“You are not here for a cure,” the founder of a 26-day sexual therapy retreat tells the small group of women enrolled in her program at the outset of “That Kind of Summer.” Laying out the ground rules for the sensitive self-awareness exercise that follows — a loosely structured hiatus from unhealthy temptations, designed for those whose out-of-control impulses have made their lives unmanageable — she reassures, “You are not forbidden any sexual thoughts or behavior here. You are not sick.”
Shot on grainy Super 16 with the kind of unsteady handheld aesthetic that suggests the cameraperson really ought to get their inner ear checked, Denis Côté’s radically nonjudgmental “let’s talk about sex” drama looks and feels like a documentary — at least, it could pass as one until a giant CG tarantula crawls up the wall while one of the women is masturbating late in the game. By then, it’s safe to say, the film has shifted from loosely simulated vérité to something more impressionistic, and the distinction doesn’t matter so much anyway. A clinic in which the patients “are not sick” may be well-intentioned, but it’s inherently anti-dramatic: Then why are they there? How does one identify progress? And what exactly is the goal of the frustratingly slow 137 minutes that follow?
Defiantly unconventional Canadian director Côté’s latest wants to bring sexy back to Quebecois cinema, but his languid portrait of three so-called hypersexuals is so hyper-respectful, it borders on boring. Premiering in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where his pandemic-made “Social Hygiene” won an award a year earlier, the film is not shy about nudity or the frank discussion of extreme sex acts, but it takes great pains not to be arousing or exploitative — which, in theory, marks a conscious break from the more titillating approach filmmakers have long taken to female sexuality.
Enlisting screenplay adviser Rachel Graton for a more enlightened approach, Côté is careful not to use the terms “nymphomaniac” or “sex addict,” lest they reinforce outdated notions of “hysteria” seen in films like “Shock Corridor.” In treating such behavior without sensationalism, Côté helps to reveal how seldom this subject — an arena the MPAA euphemistically refers to as “mature themes” — is approached with anything approaching actual maturity, much less responsibility.
Léonie (Larissa Corriveau) shares stories of being molested by her father, which points to an old-fashioned Freudian explanation for her behavior. A sometime sex worker who says she would gladly do it for free, Geisha (Aude Mathieu) brandishes her body like a weapon, sneaking away from the retreat to service nearly an entire soccer team at one point. When Eugénie (Laure Giappiconi) isn’t masturbating, she does impressive charcoal sketches, in which supervising therapist Octavia (Anne Ratte-Polle) sees promise: If she can encourage this hobby, maybe it can take the place of Eugénie’s seemingly harmful sex drive — self-love instead of self-abuse.
The overseer quoted up top is Mathilde (Marie-Claude Guérin), who conceived this open-minded treatment center. Now, she’s pregnant and must pass the responsibility to a new leader, which is how Octavia fits into the picture: She’s a German academic who arrives with unresolved issues in her own private life (she makes frequent calls to an ex-girlfriend back home) and preset intellectual ideas of how to “fix” her three female charges.
Of all these women, Octavia will change the most over the course of the summer. While she finds it near-impossible to break certain patterns in her her patients’ behavior (all three rush back to dangerous/unhealthy sexual situations during their 24-hour break), Octavia herself must adapt and, in a scene rarely depicted in miracle-worker movies, confront her feelings of failure. “How did you think this would end?” asks Sami (French actor Samir Guesmi), an imperturbable social worker and the only man in the operation, which makes him an obvious focus for libidos seeking outlet. Here, it is the man who is objectified, serving to reflect female desire for a change.
All of this is fine in an abstract sense, and yet, “That Kind of Summer” feels like the foundation for a story that never materializes, a form of intellectual onanism that can be rather tedious to sit through, but that lingers and expands in the imagination. Some will surely find it therapeutic, this dull exercise in what more progressive minds than mine refer to as “sex-positive” thinking — an attitude which embraces all manner of human sexuality as healthy (so long as it’s consensual) and seeks to eliminate the moral shaming and stigmatization imposed by a repressive society. Paradoxically, scrubbing all that is intimate or illicit from sex can eliminate the very aspects that make it special, rendering such behavior as banal as it seems here, just a thing one does with other people, like racquetball or yoga.