By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 2, 2011 at 2:04AM
There are certain cliches associated with European cinema -- they're not necessarily always accurate but they do exist. Ask a layman -- a well educated, smart, nice person who might not be quite as subtitle-happy as you or I -- what they imagine they might see in, say, an average French film, and a number of things might come up. Characters who are constantly having extra-marital affairs, for instance. A vaguely homoerotic relationship between two friends. Unbroken four-to-five minute takes. Dialogue talking about 'the revolution.' An actress, perhaps Monica Bellucci, taking her clothes off within the first 45 seconds.
If you were to take this layman's thoughts and turn them into a screenplay, you'd end up with "Un Été Brûlant" (or "A Scorching Summer") the latest from Venice Film Festival favorite Philippe Garrel. Ostensibly, it's a film about male friendship: Paul (Jérôme Robart) meets Frédéric (Louis Garrel, the helmer's son), a painter married to Angèle (Monica Bellucci), an Italian film actress, and the two men become fast friends. The couple invites Paul and his girlfriend Elisabeth (Céline Sallette) to stay with them in Rome, but it soon becomes apparent that their marriage is in trouble.
Let's put it this way. "A Scorching Summer" is the kind of film where the line, "Fidelity is an outdated, petit-bourgeois concept" is said with a straight face. There were times when we genuinely thought that the film might be a very sophisticated parody. But it's not. It's instead an interminable, excruciatingly written drama, full of characters that you wouldn't care about if you were related to them.
Garrel Sr. says that the film is one about friendship, but there's very little evidence of it here. Paul and Frédéric are introduced. They sit in the same room. And from that point on, we're led to believe that it's some kind of defining bromance, although there's nothing to suggest that they're anything more than acquaintances. It doesn't help that Paul is a bland, characteristic-free cipher, and that Louis Garrel is one of the least charismatic leading men we've seen on screen in some time; going for "brooding artist" he lands closer to "that-guy-in-high-school-who-smoked-licorice-roll-ups-and-read-Sartre-to-show-how-tormented-he-was." We can only imagine that Garrel begins the film with Frédéric driving his car into a tree to keep the audience hoping that the scene will be replayed later on, in super slow-motion. We know a 1000fps shot of Garrel Jr headbutting a windshield would have gone a long way to redeeming the film for us.
The women don't fare much better, thanks to a thick strain of misogyny that runs through the film. Bellucci, a good decade too old for the part, somehow manages to be unconvincing as an Italian film actress, which is, you know, what she is. It can't be the French, because she's delivered good performances in the language before, but somehow, she was less wooden in "The Matrix Reloaded." Sallette comes off the best -- she's rather luminous on screen, and a bizarre sleepwalking scene suggests that another, more interesting film could have been made that focused on Elisabeth, if only Garrel had any interest in having her do anything but complain that her boyfriend isn't paying attention to her.
What little drama there is, is often revealed in advance by a forehead-slappingly redundant voiceover, new characters are introduced seemingly at random and the pacing is such that the film feels twice as long as it really is, with no sense of how much time has passed on screen. And Iike yesterday's other Venice turkey "W.E," there are a number of scenes that simply beggar belief: a ghostly appearance by Frédéric's grandfather, for instance, or an interminable one-shot, five minute sequence of Bellucci dancing at a party to some substandard British indie rock (Carl Barat's Libertines offshoot Dirty Pretty Things, if you're interested).
There are maybe, if we're being generous, one or two neatly composed shots (the film is competently made at least, and well shot by veteran Willy Kurant, it just has this great stinking albatross of a screenplay around its neck), and one or two nicely observed moments. More importantly, it has a lovely, although spare, score by ex-"Velvet Underground" man John Cale, one just good enough to lift the film off the bottom grade. We've no idea why he agreed to do it, however -- presumably he owes Garrel money from back when the director was seeing Nico. Hopefully, it'll become independently available, to save interested parties from actually having to sit through "A Scorching Summer." [D-]