Perhaps the world is finally ready for a lesbian romance as direct and unapologetic as “Summertime,” though this beautifully realized tearjerker works as well as it does in part because the characters themselves don’t seem quite ready to follow through on the love they’re feeling. Turning back the clock to the early ’70s, Catherine Corsini delivers a luminous, golden-hued period piece in which a French farm girl (Izia Higelin) moves to Paris, where she falls for a radical feminist (Cecile De France), only to be called home by a family emergency. With none of the conventional restraints on romance — or nudity — this liberated love story should do at least as well on the festival circuit as it does in France, where it opens Aug. 19.
As is frequently the case with Gallic pics, the for-export English title is a poor translation of the more poignant one Corsini and co-writer Laurette Polmanss picked for their film, “La belle saison,” which slyly extends the harvest metaphor underlying its bucolic countryside scenes. Unlike American consumers, who expect to find their favorite fruits and vegetables at the market year-round, French shoppers are particular about their produce, buying and selling certain foods only “when the time is right” — which might have been a more appropriate title, seeing as how human emotions tend to work the same way.
When we meet Delphine (Higelin), she is living in the south of France, not far from Limoges, helping her overworked father (Jean-Henri Compere) tend the family farm. Her parents pretend to be naive, but notice her sneaking out at night. What they don’t — and can’t — know is that Delphine has been seeing another girl in town, but the relationship has no future, as homophobia makes it impossible to court openly. And besides, Delphine’s g.f. has decided to do the expected thing and get married.
What happens next is hard to swallow, but it’s a leap upon which everything else depends: Delphine spontaneously decides to move to Paris, where she gets a job, an apartment and a leather jacket. Every year in America, dozens of filmmakers tell stories in which misfit young people struggle to break free from the grips of conservative small-town life, and here, Delphine does it before the first-act break, but only because “Summertime” (which spans far more time than its title implies) is impatient for her to meet Carole (De France), the high-energy leader of a Parisian women’s lib group.
Smitten by Carole’s energy (as are we), Delphine starts to attend the org’s rowdy weekly meetings, where Carole mistakes her new recruit’s interest for belief in the cause, when in fact, Delphine’s passions are of an entirely different nature. But she, too, has misread the situation, for Carole may be doing battle against a male-dominated system, but has an enlightened boyfriend (Benjamin Bellecour) of her own at home. After breaking a gay friend out of an asylum where he’d been sent to be “cured” (a helpful cultural touch which reminds that even in Paris, most people weren’t so progressive on the subject of homosexuality), Delphine makes her move, and to her own surprise, Carole agrees to experiment — with intoxicating results.
Corsini and her two leading ladies aren’t remotely shy about depicting what such lovemaking is all about, even if they prove more tasteful (however bourgeois that may sound) in what they opt to show onscreen. The two actresses represent two incredibly different physical and personality types: Dark-skinned and dowdy, Higelin could actually pass for an old man when seen from behind in her overalls, while the tomboyish De France (whose breakout film, “Haute tension,” cast her as a psychotic lesbian) radiates movie-star charisma. “Summertime” celebrates the unique couple’s chemistry, allowing their smiles to convey the transformative effect they have on one another.
And then Delphine’s father falls ill, interrupting their love story just as it’s getting started. Delphine returns home to help her mother (Noemie Lvovsky) with the farm, quickly reverting back to the repressed introvert she was before, while Carole decides to follow her. Though nervous about discovery, the couple carry on in a sexily reckless way, making love among the dairy cows and sneaking between bedrooms in the wee hours, all while Corsini’s cameras capture the unabashed dynamic between them — which they pray no human will ever discover. D.p. Jeanne Lapoirie’s high-contrast lensing absolutely dazzles, flattering her female leads (while Delphine’s aspiring fiance, played by “Love at First Fight’s” Kevin Azais, looks almost sickly) with the way the sun makes them glow and the shadows mask their secrets.
Sooner or later, Delphine must decide to come clean to her family, and here, the tragic irony reveals itself: Though brazen (and potentially selfish) enough to steal Carole away from her b.f., Delphine may lack the courage to make an equivalent sacrifice. It’s hard not to judge her by contemporary standards, in part because the film is so modern in its acceptance of their connection, and yet the film does a splendid job of putting events into their historical context. While visiting, Carole wants to liberate more than just Delphine, but her hard-working mother and neighbors as well, from their male-dominated tyranny. This, too, is part of “la belle saison” — that moment in time when the world was ripe for change to any brave enough to reap it.