Set mostly in 1971, Summertime chronicles the love affair between a sheltered farm girl and a radical feminist, splitting its attention evenly—to its detriment, in the long run—between farming and feminism. Delphine (played by French rock star Izïa Higelin) has known that she’s gay since childhood but is still deeply in the closet, as her conservative family and rural community would savagely turn on her if they knew the truth. In frustration, she moves to Paris, where she quickly meets Carole (Cécile De France), a Spanish teacher who’s also part of a collective that aggressively campaigns for women’s rights, staging disruptive demonstrations and protests. Carole has a live-in boyfriend (Benjamin Bellecour), who’s as progressive as she is, and no history whatsoever of being attracted to women; she invites Delphine to join the group with no ulterior motive. When Delphine makes a move, however, Carole barely resists, and the two are soon deliriously in love. Will society allow it? Much more crucially, will Delphine’s mother?
The whirlwind-courtship phase of Summertime, unfolding in Paris during the spring of ’71, boasts an appealing exuberance. Were Carole a man, the age difference between De France (who’s 41) and Higelin (who’s 25) might raise eyebrows, especially given their characters’ worldly/naïve dynamic. Here, though, it’s stark differences in demeanor, body type, and background that register more strongly, creating a sense of opposing forces drawn together like the positive and negative poles of two magnets. It helps that Carole and Delphine are surrounded, during the movie’s first half, by numerous other distinctive characters, both male and female. Indeed, for a while, Summertime seems to be as much about the French second-wave feminist movement as it is about its central romance. Director Catherine Corsini (Three Worlds), who cowrote the screenplay with Laurette Polmanss, captures the unruliness of the era while avoiding both melodrama and didacticism, the twin pitfalls that afflicted last year’s drab Suffragette.
Alas, the film stumbles when the time comes to engineer a significant conflict between the lovers. Midway through, Delphine’s father (Jean-Henri Compère) suffers a stroke, forcing Delphine to return home and run the farm while he recuperates. When the lovestruck Carole follows her there, Summertime (which by now has finally moved into its titular season, offering lush pastoral beauty) turns into a rote tale of the love that dare not speak its name hereabouts, as Delphine struggles to pass Carole off as a platonic friend and Carole grows increasingly frustrated by the deception. The brash energy that distinguished the movie’s Paris scenes dissipates, and the inevitable screaming match that ensues when Delphine’s mother (Noémie Lvovsky) catches her in bed with Carole is too banal to recapture it. (To the film’s credit, the fireworks are slightly delayed, preceded by some stony fake politeness. But that only raises false hopes.) Everything onscreen still feels credible, but forbidden-love stories are as predictable as the changing of the seasons. Summertime had briefly seemed to promise something more mercurial.