If there's one thing that's genuinely surprising about Philippe Garrel's new film, A Burning Hot Summer, it's the lack of feverish urgency that its title promises. The opening sequence, in which an abandoned husband, Frédéric (Louis Garrel), fantasies about his nude wife, Angèle (Monica Belluci), promises a tale of rambunctious sexual appetites and frustrated passions—but in the end, the frustration is mostly the viewer's.
The first warning sign comes with the leisurely voiceover narration of Frédéric's life by his friend Paul (Jérôme Robart). Frédéric is a painter of rather vague ambitions, who appears to live comfortably with his actress wife, but when Paul and his girlfriend, Elisabeth (Céline Sallette), move into the married couple's Rome apartment, tensions abound. The gangly and insecure Élisabeth is jealous of Frédéric's monopolizing Paul's attention, and of Angèle's voluptuousness; meanwhile, Angèle's seductive dancing with a stranger leads to her husband's fit of jealousy. From there, things unravel quickly, with both supposedly needing each other, but being too tired, or too self-evolved, to act kind, not to mention loving.
How it came to this, we never find out. Was the couple unfit for marriage, or were their expectations so grand reality failed to satisfy? There's some hint at the latter, mostly in the lackluster, and slightly ludicrous, scene in which Paul and Frédéric talk revolution. How is one to live, the friends ask? At least Paul does, since Frédéric's ennui generally puts him off any prodding questions. He fulfills the stereotype of a boho artist uninterested in politics, reacting to his friend's revolutionary proclamations with wholesale nihilism—though he seems happy to do his anti-bourgeois part by defying fidelity and sleeping with prostitutes.
Louis Garrel, whose elegant coolness was exhilarating to watch in Bernardo Bertolluci's The Dreamers, is sloppily disheveled as Frédéric, and when it comes to displaying emotions, somnambulant. His character's mixture of self-containment and alleged possessiveness over his wife fails to convince, if not to irritate. The curvy Belucci hypnotizes in the dancing scene, where the camera rapturously lingers on her, but at other times looks more tired than sultry, failing to produce any chemistry with Garrel. To make things worse, her tearful scenes with her lover are propped up by lines such as "You know nothing about women"—but with no glimpses of the before, of paradise lost, we may wonder what there is to know.
It's a pity, since under the slush, hides a more compelling story: of two young lovers, Elisabeth and Paul, who must learn to overcome their personal hang-ups, to become each other's equals, and partners. Unlike Frédéric and Angèle, who are larger than life but drawn with such thick brushstrokes they become vapid blurs, Paul and Elisabeth are more ordinary, but also more engaging. Their meeting on a film set and their early courtship are a winsome mix of awkwardness and sensuality. The two are drawn into their friends' vitriolic marriage, and while Paul comes close to blending into his friend's shadow, in the end, he shows enough emotional intelligence to choose intimacy over a friendship that smacks of idolatry. The two lovers must grow by learning from their friends' mistakes. If we had only spent more time with them, A Burning Hot Summer could have been more rewarding.