Thursday, May 27, 2010

ONE DEADLY SUMMER (L'Ete Meurtrier, 1983)

If my selection of movies seems random to the point of incoherence, that's because I often don't know in advance what I'm going to watch in a given week. Blame that on the Albany Public Library, whose ever-growing selection of foreign films inspires many "What the hell is this? Let's take a look!" moments. One of the library's newest acquisitions is a film that won four Cesar awards, France's answer to the Oscars, including the Best Actress award to star Isabelle Adjani. It's the work of Jean Becker, a second-generation director whose work has been unknown to me. The box cover promises an erotic revenge story with some serious twists, and I've seen the film described as a prototype erotic thriller. I can see the point; set aside the rural French setting and the full frontal nudity and this could be the plot of a Lifetime Original Movie.

Adjani is Elaine, the 19 year old daughter (the actress was 28) of a crippled father and a German mother. They've just moved into the sort of small town where the dance hall has no air conditioning, where the nearest cinema is so far away that kids fall asleep on the trip back, and people will call a German woman "Eva Braun." Elaine is the typical seductive newcomer who insinuates her way into an unsuspecting family. In the typical Lifetime saga this character convinces everyone of her benevolence before her mask slips to revel Evil beneath. In One Deadly Summer there's hardly a mask because Elaine is clearly unstable from the beginning. There's a kind of belligerence to her seductiveness, as if she were asking an aroused populace, "Are you not seduced?" She flaunts her eminently flauntable body indiscriminately, and nearly everyone in sight is a potential erotic target. The situation is made all the more provocative because this backward burg is a place where there's not a lot of indoor plumbing. Elaine will drag her portable bathtub into her new family's kitchen to draw a bath, then strip naked and take a soak in full view of her future mother-in-law -- the one person who's outright hostile toward her. She is way too intimate, still inclined to nurse at her mother's breast in needy moments. She also has screaming fits in restaurants and has a savantish knack for adding large numbers together. And if that's not the mark of a lunatic I don't know what is.

When she seduces our hero Pin-Pon (a quaint nickname; he has a brother named Boubou), who narrates much of the story, you assume she has an ulterior motive for faking a pregnancy and so on, and so she does. She's really interested in the family's barrel organ, which it acquired back in 1955. The timing matters, because Elaine's mother was raped by a gang of movers who were transporting just such an instrument back in that year. That's how Elaine came to be (the film is set in 1976, which may have been when the source novel was written), and it has complicated her own family life ever since. Dad has never granted her his own family name despite his clear affection for her, and that almost guarantees that his affection could develop in the bad-touch direction. In fact, he happens to be crippled because he did get a little bad-touchy toward innocent glasses-wearing Elaine a few years back, only to have her answer his affection by cracking his skull with a shovel.

Strangely enough, you can see how this may have inspired her own predatory manner of seduction, which she's also applied to her female schoolteacher, a hapless woman who still carries a torch for her -- she gives Elaine a cigarette lighter for a wedding present with the inscription, "Let me be your flame." Our antiheroine proposes to seduce her way into the confidences of the two surviving rapists of 1955; the third, Pin-Pon's father, is already dead. Her father convinced her mother never to press charges against them, and Elaine's idea of making up to both of them is to track down these rapists, now small businessmen in their own rights, and destroy them.

Elaine's grandiose revenge plot doesn't quite work out. That's because she doesn't know the whole story of her mother's rape. The revelation of the truth is a shattering moment for her fragile psyche. Her entire life from a certain point has been dedicated to a certain purpose, and once that purpose is rendered irrelevant it's as if all those years never happened. We last see her regressed to the mental state of a nine-year old, after nine troubled days of marriage to poor Pin-Pon, whose noirish narration (e.g. "I was about to make the worst mistake of my life.") has not prepared us for a final tragic twist in the tale. Earlier, about to carry out her revenge plan, she'd left a message for him explaining everything -- as she then wrongly understood it. But he doesn't know that she's been proven wrong. In fact, he assumes that she's in that hopelessly regressed state because she failed in her purpose. So what does he owe his love if not revenge?...

As I've hinted by equating it with Lifetime movies, the story of L'Ete Meurtrier has to be told carefully to avoid coming out hopelessly camp. I'm not sure if Jean Becker fully succeeds in dodging all the pitfalls, but I don't know if any writer or director could. The story is so full of extremes that it can never be taken seriously by everyone. It doesn't seem like the kind of film that wins French awards, but it has one powerful thing going for it. Of course, that's Isabelle Adjani.

I wasn't confident in her at first. Yes, she was hot on sight, even before the clothes came off, but there was a vacuous quality in her early scenes that made her an unlikely ruthless avenger. But by her scene in the restaurant with Pin-Pon (a game effort by pop star Alain Souchon) she had sold me on Elaine's madness. She never turns into a calculating villain, and she never fully loses that vacuous quality, but what we see isn't stupidity but a real and alarming void where something more humane should be. If anything, Adjani comes on too strong, since Pin-Pon and his fellow villagers don't catch on to her lunacy until well after the audience has. But the story really needs her to go over the top, because hers is a kind of madness that spreads like a disease, something the film itself conveys by sharing the voiceover track among several narrators, some commenting in past tense, some expressing their thoughts in real time. This fractured narration keeps us questioning who knows what at any given point in the story. That's what separates One Deadly Summer from the TV movies that superficially resemble it. Those potboilers too quickly dismiss their antagonists as Evil outsiders whose removal can restore a benign normality, while Becker's film shows a woman whose madness was shaped by the world around her and will affect others after she leaves the scene.

One Deadly Summer is a film I can recommend both to arthouse enthusiasts and to fans of the wilder world of cinema. Adjani's performance is sure to impress both groups, perhaps for different reasons. As for the movie as a whole, I can only wonder which faction of fans will like it more....

There's no trailer available online, so the DVD distributor, BayViewEntertainment, has uploaded a short collection of clips to YouTube.

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