someone else or forced upon them, often when they’re at their most vulnerable. (The title of the director’s last, highly autobiographical feature was Abuse of Weakness.) At first, it seems Théo is taking advantage of Anne’s stalled love life through his killer looks and sinister charms. But as Last Summer progresses, the tide gets reversed and Anne more clearly gains the upper hand, using her legal cunning to box Théo into a corner.

A regular Hollywood movie would turn the third act into a Fatal Attraction-type thriller, and although Breillat leans in that direction at times, introducing tape recordings and lawsuits, she’s far too transgressive to go there. By taking charge of her own libido, Anne risks damaging both Théo and the increasingly vulnerable Pierre, and we start wondering if she even cares if she does. It’s an all-or-nothing approach that the utterly convincing Drucker (Custody), who deserves more lead roles like this one, portrays less as a case of stepmotherly evil than as a woman’s uninhibited search for herself.

Some viewers will balk at the fact that Anne ultimately wants to have her stepson boy toy and eat him, too, but Last Summer is a movie that defies moral boundaries and narrative conventions. With her punkish attitude — the soundtrack features an original song by Sonic Youth — Breillat again takes us to the limits of what’s acceptable, asking us to ask ourselves whether we should have any limits at all.

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