Artfully calculated and authentically felt, the unexpectedly effective "Summertime" combines the conventional structure of classic movie romance with a sensual same-sex frankness that couldn't be more up-to-date.
Better still, as directed by France's Catherine Corsini, "Summertime's" costars Cecile de France and Izia Higelin give empathetic, all-in performances that got both of them nominated for Cesars, the French Oscars. They play their parts like they were living them, and that counts for a lot.
Corsini is a veteran director, often working for French TV, but her films have not made an impact in this country. "Summertime," which she co-wrote with Laurette Polmanss, should change that.
The idea behind "Summertime" (the French title is "La Belle Saison") is a shrewd one, which is to set its romance in the France of 1971, a time when the women's movement was just finding its footing and the family friendly French government was giving gold medals to mothers who had more than 10 children.
Introduced first in the country's rural Limousin region is the grounded Delphine (Higelin), the only child of a farming couple who can drive a tractor with the best of them.
Though her father, insisting "loneliness is a terrible thing," worries that she is letting the area's best marriageable young men get away, Delphine has a secret: She is attracted to women and has in fact been in a clandestine relationship in their little town.
But when her lover announces she's getting married to a local boy, Delphine makes a decision and the next scene shows her just moved to Paris, working in an office and happy to be on her own.
By the merest chance, Delphine encounters a group of young women running down the street and pinching men's rear ends, giving the chauvinistic sex a taste of its own medicine.
Delphine, entranced by their effrontery, helps the women escape an outraged male. She's intrigued to learn that they are feminists, passionate about women being able to act unconstrained by society's dictates. She starts to go to their meetings, and finds herself attracted to the magnetic Carole (De France.)
Older than Delphine, a stunning blond to the younger woman's darker hair and complexion, a sophisticated teacher to Delphine's country mouse Paris newcomer, Carole is the younger woman's opposite in every way.
Carole also happens to be in a relationship with the handsome Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), a young man who is as committed to things revolutionary as she is. ("I didn't want him to be a jerk," the director pointedly says in the press material. "I didn't want to have petty men around.")
"Summertime" spends a lot of its time watching the way this relationship develops, the way the initiative and power dynamics shift back and forth between these two women, with the naive Delphine being more experienced in same-sex affairs and the worldly Carole feeling in over her head. "Is it just sex or are you in love?" Manuel asks her. The truthful response: "I have no idea."
These factors play out in a different key when a family emergency calls Delphine back to the farm and Carole impulsively decides to join her, putting her into contact with Delphine's very traditional mother, Monique (Noemie Lvovsky), and Antoine (Kevin Azais), the local boy who pines for her.
Though romantic melodramas that stockpile obstacles to impede individuals who are mad about each other are hardly new, "Summertime" takes the conventions seriously and has several strong elements working for its success.
For one thing, the script by Corsini and Polmanss creates a relationship that allows for genuine complexities, for conflicts between lovers that are convincingly real and pose involving questions about the kinds of sacrifices love demands and whether or not it inevitably sweeps everything before it.
Finally, as noted, it all comes down to stars De France and Higelin, who are as convincing in graphic, clothing-optional romantic situations as they are in passionate arguments. We so want the best for them, as individuals and as a couple, that we commit to the film as a matter of course.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino