When Last Summer (2023) premiered at the Cannes Main Competition earlier this year, everyone expected a scandalous film. A massive age gap, incestuous themes, and, boy, does the internet love such discourse! But Catherine Breillat, the provocateuse, the epitome of New French Extremity, the whatever-the-edgy-descriptor-is-today, has made a film where love is possible. A remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts, Last Summer is a universe of its own. As such, Breillat’s latest feature may appear at odds with titles such as Romance (1999), or Anatomy of Hell (2004) (films that were challenged, banned, castigated upon release), because it allows its protagonist, played by a magnificently receptive Léa Drucker, to relive a love story she never got to at a younger age. In her 40s, Anne becomes a stepmother to unruly Theo (Samuel Kircher, son of Irène Jacob) and his unruly demeanour can only mean trouble. They have an affair and things seem wonderful for a while before they turn ugly. But what separates Anne from all the other Breillat protagonists is her openness, a disposition towards receiving love. 

I met Breillat in Northern Spain, at the Gijón International Film Festival (FICX), where she presented Last Summer to a full house at the city’s old and glorious theatre hall. When she walks, she walks slowly, and when she talks, she talks passionately. Apprehensively, I opened the conversation by sharing the story of how an ex-boyfriend showed me A Real Young Girl (1976) and I could see he found it arousing; the fact of which disgusted me. Not because the film cannot be seen as arousing, but because it was poking fun at that very same tendency to objectify. “Education despises women and teaches women to despise themselves,” replied Breillat. I saw myself in Alice Bonnard’s disgust and saw the potential for virtue there. When I floated the quest for purity as a recurring motif in all her films, Breillat beamed: “Absolutely yes!”

But that’s a kind of purity often drenched in looks of shame and disappointment and while watching Last Summer, I felt this is something different, as if it exists almost outside of that shame and disappointment.

You make love when you make it. For me physical love is in the mould of, the origin of, real love. But I can also speak about this bias and shame that comes with the destruction of self-esteem, it’s important to show it too. And despise is, in that way, the opposite of purity.

Last Summer

When Anne and Theo are in a bar, they are laughing, flirting, having fun; that scene reminded me of an episode in Brief Crossing (2001), where an older woman is sitting in a bar with a younger man, flirting too. But in the latter case, the protagonist is very much a disillusioned woman.

Anne is a very strong woman, but inside her, there’s a wound. Something happened in her teenage years and she was robbed of her wholeness, she didn’t get to live her adolescence. But in that scene is that flirting scene, or the time Theo is giving her a tattoo, or when they’re on the grass, you know, feel that and I told Lea, “You’re Pauline on the Beach, Don’t think. You’re 15 years old.”

It was also the thing about her performance: that she seems younger, her face seems younger when she’s happy with him. But when she goes through a difficult time with Theo, it’s like she ages again.

That’s exactly what I wanted to show. Love transforms you, it lightens you up, being loved is being enlightened. 

But it’s so special. I feel like this is for me the first time I see such a loving gaze, in your films. I also saw Theo as a prototype for older male characters.

Adolescence, it’s absolute. And adolescent beauty can be unnerving. But for the casting, I had many, many problems getting the money for the film and one year before the shoot, I knew I wanted to have Paul as Theo. [his older brother], but he began shooting La Regne Animal (2023) and could not make it. I was despairing, because I didn’t see any of the young men I auditioned fit the role, until he said “But I have a younger brother, Samuel!”

You’ve been making cinema of the ultra-intimate for many years now. Do you feel like this mode of filmmaking has in turn affected your relationship to the intimate?

[My relation with the ultra-intimate] has never changed. I’ve always wanted to see it reflected on people’s faces, much more than I’d wish to observe it on their bodies. The body represents the situation. I film the situation of the bodies. But my sole focus is the emotions [emanating from] the faces. Of course they can pretend they’re having sex, but they can’t simulate emotions, they must genuinely feel them. I refer to this as filming a bare face, and it is far more intimate and uninhibited than filming bodies. I tell this to my actors all the time. I also tell them that I want to capture the emotion, but I also want to be there, not as a spectator; as if I were between them. The ultra-intimate means knowing about humans when they don’t know who they are. 

And how does this translate on set? 

For example, on the set of Dirty Like an Angel (1991), the actors thought they had to be nude. No, I said to them, “On the contrary, I have no interest in the body, the nude!” I want just that spectator to understand the situation: if you have the g-string around her legs in a close-up, the viewer already gets it: she’s nude. But during the actual shoot, she had a dress on. When I tell the actors, “The camera will be on your face”, it makes it much more intimate. It was so intense, with simulation and no nudity at all, and everyone was quiet and astonished even after we cut. So after that, I understood that what I want to shoot is the ecstasy of a woman, it’s a miracle, even if it’s so strange. 

Then there are other, more ambivalent examples across your filmography…

But also ecstasy and pleasure can arrive by different avenues. For example, the bondage scene in Romance or in Tapage Nocturne (1979), in that desire you have also added shame, something very troubling. In Last Summer, of course, the relationship between Theo and Anne is very troubled, not only because he’s her stepson. At the beginning, they don’t even know they’re falling in love. The spectator knows, but they don’t know it yet. There, love comes through in a very insidious way. Of course she is guilty of not resisting [her desire, the attraction, him]. Yet, at the same time, he is irresistible, and she doesn’t force herself upon him or anything like that. In the end, the boundaries between good and evil aren’t as sharp as we might think. In a world dominated by a terrifying moralistic ideology, I want the audience not to know who is truly guilty. You know, I think when it comes to desire and love, you cannot command them. You can resist, but you cannot not control them. Love and attraction are free.

Tapage Nocturne

I was thinking about Sex is Comedy (2002), how does that relate to what you just said? You know back then the shooting of sex scenes is less about the faces, let’s put it that way.

You know it’s strange you mention Sex Is Comedy, because this year another film with this title [a French documentary by Edith Chapin] came out and it’s a paragon. The intimacy coordinator’s job is one without a diploma, without science behind it, but the fact that the documentary titled itself after my film made me pursue them: it’s my intellectual property, they ripped off my title! And for Sex Is Comedy, the shoot was so beautiful and emotive, and so dangerous. A lot of concentration was required to make a film about the shooting of the making of a sex scene. It’s in a single take, 22 minutes and we shot it 22 times! About the 14th take, it was really magic. Normally, I have to stop then, but this scene was so incredible and we had the time to afford it: so we continued and continued, then after the magnificent 14th take, the scene became more clumsy and stupid. The takes looked more and more meaningless. I had clearly reached the limits. But suddenly, we had this 22nd take that was absolutely magical and much longer than the previous ones. You know, I really love filming ‘the weight of the silence,’ as I call it – these long scenes full of emotions. So, these additional two minutes made the magic happen, and I eventually used the 22nd take.

Yeah, but this is not how you worked in let’s say Last Summer with Lea Druker, when you were shooting her face you didn’t do that many takes right? There were less takes?

We always work with very precise choreography. I understand that everybody is afraid, even actors, but it’s necessary to be afraid: that’s what gives the gravity of one’s emotion. For me, it’s important not to make any empty erotic gestures, I want to attain the heart of the soul! For that reason, I want the actors to know the choreography by heart, while everyone in the camera department knows it very well too. When we are set to begin, there has been intense concentration for hours, and not a fly can be heard. Only then we can shoot, and it has to be perfectly prepared, because cinema is an illusion. You may think the movements are spontaneous, but they aren’t. Lea, for example, called it stunt work. For me, it’s that act, to reach something so beautiful, as a painting. I’m crazy about 16th and 17th century paintings and always loved portraits. My constant inspiration is not eroticism, it’s painting.

Tell me more about the way painting has influenced you from the beginning.

I’m inspired by hyperrealist American paintings. If a frame is significant as itself, everything curiously fits together. There’s no need to look for realism or movements that would follow one after another. And that’s how this film was made. I had no knowledge about anything, I repainted everything. For example, in A Real Young Girl, Alice [Charlotte Alexandra]’s swimsuit was originally navy blue and beige – quite modest, so I painted it pink and black. It’s not a film of good taste, that’s why American hyperrealism inspired me. You know, since the film was set in the ‘60s, I had to buy 60 pairs of high heels and clothes with prints from that period. We also had two dresses in Bridget Bardot style that I made myself. I’m really good at crafts, you know. 

But your films deal with the other aesthetic category, the ugly. And I’m interested in how you perceive ugliness. Is it the opposite of beauty? 

When you shoot the body of a woman or a man, you have the obligation to not show what is deformed or what they can be uncomfortable with, I think it’s really an obligation, out of respect to the actors especially in a nude scene. For that, yes, I am very, very aesthetic. But the ugly can manifest in the use of colour. In A Real Young Girl, or 36 Filletes (1988), for example, too much good taste amounts to bad taste. Then, it stops being artistic for me. Cinema has to be appealing in this artistic way and, therefore, strong. It endures.

In A Real Young Girl

What about the sublime? I sometimes think of iconography when watching your films, there’s this spirit that comes through the images, as if from beyond.

