French director and novelist Catherine Breillat tells me, “I like just being called Breillat.” We’re sat in a secluded room in the BFI Southbank, escaping the humdrum of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. London can be a hive of activity at the best of times. At this time, the unexpected warm weather transforms the city’s annual autumnal celebration of cinema into a summer festival, bringing with it a heightened energy.
Breillat’s reputation for challenging and sexually provocative films, which are not for everyone’s tastes, creates a nervous anticipation when meeting her for the first time. Expecting her to fill the room with energy, I’m surprised by how still and calm she is, almost shy. Her eyes beam, the language barrier denying us small talk before starting the interview. In hindsight, the answer to the question of what you’d tell your younger self pops into my head: take French lessons in school more seriously.
Breillat knows that her work is challenging and provocative. At the age of 17, she published her first novel, 1968’s L’Homme facile, which the French censors banned from readers under 18 years of age – that would include the author herself. “They didn’t ask themselves why a sixteen or seventeen-year-old virgin, a good student with honours, who wasn’t a rebel would write something like this”, reflects Breillat. “It was about teen adolescence, which is a violent period. They wanted clichés. I used the style of Henry Miller without understanding the reality behind it. In hindsight, I find it interesting I was this girl who didn’t know men, who basically wrote the ideal seducer to Lolita.”
The French provocateur is in London to present her new film, Last Summer L’été dernier, 2023), a story about a woman who enters into an affair with her teenage stepson. It’s a remake of May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts (2019) – or maybe it’s not.
“I wouldn’t call it a remake because the directing and casting give this film [Last Summer] a different tone to the original”, says Breillat.
In Last Summer, French actress Léa Drucker plays the lead character of Anne, a successful lawyer, who is played in Queen of Hearts by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm. The distinct presence of the two actresses offers the impression of two women who have found themselves in a similar situation, led astray by their illicit desires.
Remake is a term loosely banded about that implies an individual, for example, el-Toukhy, has ownership over an archetypal or common story about forbidden desire. “The importance is to take ownership of something,” explains Breillat. “If you do Shakespeare, would it be a remake? Painters were always commissioned to do the same paintings, but it was their signature or footprint on it, and that’s what it’s about – taking ownership and putting your own signature on a story.”
All of her films – 20 to date (including shorts)– are “siblings” with one another, she says. Perhaps, then, “step-siblings” is a fitting description for films traditionally referred to as remakes – a story expressed through another creative voice that recalls and disregards the other film.
Breillat is correct to observe the differences between Last Summer and Queen of Hearts, but not only tonally. Anne stands in front of the mirror in the Danish original, inspecting her body. This scene reveals an extreme self-consciousness or insecure anxiety about aging that Breillat and Drucker deviate from. This lends a different context to the conflict between Last Summer and Queen of Hearts. “In the Danish film, the characters want something specific, whereas here, things happen, and, in the end, they don’t really know what they’re doing,” she says.
Breillat doesn’t deny there are similarities, but she believes she has brought her own obsessions to the material, one of which is her fondness for people’s contradictions. This, however, is the crux of this type of story, specifically the character’s competing desires. Anne wants to be faithful to her husband, yet she wants to be free to explore and satisfy the desires that conflict with her monogamous marriage. Another aspect of Last Summer‘s story is the stepson representing the younger version of the husband. It’s about the melancholy of youthful bodies, sexual awakening, and exploration, whereas el-Toukhy’s film expresses meaning through Anne’s self-conscious gaze more aggressively.
Breillat interprets Queen of Hearts as a film that should be taken at face value, whereas Last Summer takes a different tact. “I’ve worked on denial and those contradictions when we say something that can’t be taken at face value.” She speaks about exploring characters doing the opposite of what they want to do and wanting the audience to see how reasonable or sensible people like Anne, who appear to be in control of a situation, fall into this trap.
Both Last Summer and Queen of Hearts and Last Summer open by conveying the strength of their female protagonist, only to later reveal her inner vulnerability. In Last Summer, the stepson triggers something lying dormant inside Ann that, awoken, jeopardises her stable life. Indeed, Breillat’s cinema has little interest in structured lives. Anne recalls other characters from the director’s canon, for example, Romance’s (1999) school teacher Marie (played by Caroline Ducey), who seeks sexual fulfilment outside of her relationship when her boyfriend no longer shows interest in her. The motivations differ, yet women’s sexuality is a central concern in Breillat’s films.
A film about female sexuality, the subject of the feminine gaze, inevitably comes up. She recalls being a young director and having lunch with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. “I must have been really arrogant to think that I was a great director, and then I was having lunch with this great director”, she says. “He asked me, “What more are you going to bring to the gaze?” I told him shame because men give shame and women carry the shame. This is something I’ve worked on.”
Breillat doesn’t distinguish too much between female and male gazes. In her mind, “good directing is good directing.” She references Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), which she calls a masterpiece and a very feminine film. Regardless of the director’s gender, she believes, “It’s about filmmaking being carnivorous and being made of the flesh of the actors.”
Last Summer screened in the Dare strand of the 67th BFI London Film Festival.