Catherine Breillat on the Seduction of “Last Summer”

After sharing a memory of the excitement I felt to see one of her films for the first time, Catherine Breillat felt compelled to share one of her own, recalling how a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel” at the age of 12 set her on the path to becoming a director.

“Without cinema, I would not have been able to live,” Breillat said. “I was destined to live in a small town and seeing [“Sawdust and Tinsel”] at my school’s cinema club, I recognized myself in Harriet Andersson’s body and decided to become a filmmaker to be able to do that myself. I thought I would make cinema because that way I would invent my world.”

In the years since, there has never been another filmmaker like Breillat, utterly fearless in exploring power dynamics between women and men in such films as “Fat Girl” and “Abuse of Weakness” where danger lies in ambiguity and the writer/director has been unusually gifted at giving it shape. Naturally, her latest film “Last Summer” starts out with a mess in a literal sense when Anne (Léa Drucker) comes home to find that her 17-year-old stepson Theo (Samuel Kircher) has come to live with his father Pierre (Pascal Bonitzer), not that he would introduce himself with a hug or a hello but the dirty laundry he leaves on the floor. Anne is used to cleaning up after others from her work as legal counsel for endangered children, but she has little patience for Theo, who she has to keep watch over along with her two adopted children when Pierre leaves town on one of his many business trips and while her stepson’s insouciance is initially galling, she can’t help but admire it, given all she has to be concerned about.

Breillat hadn’t planned to make another film after 2013’s “Abuse of Weakness,” having settled into an idyllic life in Portugal, but an e-mail from the producer Saïd Ben Saïd about possibly remaking Danish director May el-Toukhy’s “Queen of Hearts” had intrigued her when the 2019 drama pivoted on a lie that the lawyer has to tell after pursuing an affair with her stepson, setting into motion a series of events as torrid and potentially ruinous as the indiscretion that takes hold. It would’ve been a tragedy if the director had stuck to her original plan when “Last Summer” summons the same level of intensity as the films that gained Breillat international notoriety such as “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell” — and perhaps did her a disservice by branding her as a provocateur for their sexual explicitness. Her latest, however, affirms that she had the command of a master all along, playing as a breezy thriller that doesn’t let the audience suspect the meticulous work that has gone into it, from Breillat’s savvy use of tight close-ups of her actors’ faces that come across as graphic as anything she’s put on screen before to the fine use of sound design to amplify desire when Anne, Theo and Pierre are all loathe to express it directly.

A year removed from becoming a sensation at Cannes in order to excite audiences this summer, “Last Summer” is now making its way across U.S. theaters and during her visit to the States, spending opening weekend in New York where no post-screening Q & A should be missed, Breillat generously — and passionately — spoke about a few pivotal moments in the film as well as in her career and allowed for a whole new appreciation for the precision that goes into her work.

You’ve said the first two days of any production are the most difficult because you’re feeling things out with the cast and crew. Was there a moment where things started falling into place for this?

Of course. There are two scenes of the dispute between the father and the son that I shot on the first days and from that very moment, it was clear that both actors were already within this film that was going to show itself. Samuel went to do his final high school exam [in his real life] one morning and came came back on set to film the first love scene that same afternoon. And for me, it’s very important to always begin with the love scene, and with this intimacy, which is the most complicated. It has to be done in this quick way to retain some of the brutality that is inherent in it. Because if you postpone it, actors starts to settle into a comfort where they say, “It’s later, it’s later.” It’s what I call “the hot bath,” to start with the intimacy, which was the first love scene between Léa and Samuel, and for, the first scene of the lie was very much also an arrival point.

You have to be afraid first, because the [scenes] are major, and I’m afraid too. In fact, during the night [before] this first scene, I was going over in my mind because I wasn’t happy with where we could place the projectors, where we could to place the camera and I had to be very aware of trying to film Léa correctly because she is more difficult to film than a young boy and it was absolutely capital that she be filmed beautifully. Suddenly, I had the idea that we were going to pull the bed forward to put the camera right behind it to get that very close shot of the kiss [between Theo and Anne], which was a really radical way of filming. The actors imagined they were going to be naked, so they were very scared, but I loved how brave my actors were going to be about the nudity that they were afraid of. And in the end, not knowing about my new idea made it so that it wasn’t going to be about their bodies at all. But it was going to be about this kiss that we get such a close-up of and it needed to be a very deep, very wet, very adolescent kiss.

The filming of this scene was really the moment that we managed to come into contact with each other and with the film and to show them that there’s nothing to be afraid of in filming a scene like this. You shouldn’t be afraid of love scenes. There is always grace in it. I was quite happy because because for me, a scene of intimacy, a scene of love is one that actors are always afraid of — and that I’m always afraid of — but this fear is necessary to that scene.

