10 great summer holiday films

From La Piscine to Midsommar, we pack our bags for a selection of some of the most memorable cinematic summer holidays. Now we just need the sunshine.

Ama Gloria (2023)Lilies Films

Sun, freedom, bountiful luxuriation: summer holidays promise our on-screen counterparts welcome frivolity and relief from everyday stresses and the daily grind – even if, as in Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex (2023), the merriment can sometimes turn sour. Some cinematic summer holidays are so romantic, meanwhile – think Venice in David Lean’s Summertime (1955) or Vienna in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) – that even we viewers can lose ourselves in them.

All the same, the idea of characters escaping home for sunshine and sea has such metaphorical potency that filmmakers often can’t help but find something more moving or troubling in it. Film’s summer holidaygoers may be trying to outrun some truth they’d rather not face – like a relationship’s deterioration in Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (1990) or past parenting regrets in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2021) – or even to outrun themselves. But holidays can’t last, and movie vacationers tend to find that whatever they wish to leave behind follows, no matter how far they travel.

So it is in Àma Gloria. On release this week, Marie Amachoukeli’s plaintive second feature follows six-year-old Parisian Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani) to Cape Verde for the summer, as she holidays with her beloved former nanny Gloria (Ilça Moreno Zego) and her family in their home town. With her mother passed away and her father often absent, Cléo has come to see Gloria as a surrogate parent. Gloria, though, has recently given up Paris to be with her own children, something that Cléo struggles to accept in between new experiences on balmy Cape Verde.

Whether the genre is comedy, adventure, drama or horror, vacationers in cinema are often (temporarily) fleeing anxieties at home – only to have to face their troubles head-on on summer holiday.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953)

Director: Jacques Tati

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953)

Jacques Tati breathes life into his signature comic creation in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which introduces the eternally bumbling Hulot (Tati himself) as a holidaygoer taking summer vacation at a cosy French seaside resort. There, Hulot and his fellow guests endure endless mishaps – triggered, often, by Hulot himself – as the film’s director-star revels in bringing disorder to a polite society-in-microcosm.

With silent-comedy spirit, Tati keeps dialogue largely incidental and fills his frames with visual gags: a forbidding crowd of male passengers inside a train carriage suddenly parts when a pretty young woman appears at the doorway; a family remains frozen in pose after the man taking their photograph is called away; a collapsed canoe is mistaken for a snapping shark, sending a beach full of tourists running in panic. Foregoing plot for an ever-flowing series of vignettes, this first outing for Monsieur Hulot is as leisurely and warm as any good summer holiday.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Remaking one of his own pictures, Alfred Hitchcock swaps out the snowy Switzerland of 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much for sunny Morocco in his 1956 update, bringing a sizzling, fish-out-of-water frisson to his story of international conspiracy. The second half of the 1956 version moves the action to London, for a top-tier Hitchcock suspense set-piece set in the Albert Hall. But we first meet Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife Jo (Doris Day) in Marrakesh, where they become inadvertently tangled in a murder plot that also sees their son kidnapped.

It’s all quite typical for Hitchcock, whose protagonists often realise at once both a fantasy and a great fear: here, a couple ambivalent about (and perhaps a little bored with) small-town family life find excitement and intrigue when family is suddenly snatched away. Something new for Hitchcock is Marrakesh, the only place outside of North America or Europe where Hitch ever went to shoot on location, and it’s a special place: the film’s presentation of the city is altogether seductive and chaotically, colourfully alive.

La Piscine (1969)

Director: Jacques Deray

La Piscine (1969)

La Piscine opens with a paradisal image: in and around the pool of a Côte d’Azur villa lounges and frolics a bronzed, toned young couple played by the impossibly glamorous Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, real-life ex-lovers with their own ready-made chemistry. But though their Jean-Paul and Marianne together appear as a languid ideal, following the arrival of alpha dog Harry (Maurice Ronet) – former partner to Marianne, former friend to Jean-Paul – and Harry’s 18-year-old daughter, Pénélope (Jane Birkin), that image of perfection is unsettled and eroded.

Harry needles Jean-Paul and woos Marianne, Pénélope draws the attention of Jean-Paul, and Jean-Paul begins to look upon Harry as competition to be vanquished, as the film evolves from pure aesthetic pleasure into a paranoid, jaundiced anti-romance.

If you haven’t had your fill of poolside psychosexual thrillers come La Piscine’s end, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Jacques Deray’s film, A Bigger Splash (2015), is worth checking out. With the action relocated to the Italian island of Pantelleria, Guadagnino’s wilder, more darkly comic spin on the material makes for a melodramatic companion piece to the cool original.

Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)

A country excursion isn’t entirely the escape from home that four friends would like it to be in Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. Come to stay a few days in Palamu, in India’s rural Bihar region, intellectual Sanjoy (Subhendu Chatterjee), hotheaded ladies’ man Hari (Samit Bhanja), joker Shekhar (Rabi Ghosh) and group leader Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) find their big-city money goes far, opening doors (“Thank God for corruption!”) and buying them cheap booze and acts of service from poor locals.

Kolkata is never far away, however. The four out-of-towners bring their insecurities and thoughts of stale love and work lives with them into an environment where they’re also confronted by class divisions and poverty in an independent India still finding its own character post-British rule. All that is contained in what is ultimately a hangout movie, a comic, tender look at what four straight, single young men might get up to when given a week of complete freedom – that being mostly drink, shoot the breeze, and chase women with varying degrees of success.

