Tanelorn Films // 1983 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 7th, 2010
"A Jean Becker directed tale of misunderstanding, obsession, and madness."
As a genre, the rape-revenge film tends to be all about instant gratification, from I Spit on Your Grave to Death Wish. These films tend to get past the initial assault quickly and into the "revenge" portion of the show to give their audiences the vicarious thrill of vigilante justice. One Deadly Summer takes that formula and turns it on its head. Instead of instant revenge, the film gives us a rape that occurred decades ago, one where revenge is likely to be delayed if not denied outright. This tactic makes for a film that is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Despite the total lack of extras, this is an interesting addition to world cinema on digital disc.
Elaine (Isabelle Adjani, Subway) moves to a tiny French town with her aging parents. She seems like a beautiful, free-spirited young woman, but she's troubled by the fact that her mother was raped by Italian immigrants after World War II and before her birth. Elaine begins a relationship with Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon) because he provides a link to the only clue she has about her mother's attackers: the existence of an old player piano. As the pair's relationship heats up, so does Elaine's search for her mother's past.
Let me start with this: One Deadly Summer is one messed-up film. The plot seems conventional enough, with an investigation into family secrets, but the execution is anything but. At the center of the weirdness is Elaine. She's a easy-going free spirit one moment, and a cold, calculating and emotionally distant sociopath the next. She also spends a lot of the film in various states of undress for no particular reason, and engages in random acts of lesbianism (one of them with incestuous overtones, no less). I'm not sure she makes any sense as a character, but her unpredictability, her mysterious motives, and her singular drive to find the truth about the past make her a fun character to watch.
Director Jean Becker knows that Elaine is the film's draw, and he does a great job keep the focus on her. He is, however, also aware of his predecessors, and the cover's description of "Rashômon-like flashbacks" is certainly accurate. Rather than presenting a simple scene that show the audience what really happened to Elaine's mother, Becker opts for a number of overlapping flashbacks that paint a more disjointed (and therefore disturbing). Becker also makes the excellent decision to set his story in the French countryside. From the plot outline, viewers might expect a noir-ish story set in Paris, but setting the film outside the city lets Becker play more with atmosphere and turn convention on its head. This is also the best I can recall the French countryside looking. With warm colors and plenty of inviting greens, it's hard to believe anything bad could happen there, which makes the truth all the more affecting.
Those warm French exteriors are given an excellent shine on this DVD. The film doesn't seem to suffer from any print damage despite its age, and neither grain nor compression difficulties are problematic. The colors are rich, with strong skin tones. The French audio does the dialogue justice, and subtitles are clear and easy to read. Sadly, there are no extras on this disc at all, not even the film's trailer.
Obviously One Deadly Summer isn't going to appeal to everyone. Even those willing to look past the nudity and weirdness of the plot might get turned off by the fact that this film lacks a fast-paced narrative and is quite long at 130 minutes. The film takes its own sweet time introducing us to Elaine and Pin-Pon and their bizarre relationship. For many fans it will be enough that One Deadly Summer has been rescued from obscurity and preserved on DVD, but the utter lack of extras is pretty disappointing. I could certainly do the research myself, but it would be nice to know how One Deadly Summer was received way back in 1983. Hearing from Becker, or any of the cast, about their experience on this little oddity would also have been great. Instead, we get nothing to provide context or history for the film, which I suspect will hinder the film from finding a wider audience today.
Fans of the more bizarre aspects of French cinema will certainly want to hunt down a copy of One Deadly Summer for its unique plotline and narrative presentation, since it's almost like a French giallo film. Although the DVD lacks any extras, the presentation is strong enough to warrant a look by fans of the foreign cinema. Those with little patience for non-linear narratives or nudity should give this film a pass.
One Deadly Summer isn't quite a killer movie, but it is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tanelorn Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R