In “Summer Scars” (“Nos cérémonies”), French director Simon Rieth asks: How strong is brotherly love? In his feature debut, Rieth brilliantly mixes realism and fantasy in a moving story, co-written with Léa Riche, whose originality alone is worth a detour.
In the film, Tony, around 10 years old, and his younger sibling Noé share everything: the games, the hugs, a love of martial arts, long summer days spent playing on the beaches of Royan, the sun that gilds their skin. They also share their pain, in silence, when their parents argue and eventually split. And they even share a love interest: little Noé secretly fell for Cassandre, Tony’s sweetheart.
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The boys, played by the excellent Grégory and Benjamin Lu, fill their days, unsupervised, testing their bravery with all sorts of challenges. But at the game of who is the strongest, they will both lose. The impending tragedy lurks from the first minutes of the film. It unfolds quickly, deafening, brutally in the magnificent setting of the French Atlantic coast, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Marine Atlan: the fall down a cliff of one of the children. It is a tragedy that will change their lives forever and introduces the fantastic force into this powerful coming-of-age movie, selected at the 21st Neuchâtel Intl. Fantastic Film Festival, after its selection by Cannes Critics’ Week this year.
“In all my productions, there is fantasy. I love genre films and horror films but when I write, I never say to myself: ‘I’m going to make a genre film.’ The genre comes naturally to tell a story cinematically, bring emotion and offer a strong experience to the viewer,” Rieth tells Variety.
“There is a very personal part of my life in ‘Summer Scars.’ I have a brother, Hugo – who is a year younger than me – with whom I have a really close bond. As children, we spent all our summers in Royan, at our grandmother Hélène’s, to whom I dedicated the film. All the places where we shot are full of memories. This film, which occupied me for four and a half years between writing and directing, is a metaphor for our bond. There is a little bit of Hugo and me in both Tony and Noé, but the confrontation between them is more pronounced to serve the tragedy.”
The film, produced by Inès Daïen Dasi from Les Films du Poisson and scheduled for release on March 22, 2023, is also Rieth’s first work without Hugo playing in it. “I always wanted to be a director. Since I was little, I shot films with my father’s camcorder and directed my brother,” says Rieth, who obtained a master’s degree in cinema at Paris 1. “But for ‘Summer Scars,’ Hugo was already too old, as I wanted to focus on the age of 18-20, the turning point when we leave our childhood behind. And then to recreate the bond we share with Hugo with another actor seemed complicated to me.”
After the accident, we find Tony and Noé 10 years later, as they return to Royan for the first time since the tragedy, to bury their father. The brothers have been hiding for so long what happened that day on the cliff and the consequences they still feel in their daily lives. “What interests me in my films are the memories, the ghosts of childhood and how to live with them. Death doesn’t usually have a place in youth, but what happens when it comes up? I wanted to work around this huge life drive young adults have in them, though death contaminates them, contaminates the story and creates a strong emotion. I like these contrasts and the melancholy that it creates.”
Despite their secret, that the viewer will discover little by little, Tony and Noé give their all to life, going from party to party for Tony, the boastful one who lives in the fast lane. Noé, more composed and reserved, always keeps an eye on him. But in Royan, they meet again with their childhood sweetheart Cassandre (Maïra Villena) and the brothers’ interdependency will weigh more and more on the trio. “This film is above all, a film about love that is stronger than anything else, love that is beautiful but also destructive, between brothers and between two people.”
It is impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling the film’s surprising twist. The director is aware that a few violent scenes may shock some, including a shot of a hanging. However, the scene, a real technical challenge, was necessary, he adds: “Its coldness makes you uncomfortable but it had to be shown as an essential pact of belief with the viewers. If they ever doubted the fantasy, the film could not work.” Just as if they questioned the bond between the characters. This is very unlikely to happen though since the adult characters, Tony and Noé are played by brothers, Simon and Raymond Baur, non-professional actors chosen from among 800 candidates after 18 months of casting. “Before meeting them, I had already formed two duos of actors that I liked, who weren’t brothers. The Baurs were a real coup de coeur.”
In “Summer Scars,” all the characters are first-time actors. This can be felt in certain scenes but also brings freshness to this coming-of-age theme.
“I like to rewrite the script once I’ve found my actors so that it is adapted to them. As they are not professional, they bring their whole life with them. For example, the Baur brothers are wushu champions and have spent their lives training together. It made sense to include this in the script because the relationship to the body was important in the story. It gave me a lot of resources to make stronger scenes.”
An example of this is a tracking shot on the seashore where they are training, moving forward in graceful succession, as in a piece of choreography. “This scene alone tells their whole story. Just by the way they move, you can feel their complicity,” says Rieth. “When I first met them, Raymond gave me the impression that he was always levitating, a little drawn toward the sky. Whereas Simon had a much earthlier relationship. So I decided to reverse the roles to fit the characters: Raymond, who is the oldest in life, plays the youngest. Their bond was innate, but we had to work a lot with them on this change of status in the brotherhood to make it believable.”
The director also expresses this complicity, this complementarity, through his choice of anamorphic scope. “It went well with the imagery of American films, the very marked colors and the framing that I wanted. The scope was in line with the tragedy and during the first two thirds of the film, it also allowed us to always show two or three characters on the screen. The more the film progresses, the more they are separated into shots. The optics that Marine Atlan has chosen give this strange side to the image, a little twisted at times, which fits with the fantastic spirit.”
This strangeness also arises from the precise cutting of the film: “When I wrote it, I already had the idea of all the shots in my head. I like things to be milimetered and I wanted the mise en scène to really create something strange.” For that, Rieth and Atlan worked a lot beforehand, taking photos of each shot with actor doubles and with the right focal length to have the whole film broken down into a succession of images before filming it.
“I also wanted very frank and beautiful colors to magnify the heroes and the sets, to make them look even more beautiful than they already are. That’s what moves me in cinema. The story is already sad and hard enough. I don’t like sad films where the image is all gray. On the contrary, I think that cinema works on contrasts. I was looking for a brightness that could bring out the power of the characters in the middle of the sadness.”
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