Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 24, 2016 5:15 pm 
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Two earth forces meet in a passionate city-country lesbian love affair

Izïa Higelin is marvellous as Delphine Benchiessa, the strong, earthy, dark-skinned farm girl in Catherine Corsini's passionate celebration of lesbian love and early Seventies feminism, La belle saison (the English title, Summertime, lacks the original metaphorical resonance of a special time both in life and nature). The French critics who took issue with Corsini for not setting events in the present to show both issues, the rights of women and gay rights, at the current cutting edge, are inexplicable. This film's lifeblood and its point are that it happens at a time when women were challenged to live up to the ideals they have been championing.

This is where the vibrant, dynamic Cécile de France comes in. Delphine (Higelin) has left her parents' farm in the Limousin region where she was an integral part, prompted, we assume, by rejection by a younger lover who's decided to get married and the awkwardness of rejecting a perfect potential male partner, the patient, but eager Antoine (the excellent Kévin Azaïs of last year's terrific Les combattants). So she has gone off to spend time in the big city, in a tiny Parisian chambre de bonne, and encounters Carole (de France) at a university meeting of feminists and is instantly smitten by her.

This film would be memorable if only for the scene of these fired-up, beautiful, cigarette-puffing, chanting, singing feminists. Carole's wide smile is infectious, her blond hair flows in all directions, her energy is electric. In other words, she's not just a political activist, but a hot babe. Delphine well knows she loves only women. Carole's assurance and glamour dazzle Delphine, but hide her uncertainty, since Carole lives with Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), in a physical relationship, and Manuel considers this to be a lifetime commitment.

It's a bit of a paradox the freethinking Carole has a lot to learn from the farm girl Delphine, and another paradox that despite Delphine's love for Carole, the family farm and the region's conservative values trump that, because the farm is her highest priority, so she rushes back there to take charge when her father has a stroke. What's surprising is that while Cécile de France's energy and sex appeal usually tear up the screen, Izïa Higelin's solid earthiness is stronger, and make Carole, properly, seem the weaker character.

This is where the great Noémie Lvovsky comes in, in one of this powerhouse figure of French cinema's best roles as Monique, Delphine's mother. One of the most electric scenes between women in French cinema in a good while comes when, after several months of working together with Carole, who has pitched in on the farm, Monique hears a loud fight between Delphone and Carole (who's tiring of country living) that reveals what's going on between the two women, and barges into Delphine's bedroom next morning and sees the two women with naked bodies intertwined. Lvovsky, who who's usually played urban sophisticates, melds seamlessly into the role of an old fashioned country woman whose conservative values make her see her coworker Carole suddenly as an embodiment of the Devil who has corrupted her daughter. Of course she's got it wrong.

It's both its strength and its weakness that this movie wears its heart on its sleeve. Its lovemaking is nearly as unrestrained as the younger intertwinings in Kechiche's Vie d'Adèle, but there isn't the pain and intensity of hiding homosexuality that makes Annie Proulx's story and Ang Lee's movie of Brokeback Mountain such a devastating emotional experience. Still Summertime is a fraught lesbian love story with as rich a historical-political-social-economic context as has been yet brought to the screen, and when the causes of minorities are first expressed artistically, the language has to be basic. This is a beautiful and memorable film by any standard that will have specially lasting meaning for its most particular audience.

Summerttime/La Belle saison, 105 mins., debuted at Locarno 6 Aug. 2015, where the Variety Piazza Grande Award went to Catherine Corsini as director. It has shown at ten other international festivals, including Toronto. At its 19 Aug French theatrical release it was enthusiastically received (AlloCiné press rating 3.8 based on 25 reviews). Strand Releasing will bring it to US theaters at a date not yet announced. Screened for this review as part of the 2016 New York Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, showing to the public on Tues., Mar. 8 at 9:15pm (Introduction by composer Gregoire Hetzel) and Sat., Mar. 12 at 4:30 p.m.

(I previously reviewed Corsni's Les ambitieux (R-V 2007) and Three Worlds/Trois mondes (R-V 2013) and saw her 2009Partir/Leaving.)

US theatrical release starts Friday, July 22 in New York (Film Society at Lincoln Center, IFC Center) and Los Angeles (Laemmle’s Royal).

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