In Catherine Corsini’s Summertime, feminist activism is the only way out of small-town complacency. It’s 1971, and a French country girl, Delphine (Izïa Higelin), leaves her parents’ farm to study in Paris, leaving behind the local girl who broke her heart. After a chance encounter with a group of rowdy women’s rights activists on a bus, Delphine is completely seduced by the world that presents itself before her, where banding together against the patriarchy feels like one never-ending party that includes sing-alongs, steamy sex, Janis Joplin records, and smoking weed in the woods. Delphine is also immediately seduced by Carole (Cécile de France), a leader of the movement who turns out to be married to a man. Little does it matter, though, as bodies unshackled from oppression are capable of anything, or so it seems.
Corsini depicts feminists in lighthearted ways, at once humorously caricatured and sensitively human. Their in-fighting, debates (about whether, for example, to focus on abortion or gay rights), and pepper-spraying of nurses to get a gay friend out of a “loony bin”—none of it feels like hard political work for them. Activism takes the form of an effortless social bonding never dissociated from actual bodies and pleasures. Here, the revolution is orgasmic.
Although its perennial state of fun finds its perfect backdrop in Paris, Summertime doesn’t become a multi-dimensional love story until Delphine moves back to the countryside after her father has a stroke and Carole follows her, at first pretending to be a friend from their pottery class. It’s when the characters move away from the city and their academic circle that the conflicts feel less pedagogical and theory becomes practice. Delphine and Carole finally become full-fledged people, not stock feminist characters we associate with the ’70s, once they’re surrounded by haystacks, cows, and country folk who only speak the language of continuation, not rupture.
What’s so uncanny about Summertime is the fact that Higelin so closely resembles Adèle Exarchopoulos, the star of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, another recent film about the dramatics of young lesbian love. The irrefutable similarities between the actresses makes Summertime feel like a prequel to Kechiche’s film, cleverly set 40 years before it in order to suggest that women are still fighting for the same rights that they were back when Pompidou was president. While this doubleness can exert a distracting, and even cheapening, effect on Corsini’s film, as one can’t help but see Exarchopoulos’s face in Higelin’s, it’s also its finest asset.
As a sort of retrospective do-over of Keniche’s epic of lesbian ecstasy followed by lesbian sorrow, Summertime works as a humbler tale where sex is organic, not staged, and naked bodies are immune to the fetishizing gaze of the viewer or the director. The result of this tension between cinematic doubles and feminist bodies undone by erotism is a lukewarm space where we’re neither sad with the characters nor excited with them. This might be the film’s most feminist accomplishment: leaving the viewer at arm’s length from the women on screen, unable to pity them or seize them, simply witnessing them writing their own lives on top of pre-determined scripts.