Another thing that came to me during that night of wandering was the height of the bed. I imagined that we were going to make the bed higher than it was so that I would be able to film Samuel almost entirely above Léa, so that we don’t see so much in the end. My producer was very surprised. He said, “We can’t see Léa enjoying herself.” I said, “No, he’s enjoying herself.” And I [said], “No, we were going to be close to her in this way because there’s two more scenes where her orgasm is [visible] and I thought that that would be too much, so, here we don’t see her. We imagine things in the moment. These are things that one works out in the space and with the flesh of the actors and it’s only when we are confronted with reality that we can find this beauty through the camera lens because it all eventually comes to be about a slight tilt of the head, a slight tilt of the eye. It’s this way that the words become flesh and you can’t predict on paper, as if it were a technical job. It’s an emotional job with the actors to give every love scene its meaning, and love scenes must always have a meaning. And when there’s as much as in my film, each scene has a different meaning.

One way this clearly diverges from the original film is its summer setting, which you make incredible use of in general, but specifically in the scene where Theo and Anne are lying around on the grass, one of the beautiful elements is tying the gentle pressure he’s trying to apply to their conversation to the breeze. Did it immediately come to mind?

That scene in particular, I hesitated over for a while. It wasn’t meant to be staged in the grass. It was planned to be at the table [outside their home], but I was getting bored with the camera options because we’d already had the tattoo scene and the lunch scene. And again, it’s during the night that I do my real staging [for the next day out of a sense of] fear and urgency. I had this idea of putting them in the grass, which was in some way reminiscent for me of the staging of the beach scene in “Fat Girl” where you have the two sisters lying on the beach, so there’s this incredible intimacy. But having had that idea, I was still fearful because Léa is 50, so I thought, could I put her on the grass? And in the end, you always have to dare what you don’t dare to do.

This is because you see the beginning of the scene where [Theo] walks over to her, where she is lying on the grass and I had to think about what kind of graphic lines emerge from how her leg line with her heels are raised — how and in what sense we see the heel. It’s extremely precise, and I used to call it the “Lolita” scene because of the way that she slightly tilts her sunglasses down. That’s how I would refer to it when we were shooting until I eventually realized “No, it’s not ‘Lolita,’ but ‘Pauline at the Beach,’” and I gave Léa this image, asking her not to think of anything but the fact that she was “Pauline on the Beach,” that she was 15 years old [like Pauline in Eric Rohmer’s film], and the most beautiful boy of the beach was coming to court her and that this is her adolescent experience of it. This is how I got this performance out of my actress because for him to be a teenager is normal, but somehow they found together this dynamic where they make each other more beautiful. They get younger by the minute and this scene, which at first was quite anodyne when it was going to be at the table, became a key and very important part of the movie.

In this scene, I chose to make a very long shot of Samuel — three-and-a-half minutes long, listening to Léa speak. This was an addition because without it, I realized that the scene became too much like a Rohmer film and that to make it my own, I needed to go and get this long close-up, but I was speechless when I filmed it because he was so natural in front of the camera that I called him “Anais,” the name of the actress in “Fat Girl” who was so able to give herself to the camera with no filter and without fear.

A constant in your career has been a respect you’ve had for youth – what they’re capable of and what they’re feeling. Has that been something that’s been important to hold onto throughout the years?

Yes, because I don’t like to being an adult. I think it’s impossible to become an adult. I think adolescents have all of the grace in the world. I have an absolute passion for the film “Baby Doll” by Elia Kazan, [because the teenager at its center, played by Carroll Baker] has an absolute grace, and she loses her innocence with seduction because from the moment you want to seduce, or you are seduced, you no longer have this innate grace. You lose it. And I think that adolescence is the time for all possibilities. To be an adult, to be reasonable, all that, we have it, but it’s not interesting.

I have also written a lot of male characters thinking of Eli Wallach in “Baby Doll” because of how vulgar he is — I showed the film to Samuel, so I saw it again very recently and it’s true that the film is a bit slow, but the moment when Eli Wallach appears, it’s so exciting. In some ways, he’s the demon in person, he’s seduction itself. That is to say, we can love men for what we hate in them and gets to what what I’m interested in talking about in terms of desire being that which one cannot admit to, that which one cannot avow, and is trying to keep out of you. [I love] “Splendor in the Grass” as well. I really like mixing Puritanism, timidity and inhibition. All of a sudden, there is fire and ice. And it’s so good.

“Last Summer” opens on June 28th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and New York at Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and the Angelika Film Center before expanding across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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