Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger will spend all summer loving this film. And when it inevitably goes sour and My Summer of Love kicks him to the curb, Rob will creep into the bushes and watch it anyway.
Tamsin: If you leave me I'll kill you.
It isn't flashy. It isn't crammed with stars. It doesn't even have much of a plot. Nonetheless, My Summer of Love made me thank heaven I'm a critic who gets to watch films like this. Pawel Pawlikowski sets modest goals for his film, wildly exceeds them, and delivers a movie that is self-supporting and perfectly trimmed of all excess.
Facts of the Case
Helen Cross wrote the base novel, but the director's talk about writing scenes on the spot makes me wonder how loose an adaptation he's made.
Mona (introducing…Nathalie Press) is a sun-speckled young teen looking for something to fill her summer. In the meantime, she rides around on a motorless Honda moped (is there a better symbol for aimless youth?) and lies on her back in grassy fields. This is how Tamsin (Emily Blunt, Boudica) happens upon Mona while riding her noble white horse around the countryside. While Mona stares uncomfortably into the horse's eye, Tamsin regards her with poised bemusement. The two set off on their respective steeds, parting at Tamsin's moss-covered stone gate. "You're invited," Tamsin tells her, and trots her horse up the driveway.
Under different circumstances, the two might never speak again. But Mona returns to her flat above a pub called The Swan only to find her born-again brother, Phil (Paddy Considine, In America), dumping hundreds of dollars of liquor down the sink. "You're a bastard," she tells him, grabs a couple of beers, and heads for the bath. Her humble pub-turned-temple is soon overrun by born-again Christians, which sends Mona scurrying to Tamsin's house for relief.
Thus begins an unlikely pairing. Mona is seduced by Tamsin's collected demeanor and pampered upbringing. Tamsin is bored, and curious about Mona's life. The two find ways to bond, though a subtle power struggle peeks between the cracks. When true colors are forced to the surface, Phil, Tamsin, and Mona find more than they bargained for.
Movies are magic because they conjure powerful emotions from light, forms, sound, and play-acting. Somewhere along the way, certain filmmakers picked up the idea that more light, more forms, more music, and more actors equals more magic. Vast CGI armies and ensemble casts vie with plastic scripts, and I sometimes wonder if movie magic has seeped into the dust.
Some films buck the trend and remind us that magic still lives; My Summer of Love is one such film. It is a small pebble impeccably cut into a jewel. It dazzles us with intoxicating cinematography, seduces us with flawless music, and captivates us with incredible acting. The basics of filmmaking are handled with style. Yet My Summer of Love forgoes conventional wisdom by keeping the cast small, the plot linear, and the conclusions vague. The end result left me as unsettled as it did fulfilled.
Lost in Translation is perhaps the best example of going against the grain, with its ethereal plot, accentuated sense of depersonalization, and carefully formed formlessness. Lost in Translation divided audiences, but at least it dared something. Pawlikowski's film reminds me somewhat of Lost in Translation with its emphasis on bonding and connection over plot. The films are different, and both are effective, but My Summer of Love is somehow more inviting and less alienating. It has warmth and life that Lost in Translation keeps at bay.
I was seduced by My Summer of Love's wonderful sense of humor. The girls play up their own cleverness and wit, with the viewer as a secret observer. Their private silliness expands to fill the screen, enveloping the viewer in a vicarious intimacy. Tamsin waxes poetic about Nietzsche, the faux sage, while Mona ruminates wryly about her future:
"I'm gonna get a job in an abattoir, work really hard, get a boyfriend who's, like…a bastard, and churn out all these kids, right? With mental problems. And then I'm gonna wait for the menopause…or cancer."
You can't help but to be drawn in. These humorous scenes don't creep up, they infect you suddenly out of nowhere, catching you up in their dark frivolity before you're fully aware. I found myself laughing out loud at their youthful pretensions.
Lest you think My Summer of Love is a comedy, let's set things right. My Summer of Love is Britain's genteel answer to Hardwicke's Thirteen. Depending on your interpretation of the film (and my sharing interpretations is a little dangerous, because it might spoil some of the mystery), Tamsin is no less manipulative than Thirteen's Evie, and Mona in as much emotional danger as Tracy. In fact, My Summer of Love is more akin to Briellat's Fat Girl or Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, where the trappings of summer and the blossom of youth mask darkly disturbed young women capable of twisted deeds.
Fortunately, you're free to draw your own conclusions, because My Summer of Love is a rich psychological tapestry. Is Tamsin's manipulation cruel, or simply naïve fun? Are the violent results due to something inside of Mona? Pawlikowski strikes a perfect balance of explanation and uncertainty.
The film's fragile feeling of fantasy is due largely to the way it looks. Director of photography Ryszard Lenczewksi makes effective use of modest surroundings. The composition, shot selection, and lighting sometimes call attention to themselves—but only because I was impressed anew with each passing scene. Discussing specific moments would rob you of some emotional resonance, but those of you who have seen the film may recall a surprising bathtub scene that works solely because of composition. Lenczewksi makes a cigarette and a patch of grass sing with energy. He turns trees into a cathedral. He carefully constrains the color palette, opting for desaturated, documentary hues of natural summer colors in the beginning and disturbing reds and darkness in the end.
