Last Summer: Catherine Breillat’s most heartbreaking film to date

Catherine Breillat’s remake of the Danish film Queen of Hearts plays with ideas of attraction, repulsion and self-delusion through Anne (Léa Drucker), a middle-aged lawyer who finds herself inappropriately drawn to her teenage stepson.

19 April 2024

By Ela Bittencourt

Samuel Kircher as Théo, Léa Drucker as Anne in Last Summer (2023)
Sight and Sound

Catherine Breillat bristles at critics categorising her as an outré or erotic auteur. She’s a romantic at heart, searching for that pure spark of passion, something she stresses in the press notes for her latest feature, Last Summer (a remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Danish film, Queen of Hearts). One would be hard-pressed, however, to call Last Summer a romantic drama, so weirdly predatory is the sensual ardour of the mature woman at its centre, whose slippery sexual attraction, with the contradictory impulses of fusion and repulsion, soul-baring and self-delusion, make Last Summer Breillat’s most heartbreaking film to date. 

Léa Drucker plays Anne, a steely, pale-blue-eyed lawyer, whose passion for defending vulnerable girls, some violated, others trapped in foster care, is only matched by her serene devotion to her husband, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), and their two adopted girls. Anne’s calm falters, however, when Pierre’s teenage son Théo (Samuel Kircher) moves in. Seething with hormonal aggression, but also capable of sudden flashes of beguiling tenderness, Théo has a magnetism that tests Anne’s loyalty, and integrity.

The reality of Anne and Théo embarking on a quasi-incestuous affair seems to interest Breillat less than the fact that it’s possible for Anne to be perfectly enmeshed in her role as a wife and mother, and still harbour unreconciled youthful urges. But what is it about Anne that makes her lose her moorings so quickly, metamorphosing from a placidly obliging wife – attracted to, even adoring her husband, though admittedly no longer flushed with desire – to a cheat? In a bucolically beautiful scene midway through the film, Théo strolls about the garden with a recorder. As they snuggle on the grass, their shoulders grazing, Anne confesses what’s plagued her all her adult years: the fear that her stable life might suddenly collapse; or rather, that she will wilfully cause its collapse. 

The reluctant confession, which elicits Théo’s sympathy, restates a recurring idea in Breillat’s films. Her women – perhaps most famously Maud (Isabelle Huppert), falling for a conman in the semi-autobiographical Abuse of Weakness (2013) – are often mysteries to themselves. Anne comes across as sensing her own capacity for recklessness and danger, secretly nourishing appetites much larger than her relatively conforming demeanour suggests. 

Léa Drucker as Anne in Last Summer (2023)

Though Breillat doesn’t let viewers in on all of her heroine’s secrets, Anne hints to Théo that the first time she had sex was so agonising, and marked her so badly, that she can’t speak of it with anyone. Decades later, the spectre of Anne’s unfulfilled youthful dream of a perfect romantic union haunts her happy family life.

The casting of Léa Drucker as Anne – Breillat has said this was her producer Saïd Ben Saïd’s idea – is ingenious: with her elegance and soft expression, she is hardly a stereotypically tempestuous heroine. Inspired by baroque ecstatic painting, including Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606), Breillat stages Anne’s sex scenes with deliberate unnaturalness. In orgasmic bliss, Drucker’s slim body, captured in prolonged close-ups, contorts and arches strangely; the ensuing stillness and silence are also odd, conveying an almost spiritual air, perhaps to suggest that Anne finds not just rapture but a beatific harmony, however fleeting, in having Théo as stepson and lover. 

Breillat’s indebtedness to the thriller genre means that she eventually pierces the soft angelic mists hovering over Anne. When the film’s pace picks up, and it acquires Hitchcockian undertones, Théo’s increasing demands for intimacy and his wounded anger when rebuffed push Anne to acknowledge
the tragic impossibility and madness of their relationship. 

The genius of Breillat’s storytelling and visual concept, with cinematography that bathes Anne in benign light, lies in the fact that her morality is impossible to pin down. Retaliating once cornered, she summons her strength, no longer a fearful fatalist but a cool strategist. She has age and her profession on her side; she bluffs, denies everything. Ever mistrustful of moralising, Breillat shows her heroine neither winning nor losing, as Anne quietly settles with Théo and somehow keeps her marriage, though on rather shaky ground. Towards the end, Breillat is bracingly honest about the way lust can be a kind of initiation: Anne teaches Théo that hurt is a thing to acquire, like a badge, and then, tragically, sometimes ruthlessly, to pass down.