Yes, I think I have made films that can be called ritualistic, because I think that making love is a way to reach ecstasy. Like I’m fascinated by Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” and with the sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. What is closer to a saint’s ecstasy than transcendental love? That’s why I hate pornography and the sordid images of pornography. You know why pornography does not represent us making love? Because you have no sense of fiction, it’s just materialistic. And we are not like that. We have something more beautiful – desire is very often of control and shame, so therefore sex is already politics. If you’re religious, you have to accept that your God decided that the survival of humankind would depend on desire. So it’s not immodest, nor awful, nor something that should cause guilt. All other female mammals go into heat, but we humans don’t. We make love without necessarily feeling an urge to reproduce. It’s different; desire has a completely different story. It’s the thought put into action. That’s why I think philosophers should have reflected on sex. Although I’m not a philosopher, I’m a filmmaker, and it surely is a more beautiful and comprehensive way of thinking about sex.

Let’s get back to A Real Young Girl and what was on your mind back then, it must have felt new, even back then.

When I was about to start shooting [A Real Young Girl], I had lunch with Roberto Rossellini. I was talking about the film, perhaps in a rather pretentious manner. I was certain that I could become a great filmmaker like him. I think he was a bit irritated by my arrogance. He asked me what novelty I was planning to bring through this film that no other filmmaker had shown. I replied, “the gaze of shame”. Shame; it’s given to us and we carry it. So it’s a film about shame. Now, I wonder how I could have made it. As a film, it’s indeed crazy, but when I write, I never censor myself. Then I have to shoot it and try to find beauty in things that are crude, sometimes on the verge of ridiculousness. But, you need to find the beauty and the meaning that will save you from all the mediocrity. It might be on the verge of pornography, of ridiculousness. Yet at the end, I know that it’s a truly powerful film.

But this is not how you would do the same film now? For example, if you were to remake it now…?

[Laughs] I think I couldn’t. I wonder if I would have the courage. It’s a film that a young woman would make. At that time, I was raised in a very puritanical way. This is what I had to exorcise to finally become myself. Exorcising, it’s through exaggeration. But I’m still very puritanical. That’s why I try not to censor myself and be like that in my films.

I may associate your films with purity but I would never say you’re a puritan. 

I am not happy with my body. But I am free in spirit. 

Would you say you’re an idealist?

[Laughs] Oh yes, of course! I say to my producers that I’m like Don Quixote. I think that, even if you think that you cannot reach the ideal, you have to pursue it. 

I feel a lot of people would find idealism offensive, especially in the film industry, but I’d never agree with that.

I don’t agree with it either. I think we should be idealistic in our lives. We must pursue our ideals even if we can reach them but could never stay there. What else could we want? Everybody’s cynical. If you’re not idealistic, you’re cynical. I’m not.

I mentioned to you that I got introduced to your films by a boyfriend of mine back then. And he was reading your films as cynical. He told me Oh, I like her work. It’s very cynical. And then I realised we have to break up, because it’s not cynical. There’s idealism behind it.

Yes, but I think men are often disturbed by my films. Because I think women know each other better and men are always in self-denial. Since I depict people exactly as they are, men sometimes find it unbearable. Especially when I show them in a very negative light, behaving like machos – they can’t stand it. But a few years ago, all men were raised to be machos. Yet I love men very deeply. I realised that when men in my films fall in love, they have a kind of redemption and instead of being these macho caricatures, they become human. Love transforms them into something extremely human. That’s what happens in 36 Fillette and Dirty Like an Angel. The main male characters are macho caricatures. 

36 Fillette

I think such representations also made men very uncomfortable. But they could still see that love gave them back their humanity. For instance, in Romance, what really struck me was that, when we shot the scene with Rocco (Siffredi), he became the weakest of the men, he was splendid. This giant stallion, this human beast so to speak, was almost dying of love. It was an exchange of power. The weaker one became the stronger. And the stronger one accepted to become the weaker. It was extraordinarily moving. It blew my mind. Because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get when you’re shooting a sex scene. It was a scene where the sex was turned into love making. There were two takes. Well, the second time, they made love. It had this extraordinary thing about it, which was so moving and not pornographic at all. Maybe the film would have been watched if I’d edited the first take, but it was banal. The second one was extraordinary.

And I was also thinking about failure and failing, like in Abuse of Weakness (2013), when the body fails you, when your relationships fail you, when society fails you…

It’s very helpful to be disabled in my case, because of course I make my films with my body, I choreograph scenes myself first. It’s terribly difficult now and I have to suffer the gaze of society which is very condescending. It’s awful. I am also old and society despises that combination even more. 

