Shortly before the premiere of “Summertime (La Belle Saison)” at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, a smile crept across the face of the usually stoic Catherine Corsini as she described how she was nudged into telling the story of a young woman whose sexual and political awakening coincide during the early 1970s by producer Elisabeth Perez, her partner in film and life. Corsini, a gifted filmmaker whose has long elevated situations rooted in realism to make escapist cinema, had rarely drawn on her own experience for inspiration, but felt compelled to in wake of the fervent debate that ensued over gay marriage in her native France. While Corsini had been open about her sexuality for some time, she had never made a film about a same-sex couple, concerned with filming intimate scenes between women that would be emotionally accurate without glorification and balancing the fact of a character being gay as just a part of a larger identity.
This may be surprising to learn of a filmmaker not known for holding back, often given to sweeping scores and sumptuous visuals, but perhaps it’s why “Summertime” feels as if Corsini is making up for lost time, set during the height of the feminist movement and despite markers of the period such as wild hair and breezy clothes, very much responsive to the present. Alive and vibrant, it charts the romance between Delphine (Izïa Higelin), a college-aged country girl energized by the liberated women she finds in the city – smoking, arguing and standing up when she wanders into an activist meeting at school – and Carole (Cecile de France), their brash leader. While the latter has a boyfriend, the former has a conservative mother (Noemie Lvovsky) who wishes she had stayed to help the family’s ailing patriarch on the family farm, yet Delphine and Carole find it difficult to resist each other, with only the twists and turns of turbulent times threatening to pull them apart.
Corsini puts audiences squarely in the throes of Delphine and Carole’s passion — for one another, for the feminist cause, for a simple life that constantly eludes them — and true to its title, “Summertime” keeps the temperature rising throughout. There is no shortage of electricity between Higelin and de France, a pair whose contradictory emotional and physical temperaments contribute to a friction that carries the film, with Corsini’s gentle yet firm depiction of the frenzied political climate of Paris that engulfs them, as well as the antiquated beliefs that still govern the countryside, able to convey a larger story through a much more intimate one. Following the film’s premiere in Toronto, Corsini was available for an all-too-brief conversation about how she channeled her own feelings into the film set just before she came of age, the influence of her partner Perez and the breathtaking steadicam shot that captures the swirl of emotions when Delphine and Carole first kiss.
How did this come about?
My producer [Elisabeth Perez] pushed me to do a more personal movie than what I had done. I did a bit of a political story of a group, and I wanted to blend [in] a typical French [issue], which is the contradiction between the city of Paris and the countryside and [how] the emotions [of this character Delphine] are split between the city and the countryside. I realized [the more I wrote], the more or myself I put in the movie, the relationship with the mother and especially the fact that she’s afraid to say to her mother that she’s a homosexual.
Were you an activist during the ‘70s yourself?
Not at all. [laughs] I was only in high school and I didn’t have the maturity to be involved in that, but it’s only [a generation] once removed and as I saw the French society that is so slow to evolve, I realized it was very important to shake things up a little bit and to put this problem of inequality back on the table.
Was it interesting to revisit this era and this subject knowing what you do now?
It’s not that I was lacking the courage, but I could not find a way to get people into the movie by showing a love story. Very often, what I found was if I was doing a movie, [the romance made it] too much of a caricature. But especially because of what has happened the past few years in France – this extreme tension surrounding gay marriage – I thought maybe it would be good to show a perspective with hindsight about what happened during the 1970s with the emergence of the gay movement and the feminist movement and how much they helped one another.
Was it difficult to find actresses who could carry the emotional weight of the story – and do farmwork?
For the farmwork, they got trained a little bit to be able to do that. [laughs] On the other hand, the emotion was a little more complicated, especially compared to the screenplay in which there was more lightness [than in the finished film]. The dialogue was written with maybe more brio and happiness and then during filming, I actually broke that a little bit so I could push more with the emotions and the [Delphine’s] inner life happening. That was probably unexpected and difficult for the actresses to deal with, but that’s when the role of a producer is very important because every evening [Elisabeth Perez] would view the rushes and sometimes she would tell me, “Oh, that scene is too sweet. It’s too light.” So I really had to rework it to make it more poignant.
It’s a really beautiful moment when Delphine finally acts on her romantic impulses towards Carole with this sweeping single take in the street when they kiss – the scene conveys very complex emotions very simply. Was it difficult to pull off?
It was the first time in the movie that I was using the steadicam and I wanted to keep it simple and have this idea of fluidity during that scene, so even though you have extras and [other] stuff, it seems like their action and the motion of the camera are one single thing. You can see Delphine come out of the factory, there’s one car passing by and she meets with Carole, and when Carole starts speaking and they’re together, it’s almost like the steadicam pushes them against the wall. This is really the key shift in the whole movie – the emotion is really being brought by Delphine and [the actresses and I] talked a lot about it and [Izïa] said she could really feel the scene, but she had to be the one who took action by showing that she was making the decision, and I was afraid Cecile might be a little destabilized. Still, I wanted to have some harmony in the movement.
“Summertime” opens on July 22nd in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Claremont 5 and in New York at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A full list of cities and dates is here.