‘Last Summer’ Review: Catherine Breillat Makes Her Comeback With a Thorny Affair Between a Teen and His Stepmom

It began in the son’s room, when the father was away on business. L’enfant thought it was l’amour, but for her, 30-odd years his senior, the sex, lies and audiotape were a mistake. Wild at heart, she’d yielded to the taste of … oh, never mind. Competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Catherine Breillat’s “Last Summer” echoes films that have come before — most notably, 2019 Danish drama “Queen of Hearts,” on which it’s based — but it proves most daring in the ways the film departs from its more conventionally moralistic source, and especially in Breillat’s refusal to call either party a parasite.

Yes, the affair between a lawyer and her 17-year-old stepson is a betrayal — of her marriage, of her parental responsibilities, of everything she stands for as an attorney — but that’s nothing compared with how the 50-ish woman deals with it when word gets out in this thought-provoking domestic drama. In reviewing the original, Variety’s Guy Lodge wrote, “You can practically envisage a Robin Wright-starring U.S. remake” — which isn’t far from the truth. Backed by fearless producer Saïd Ben Saïd (“Elle”), Breillat gives us the great Léa Drucker (who played far more responsible moms in “Close” and “Custody”) in the role of Anne, who’s introduced representing an underage girl in a sex-crimes case.

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Anne knows the law, and she claims in an early scene with her husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), to be a “gerontophile.” She means it as a joke, to ease the older man’s mind, but Breillat makes it clear that this character has no particular predilection for underage boys. She’s most certainly not a pedophile in the sense that movies so often depict — that is, someone with a recurring attraction to minors. The film is more interesting in that she’s caught completely off guard by where her relationship with teenage Théo (Samuel Kircher) goes, as is the boy, who has an active love life with others his age.

The forbidden turn their relationship takes is more dangerous in its unpredictability, for who cannot relate to an unplanned and totally unreasonable attraction of some kind? Few would give in as Anne does, though Breillat resists the tabloid treatment (the one Todd Haynes unpacked in his film “May December” earlier the same week in Cannes). Never one to shy away from sexuality on-screen, the director depicts without passing judgment, allowing the act to stir up whatever reaction it might in audiences — any reaction but the expected, exploitative one we’ve grown accustomed to having in so many gender-reversed May-December movies prior, from “Stealing Beauty” to “Lolita.”

Actively challenging the male gaze, she privileges female pleasure, while acknowledging that it too can be problematic. Questions of consent aside, in the eyes of the court this would almost certainly be deemed rape — a subject whose ambiguities have proven rich fodder for the director. Here, after a nearly two-decade dry spell, is the comeback we’ve been wanting from Breillat: a film, like “36 fillette” and “Fat Girl,” that confronts the complicated, impulsive and all-too-often-regrettable choices humans make when desire takes control.

The helmer frames “Last Summer” from Anne’s perspective, which adds yet another subversive layer to the experience, since it asks audiences to identify first with her crime and later the cover-up. For a short, steamy stretch of the film, Anne and Théo enjoy a kind of illicit intimacy, sneaking around behind the adults’ back to have sex. At one point, the boy takes out a tape recorder (oddly old-fashioned in the age of iPhones and sexting), and asks Anne to share certain secrets. She does till the questions turn to their affair, at which point, she shuts down, unwilling to address misdeeds she’s already started to rationalize.

Drucker plays her scenes with the boy as if the time Anne spends with Théo makes her feel his age again. And yet, she can’t switch off the voice of responsibility in her head. Théo doesn’t care if they get discovered, but she knows the stakes for her marriage and her career, which explains the direction things take when Pierre gets wind of the affair. Suddenly, it’s Théo’s word against hers, as power games — the subtext of any sexual dynamic — become the focus. Shifting into lawyer mode, Anne denies and defends her behavior, as so many unfaithful movie husbands have before. In her view, it’s the adult thing to do, compared with Théo’s obvious immaturity (Kircher, sibling of “Winter Boy” star Paul Kircher, is every bit as formidable a new acting talent).

Still, Breillat doesn’t let her off that easy. “Queen of Hearts” took the aftermath in a more melodramatic direction, whereas it’s been Breillat’s career-long tendency to confront the uncomfortable. In this case, that means watching Anne struggle to reconcile the paradox between her values (in her capacity as a lawyer, we see her rescuing children from abusive situations) and her impulses (most alarming in the final scene, when Théo tries to rekindle their relationship). The differences between “Last Summer” and its source material serve to reveal Breillat’s fascinations as a filmmaker, especially in the latter scenes, when Anne’s fellow adults consciously decide what they’re willing to accept. In keeping with the controversial director’s earlier work, the answer may well be: a lot more than most audiences.

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