I don’t mean this the wrong way. But is it physically painful for you, making a film?

 No, I’m mad about it! It’s difficult to get to the set, I think I’m not able to, that I’m not professional enough, that I cannot succeed, but as soon as I’m on the set, I’m not afraid at all, I’m never tired and I’m crazy about it! In fact, for all my films perhaps we have less money and time than other directors and then I have to do better! So when I see that something doesn’t work, I come up with a solution. 

Can you give me an example? 

I think you have to be very very imaginative, reactive, when an actor cannot play for example. But I mean when they come to me not great, but simply good. Because they can be afraid, they could think they have to act and me, I want the actor to live. I want them to feel. I don’t want them to act. That’s why people who have never acted are so incandescent. For those who have acted before, you have to strip away the acting so that they can finally be themselves, and their faces can be limpid. All the emotion should come through the eyes, not through grimaces.

What you’re saying also reminds me of Sex is Comedy, when Anne Parillaud’s character is trying to get a good performance and it’s just not working…

Sex Is Comedy in fact, is fictional, but it’s based on me having to direct a sex scene in Fat Girl (2001), while the male actor, Libero De Rienzo, had fallen in love with me. But I don’t want to have a love affair with an actor, especially during the shooting and he became very aggressive. Our relationship was very conflicted and at the same time very passionate. So it was very complicated with him. Plus, he hated Roxane (Mesquida) whom he thought was a bad actress. He had more experience but Roxane was incredible, especially during this very intimate scene of 22 minutes where she cried when I told her to cry. Everyone raved about Anaïs, who was great actually. But Roxane’s 22-minute long single take was extraordinary. She’s not quite a hero because she’s a teenager who’s being manipulated by a boy and subjected to moral harassment. The boy himself is not guilty either. He’s in love with her. But their two loves are not on the same level. He’s in love with her only for the summer. Since she’s very young, she thinks it’ll last forever. This confrontation between two different loves – summer love and eternal love is obviously very painful. But she’s not stupid. She’s just a teenager, you know, we’ve all been like that.

Sex Is Comedy

And Roxane Mesquida also played a meta-version of the same role in Sex Is Comedy

I love Roxane Mesquida. I absolutely adore her. And I think she’s a great actress. You just have to know how to use her and make her act. She’s very beautiful. But people don’t like women who are too beautiful. Since she’s beautiful, she has to be stupid. In France, she suffered a lot from that. Because she was very beautiful, she was stupid, she was a bad actress, they said. It’s the opposite. One has to know that France is the most misogynistic country in Europe. It’s in France’s DNA to be misogynistic. France couldn’t stand having a queen. A queen could not exist in France, except as the king’s wife. It never had a queen regnant. It was the law of the monarchic dynasty. It’s called the Salic law and it shows how misogynistic France is. Our motto is liberty, equality and fraternity. Fraternity of men, so that women never have freedom or equality.

I’ve heard you say that you are your film. Other people make it and help you make it, but you are it. 

Yes. When you are looking at it, of course I want the spectator not to be comfortably looking up to a fiction but embark on a journey, like in the Purple Rose of Cairo, to ask the spectator to enter the film. I think it’s why my films may be disturbing for the audience because they have to recognise that it is themselves they’re looking at, not really fiction, it’s them.

But when you say “I am the film” and I, as a spectator can also say that I am the film, then what?

When you make a film, there are people who concretely make the film: There are actors, the sound engineer. They make the film. But I don’t do anything. Anything at all. I’m the conscience of the film. I’ve come to realise that this is what it means to be a director. It is also about being the film yourself. Because it’s my own gaze that I’m filming. My own point of view. I believe that the way we are looked at transforms us. That’s why when a man no longer loves you and looks at you as if you’re old, stupid, and ugly, you start feeling old, stupid, and ugly. However, if there’s another man who loves you, you shine. You become beautiful and young. The gaze gives things a form. [le regard constitue] As I director, I have a gaze. My actors, after a while, become beautiful, they glow. In the beginning, it’s difficult for them because they’re scared, they feel ugly. But then they blossom. What I’m really happy about with Last Summer is that Léa and Samuel succeeded in shining a light on each other and transfigured in front of our very eyes. They became teenagers. Samuel is a teenager, of course, but Léa became a teenager, and there was no age gap anymore. And that, after all, is love – it transfigures.

This conversation owes its existence in English to the generous help of Öykü Sofuoğlu.

About The Author

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic, programmer, and educator based in London. She is currently finishing a doctorate at King's College London and specialises in contemporary European cinema.

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