It may be Philippe Garrel’s first film in color in more than a decade, but otherwise there’s little sense of the vet Gallic helmer trying something different in “That Summer.” With son Louis again cast — or rather, typecast — as a mopey hipster who vaguely philosophizes about love, life and heartbreak with badly coiffed friends and a stunning woman (a cringe-worthy Monica Bellucci), this partially wistful but mostly messy effort will appeal to Garrel completists, if such people still exist. After its Venice and Toronto preems, pic will hit Gallic arthouse screens Sept. 28.
Painter Frederic (Louis Garrel) is the protag of a tale that, somewhat oddly, is narrated by Paul (Jerome Robart), especially since the latter isn’t actually present in some of the scenes shown. Paul is an aspiring actor who supposedly becomes Fred’s best friend in a heartbeat, though for most of the film, they have about as much chemistry as two bored strangers talking about the weather at a bus stop.
When Frederic invites his new best friend to stay in Rome with him and his Italian actress wife, Angele (Bellucci), Paul brings along his as-yet-unseen g.f., Elisabeth (Celine Sallette).
What follows are scenes in which the four hang out together, or the men and the women go off in pairs, while friendship, fidelity and jealousy are discussed and, before long, tested. However, despite these unifying themes, the screenplay (written by the director, regular collaborator Marc Cholodenko and Caroline Deruas) struggles to create a narrative throughline.
Not even the knowledge that Frederic will try to kill himself, seen in a flash-forward in the first reel, provides a sense of direction or focus, and “That Summer’s” meandering nature makes it feel much longer than its relatively short 95 minutes. Conversational and narrative asides, including visits to the sets of two apparently terrible movies, are generally pointless and at times even risible.
Thesping is often understated, but Garrel junior’s usual semi-apathetic shtick only partly serves his character, whose emotional turmoil is supposed to turn him into a sobbing wreck. As his best friend, Robart remains a total cipher, while Bellucci emotes in a sharply contrasting, melodramatic style that would be more at home in an Italo TV production than in a French art film.
Serviceable widescreen photography by Willy Kurant (“Pootie Tang”) is happy to drink in the saturated colors of Manu de Chauvigny’s production design, including the Roman apartment’s blue and green walls, though pic had some focus issues at screening caught. The piano-driven score adds a melancholy air.
For the record, the film was reportedly inspired by the death of a friend of Garrel’s, as well as by Godard’s “Contempt,” which also deals with an impossibly beautiful woman, relationship troubles and jealousy. Press materials refer to the film as “That Summer,” though the onscreen title was “A Scorching Summer,” a literal translation of the French moniker.