A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984)

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

A Summer at Grandpa's (1984)

A girl is narrowly saved from being hit by a train. Thieves crack a victim’s head with a rock. A pregnant woman falls from a tree and loses her unborn child. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s is stalked by death, the film’s very premise – preteen Tung-Tung (Chi-Kuang Wang) and his younger sister Ting-Ting (Shu-Chen Li) are sent to their grandparents’ house in the country for the summer, and there wait as their recently hospitalised mother prepares for an operation – leaving it in a purgatory where life sits on a precipice.

A Summer at Grandpa’s, though, is a gentle film, Hou’s patient style leaving us to never dwell in gloom, but instead simply observe what comes to pass. Mostly, as the adults face dramas on the periphery, Tung-Tung and Ting-Ting play, racing turtles and swimming with new friends. It’s a coming-of-age film in which the director recalls childhood fondly while never viewing that world through a rose-tinted lens of nostalgia.

The Green Ray (1986)

Director: Éric Rohmer

The Green Ray (1986)

From Paris to Cherbourg, the Alps and Biarritz, Delphine (Marie Rivière) is looking for something. Dumped by her boyfriend and ditched by the friend she was set to holiday with, Delphine spends summer vacation hopping aimlessly from one location to the next. Having cut short those trips to Cherbourg and the Alps over her discomfort at being a solo, single traveller amid a crowd, at Biarritz Delphine overhears a group discussing ‘le rayon vert’, the green flash of light that can sometimes be seen just as the sun dips below the horizon.

Uninterested in fleeting acts of hedonism, Delphine spurns men looking for casual fun and companions seeking drunken revelry; in Éric Rohmer’s largely improvised realist world, the green ray is the little bit of magic that Delphine seeks. A quarter-life crisis story that follows its protagonist from scenes of disarming comedy to sudden despair, The Green Ray by its end reveals itself to be, like Delphine, hopelessly romantic.

La ciénaga (2001)

Director: Lucrecia Martel

La ciénaga (2001)

How long have La ciénaga’s matriarchal Mecha (Graciela Borges) and her family been on vacation at La Mandrágora, their summer house in rural Argentina? Why has the house fallen into such disrepair? Who even are some of the people we see passing through, and how do they relate to anyone in Mecha’s family?

Lucrecia Martel’s blackly satirical debut can be overwhelming: thrown in at the deep end (something you’d never want to happen to you in La Mandrágora’s frankly toxic-looking pool), you get an impression of house, family and nation all festering and in disarray. Kids wield shotguns, and enjoy the run of the estate and surrounding jungle. Other than pouring another drink or injuring themselves stumbling around the grounds, meanwhile, the adults barely lift a finger, while calling their indigenous help lazy and accusing them of being thieves. All points to a decay, for the country and its white middle class, of a physical, financial and moral kind.

Unrelated (2007)

Director: Joanna Hogg

Unrelated (2007)

Since her debut, emotionally charged holidays have been a recurring feature of the work of Joanna Hogg, with the leisure afforded by her upper middle class characters offering always just temporary respite from some underlying dissatisfaction. In Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, middle-aged Anna (Kathryn Worth) escapes a failing marriage in the UK to Tuscany, where her old school friend Verena (Mary Roscoe), Verena’s new husband Charlie (Michael Hadley) and their collective family are staying in a villa for the summer.

Soon shunning the family’s older contingent, Anna begins to spend time with the youngsters, including self-assured pack leader Oakley (Tom Hiddleston). Away from ‘the olds’, Anna enjoys alcohol-fuelled mischief out in the dry, golden Tuscan landscape and begins a mutual flirtation with Oakley – an effort to recall some of the carefree self-possession of youth, to feel desired, and to forget the disappointment waiting back home, if only for the moment.

Midsommar (2019)

Director: Ari Aster

Midsommar (2019)

If it’s festivity and perpetual sunshine you want, you’ll find it at the Hårga commune in rural Sweden around the summer solstice; time it right, and you might even catch the resident pagans throwing their rarely held blockbuster midsummer festival. Unfortunately, a guest also runs the risk of being ritually immolated or turned into a straw-filled human ragdoll, as Americans Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and Christian’s witless friends discover in Ari Aster’s sunlit folk horror Midsommar.

Though cruel images abound in Midsommar – a public geronticide makes for a particularly grisly spectacle – Aster’s film is, at heart, a tale of glorious renewal. Christian has only brought Dani along on his boys’ trip because he took pity on her following a family tragedy, but the commune has less of the hedonism that Christian wants and more of the spiritual restoration that his partner needs. Running the emotional gamut from first scene to last, Florence Pugh is sheer force as Dani, a broken young woman rediscovering herself as a queen.

Aftersun (2022)

Director: Charlotte Wells

Aftersun (2022)

In Charlotte Wells’ shattering debut feature, a 90s package holiday is remembered afresh as a time of both joyous abandon and great pain. Splicing together scruffy MiniDV footage and rich 35mm film, Aftersun takes place chiefly at the Turkish resort where 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and dad Calum (Paul Mescal) while away their days. Together they tick the boxes of the typical cheap and cheerful British holiday – swimming, lounging in the sun, piling up on food from the hotel buffet – but something’s not quite right, Sophie noticing behaviour from her loving, attentive father that suggests a submerged pain peeking out.

Wells’ deftly elliptical, impressionistic way with montage suggests so much that’s unsaid: heartache remembered, trauma wrought, people lost. All builds to a wrenching sequence, the past colliding with the present, memory with fantasy as Sophie remembers her father at his most vital, dancing carelessly at a hotel bar to Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ while, in the present, the older Sophie imagines Calum collapsed in her arms, exhausted, finally given the support he never could admit he needed.

Àma Gloria is in cinemas from 14 June 2024 and on BFI Player from 22 July.

Further reading