The girls become so beautiful under his deft gaze that they seem otherworldly, like shifting canvasses. Emily Blunt never looks anything but spectacular, perfectly pulled together whether she's confronting someone, crying wretchedly, or clutched in the throes of passion. In fact, Emily's Tamsin is so perfectly poised and has such mastery of worldly concerns that she becomes something of a Satan figure. When she waltzed into The Swan in her red dress, warning bells went off in my mind. The casual way she pours brandy, quotes philosophy, and plays the cello seem impossible. Blunt plays the cello with such emotion that it takes her character to a new level. When she plays "The Swan" and Mona re-enacts the swan's death, the foreshadowing is hard to ignore.
Nathalie Press is fascinating to watch as her face metamorphoses. In one scene, I find her a rather rude-looking girl with an awkward, defiant posture. In the next, she seems formed out of sunlight, perfectly at ease with the grass and the clouds, a picture of serene, unaffected beauty. She utters the foulest curses with authority while exposing vulnerability. She is troubled, but troubled by tragic circumstances, having to grow up too fast.
This whole fragile web would come crashing down were Blunt and Press not up to the task, and Pawlikowski a lesser director. Fortunately, the web is strong and hard to escape. Blunt and Press command their roles, and Pawlikowski coaxes their best gestures, their most meaningful glances. Entire subthemes in My Summer of Love are crafted through glance and gesture alone.
I'd be remiss not to mention Paddy Considine's inspired method acting. The born-again Christian angle is authentic and complex, and Phil is its center. Phil, the ex-con and would-be hellraiser, praises Jesus and shows compassion while Mona calls him a "fucking fake." He may or may not be, but we can never escape the feeling that Phil is trying Christianity on like a metalhead might don a preppy pink blazer. In other words, he's going to take it off eventually. Considine plays Phil with aplomb. In one crucial scene, Phil raises a cross on the hillside overlooking the town, telling the gathered worshippers that he'll help purge the evil in this valley. His hooded eyes are far away, looking at Jesus Christ, his face cloaked in private rapture. The congregation amens right along. But when he meets Tamsin's eyes, his flare up for the briefest moment, so fleeting that I wondered whether I'd imagined it. Tamsin responds with a jolt that is repurposed into a triumphant smirk so fast it could have been a mirage. But that lightning-quick exchange manifests later, so I know it occurred.
Pawlikowski is constantly sneaking in these microthemes, and he does it so smoothly that I never knew where my sense of unease came from. Yet the film is completely unaffected. It needs no jump cuts or frantic editing to sell its charged dynamic. Music is used judiciously, making it even more powerful when it kicks in. (Incidentally, the music selections are above reproach.) Subtlety and contrast rule the day.
There's always the risk that you'll find My Summer of Love less satisfactory than I did, particularly after I've hyped it up so much. But as a critic and a movie fan, this movie really excited my imagination, my emotions, and my aesthetic sense. Pawlikowski and his cast and crew give us something new to discover in each shot. It is one of those rare film experiences that rewards whatever effort you put into it. Take it at face value, as an erotic summer fling, or dig deeper; in either case, I doubt you'll be disappointed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It took something like 15 minutes to get to the movie, what with the FBI warnings, internationale polizei death threats, studio intros, distribution label animations, DTS demos, and other roadblocks. The menu was buggy, kicking me into the FBI warning after I got past it once.
Speaking of the DTS soundtrack, I'm sad to report that I was unable to test it. It could be a mastering issue, but as much as it pains me to say, it is probably my fault. I recently installed a high-def tuner card into my HTPC, and I probably fubared something. I can tell you that the Dolby Digital 5.1 track blew me away with its depth and clarity. From Edith Piaf's soulful mournings to Blunt's expansive cello solo, the soundtrack reproduces music with resonance and grace. Outdoor scenes are expansive with bird calls and wind. The peculiar vocal timbres of Mona's streetwise earthiness and Tamsin's cultured, implicit authority ring true. By the way, the English subtitles are actually closed captioning, which is annoying, but a decision that more and more distribution companies and studios are opting for.
I've mentioned the stellar cinematography, and the transfer does it justice. My Summer of Love looks grainy at some times, soft at others, but it is absolutely intentional. The transfer is rich with color, contrast, and detail. There might have been slight edge enhancement in one or two scenes, but I didn't subject it to the indignity of pausing to check because the thing looks damn good.
The soundtrack spot in the extras is simply a commercial, like those "buy this album!" spots at the end of each Dawson's Creek episode. You may at first think the director's commentary is broken, because he doesn't speak until the opening credits have passed and the opening song fades away. Would a simple "hi, I'm Pawel Pawlikowski" have been too much trouble? When the commentary does commence, it is hot and cold: Pawlikowski gives us as many lapses as he does insights. Fortunately, the movie is so fascinating that the lapses are forgivable, and Pawlikowski's self-deprecating, deeply considered remembrances are worth the wait. I truly got a sense of how he directed the film, its challenges and successes. I'll warn you that I wish I'd watched the movie a couple more times before listening to this commentary; My Summer of Love is ineffable, and I wanted to experience that again before the mysteries were stripped away.
As good as Pawlikowski's insights are, his words suggest a conspicuous absence. He constantly refers to filmed scenes that were cut for one reason or another. He spends so much time discussing them that I wanted to see them—especially since I know they exist on film.
As with my reviews of other great films, I feel my paltry words are insufficient to express to you what I've seen and felt in response. My Summer of Love's myriad themes are still spinning around in my mind, trying to form into a whole I can fully grasp. The answer, of course, is to watch it again and again, and to hope that my initial enthusiasm wasn't a house of cards. As also in those other cases, I hope my waxing poetic won't dull your own response to the film.
His honor commands Pawlikowski and company to make My Autumn of Love, My Winter of Love, and My Spring of Lust—else suffer the wrath of this court.
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