L’Été Dernier (Last Summer)

Echoes of Phaedra

September 25, 2023By Nick HammondFilm

Writer and filmmaker Catherine Breillat made her name with explicit, prolonged depictions of sex and sexuality, perhaps most notoriously in Romance (1999), in which she directed Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi in a number of unsimulated sex scenes, and À Ma Sœur ! (Fat Girl), which looks at female adolescence frankly and uncompromisingly. While Breillat has sometimes been seen as a controversial figure, her films have been praised for the way in which she represents desire from a female narrative viewpoint, often posing difficult ethical questions but never moralizing about them.

Now aged 75, the director has brought out a new film, L’Été Dernier (Last Summer). Presented at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and inspired by the 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, it is certainly much less sexually explicit than the earlier movies but still raises many interesting and uncomfortable issues.

Viewed largely from the perspective of Anne (played by Léa Drucker), a lawyer who specializes in protecting young girls from abuse within the family, the movie depicts the affair she has with her 17-year-old stepson Théo (Samuel Kircher), who has just been sent to live in the home she shares with her older husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), and their two young adopted daughters.

Starting with what would seem to be a commendable attempt to accept the emotionally damaged and disruptive Théo into the family, Anne’s impulsiveness in launching into an extremely dangerous sexual liaison with her stepson while her husband is away on business is both shocking and at times almost unwatchable. Anne is fully aware of the thorny overlap between her profession and her private life, and when Théo tells his father of the affair, she is faced with the choice of lying to save herself – and thereby banishing Théo from the family home – or telling the truth and destroying her marriage and career.

While watching this intense film, I kept thinking of the similarities between the 17th-century French playwright Jean Racine’s great retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Phaedra, in which Phaedra’s husband Theseus (returning from ventures abroad) has to decide whether his wife or his son Hippolytus is guilty of desiring the other. Breillat’s work, while set in the modern world, certainly has the same timeless sense of myth.

Drucker (recently seen as an infinitely more responsible mother in the Belgian movie Close) brings out the complexity of Anne’s character with aplomb. Samuel Kircher, whose brother Paul starred in Christophe Honoré’s Le Lycéen (Winter Boy), is excellent in the role of the young Théo. Interestingly, Breillat chooses to film Samuel Kircher’s face close-up for much of the movie, as Honoré did with Paul Kircher. With no place to hide, lesser actors than these two talented siblings would not have been able to carry off the roles.

Some critics have taken Breillat to task for not resolving some of the issues contained in Last Summer, but for me she underlines the fact that there are no easy answers to morally ambiguous questions. Last Summer might not make for comfortable viewing, but with such exceptional acting and directorial talent on show, it is an essential watch.


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