November 13, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: A Burning Hot Summer

by Vadim Rizov

French auteur Philippe Garrel's work has always been a tough sell. He began in experimental cinema in the '60s, personally processing his first short, and only gradually worked his way towards narrative. His American "breakthrough"—2005's Regular Lovers, four decades into his career—is a nearly three-hour, black-and-white, Academy-ratio portrait of May '68's discontented survivors. Rather than trying to convince the unconverted through synopsis and laudatory adjectives, I'd suggest just watching this abbreviated clip of French kids dancing to The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow":

It's an ebullient moment out of time: young men and women momentarily freed of revolutionary rhetoric and responsibility, interrupted only by shots of Philippe's son Louis balefully staring down fun he refuses to join in. In Regular Lovers, Louis relived his father's youth. In the new drama A Burning Hot Summer, Garrel the younger is now embodying dad's late friend Frédéric Pardo (to whom Regular Lovers was dedicated). The dancing scene is revisited as Frédéric's unsubtly-named actress girlfriend Angèle (Monica Bellucci) grinds with a stranger (to the inferior strains of Dirty Pretty Things' "Truth Begins"), again with the younger Garrel glaring.

In one hilarious scene, petulant, previously inattentive Frédéric chews Angèle out at interminable length, crying out in would-be unbearable pain, then calmly apologizing for the overwrought gesture. A Burning Hot Summer primarily takes place as the season unfolds in Rome and the cracks of Frédéric and Angèle's relationship widen in the heat. The couple are joined by his best friend Paul (Jérôme Robert) and significant other Élisabeth (Céline Sallette). It's the present day, but the dialogue is firmly late-'60s, as Frédéric and Paul sit on rooftops and discuss Marxist revolution, despicable bourgeois mores and so on. You'd never know they'd left Paris: the decrepit peeling white walls and charming rooftop terraces are exactly the same, making for an anti-touristic gaze.

A Burning Hot Summer

Garrel often transcribes his dreams straight to the page, or so he claims—one way of explaining surprising scenes appearing out of nowhere. E.g.: Angèle is trying on clothes with Élisabeth. A moment of female bonding is unexpectedly diverted into a totally different direction when a rat appears and Angèle shrieks. Frédéric discards his chagrin, rushing to her side and wanting to comfort her—a perfect scene about a petty fight slowing but not halting the larger trajectory of a relationship's dissolution, ending with a goofily literal close-up of the rodent in question. The symbolism is incredibly overt, but disarmingly concrete in its presentation.

In a 1999 documentary profile for French TV, Garrel testified to the influence of his late father Maurice—a mascot/presence in many of his films, here in his last appearance—in teaching him that life's primary point is the loving, intense combustion between man and woman. It's a worldview that's both anachronistic and slightly unsettling (where would that leave non-heterosexuals?), but to enjoy his work, it's essential to understand and accept the unblinking romanticism. Nor, despite the emphasis on masculine brooding, does theatviewpoint turn boorish. When couples argue, more often than not the callow male gets served, as in 1991's I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore, where a man refuses to say "I love you" because—as he preeningly declaims, very proud of himself for the staggering levels of aphoristic insight he's bringing forth—he's not even sure what these words might mean. For starters, the woman replies, saying would mean wanting to say them, bringing his sophistry to a swift end. Angèle's rarely that assertive, but A Burning Hot Summer balances her quiet fuming and Frédéric's often oblivious treatment, allowing for both's trajectories to seem equally tragic.

A Burning Hot Summer is (very, very loosely) a riff on Godard's Contempt, with actress Angèle appearing in a similarly unworthy production, a World War II drama featuring heroic Frenchmen mowing down Nazis with machine guns (more hilarity, and more contempt for the kind of movie Garrel would never dream of making). The real ideological battle's very much ongoing at home. In one of the Parisian scenes, Paul and Frédéric are walking down a street when they're passed by a group of running immigrants, followed immediately by pursuing cops with nightsticks. "Fucking Sarko," Frédéric fumes—a succinct, blunt, unambiguous declaration. The point is later hammered home when a dinner guest goes on and on about how France's cultural vitality is dependent upon new viewpoints. "Italy," he categorically asserts, "hasn't done anything since the Renaissance."

Garrel could be accused of spinning his thematic wheels: after Regular Lovers and 2008's The Empire of Dawn, this is his third film to feature Louis fuming his way through relationships with women far too good for his callow self. But every film's constituent elements are different: after two black-and-white works, his latest here is in color and widescreen. Flowing from scene to scene, scorning token narrative connective tissue, it's a total sensory recapturing of a lost past, interspersed with grumbling about the crappy political present. Elegiac memoriams are rarely this funny, pointed or pleasurable.

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Posted by ahillis at November 13, 2012 3:47 PM