Isabelle Adjani lies on a blanket in One Deadly Summer the way Barbara Stanwyck wears an anklet in Double Indemnity, seducing a male dupe into the fold of a murder plot simply by presenting herself as an irresistible siren of sexual energy. Director Jean Becker ups the ante for Adjani, who sweats profusely while she dances at the local “Bing Bong” party, ambles throughout a small French town in frilly dresses, and strips nude in this noirish thriller, in such a way that makes local lad Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon) simply lose his shit. Hot on the heels of 1981’s Body Heat, One Deadly Summer follows suit by updating noir conventions and archetypes, but while Lawrence Kasdan intensifies “noirishness” by amping the dial to 11, Becker integrates even more cinematic influences and engages with lingering post-WWII anxieties in a manner that broadens, rather than distills, the film’s revisionist stakes.
Becker prefers an unwieldy directorial mode that concentrates more on narrative excess and elongated character backstories than thematic economy. Adjani’s siren, named Elle, harbors a complicated plot to exact vengeance on Pin-Pon and his family, who she believes are linked to the rape of her mother 20 years prior, at the hands of three Italian immigrants. These details, however, aren’t disclosed until the film’s second half, at which point One Deadly Summer morphs into a Rashomon-style narrative, revealing and repeating a number of events from different character perspectives. Becker opts for voiceover—another noir convention—to allow various insights, but does little in these passages to strengthen the film’s visual approach, which remains constant and generally brightly lit no matter whose story is on display. In fact, One Deadly Summer could be called pastoral noir for its perpetual use of daylight, on-location shooting, and wide-open spaces.
One Deadly Summer plays out as historical pastiche. Though it relates history through cinema, it’s equally interested in the history of cinema itself—specifically Italian neorealism and how Becker’s father, Jacques, often intersected politics and gender through a genre template in films such as Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi. In all of these films, genre narratives serve as starting points to explore deeper regions of character desire. For example, even the title of One Deadly Summer is a misnomer, as Elle’s been living with her pain and thirst for vengeance for 20 summers, herself the spawn of a hateful, violent act. Thus, Becker uses Elle as a stand-in for the European postwar condition, with national boundaries no longer serving as markers of self, since all semblance (or myth) of a singular culture is gone.
In that light, One Deadly Summer is even better understood as a transnational pastiche, borrowing elements from French, Japanese, Italian, and American cinemas in order to broach how these various traditions wield an indelible influence on the constructs of cinematic storytelling. With its generic title and thinly drawn characters, One Deadly Summer could be, and has been, mistaken as a lurid noir exploiting Adjani’s nudity and failing to cohere its narrative elements into a compelling, surprising whole. However, as the film unfolds, it’s clear that such a reading fails to recognize the characters’ tendencies toward excess and madness is a resultant and fundamental condition of toppled traditions. When Pin-Pon says his “mother detests anything in a skirt,” the film isn’t challenging one woman’s internalized misogyny, but calling bullshit on an entire half century that’s at once defined and denigrated sexuality through commerce. If Becker shoots Adjani like she’s in an advertisement (diffused light, slightly low-angle, elegantly framed), that’s because she is. In One Deadly Summer, art and product are wrapped into one, disturbing whole.
Bayview Entertainment offers One Deadly Summer on Blu-ray in a stellar, if slightly flawed, 1080P transfer that could have used a bit more fine-tuning. While there are no substantial issues, image clarity and density is often lackluster, especially in close-ups, where faces and objects can appear soft or even a bit fuzzy. These admittedly minor problems particularly affect Isabelle Adjani’s scenes, primarily because her close-ups are intended to make her appear angelic and blemish free, something the transfer ironically prevents. Otherwise, outdoor scenes are vibrant and clean. Colors are sharp, lending an appropriate, if not perfect, depth of field to many shots. Sound is strong, if a bit limited given the 1.0 LPCM track. However, there are no distracting noises, hisses, or pops on the track and dialogue has been proficiently mixed with Georges Delerue’s score.
Three interviews, one with Adjani and two with Becker, reveal much about the film’s pre-production history and afterlife. The Adjani interview, conducted during the film’s premiere at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, discusses her emergence as a star and sexual persona; she even receives comparisons to Marilyn Monroe from the interviewer. Adjani seems to welcome the attention (she’s happy people have taken to her as an actress), but refrains from commenting on her status as a burgeoning sex icon. Becker, on the other hand, talks extensively about his working relationship with writer Sébastien Japrisot, including an initial falling out they had over whether Japrisot should write the story as a novel, then adapt it as a screenplay. Becker also shares his viewpoint on why the film wasn’t a hit with Cannes or Cahiers du Cinéma (too successful and commercial, it seems), and explains why working with Adjani was such a treat. The film’s original trailer and a photo gallery of stills and production material round out the informative disc.
Isabelle Adjani is la belle image and femme fatale in One Deadly Summer, Jean Becker’s enticing noir pastiche, now available in a serviceable Blu-ray package from Bayview Entertainment.