my summer of love

2004

Written and Directed: Pawel Pawlikowski

My Summer of Love - the smash hit of the 2004 festival season - to me seemed to strike an odd, languid chord. For a film that could have been suspenseful considering the ugly and violent turn it makes towards its finale, this sleeper meanders along at such a slow pace that it barely even needs to put the brakes on to throw in a plot twist or two and head perplexingly in the other direction.

Also, for a film about love between two women it seems entirely devoid of insight into what relationships between women are about, especially young women just figuring out what their wants and desires really are. The title of the film couldn't be more ironic.

To steal a line from my friend who watched with me, this movie could well have been called "My Summer of Substance Abuse". Pot, magic mushies, alcohol, these substances all fuse to heighten the disturbed mindsets of the protagonists. Any attempt at moderation or reason gets well and truly chucked out the window and all the two main characters seem to do is react to each other rather than think for themselves. The film seems to try for that same removed, fanciful feeling that Heavenly Creatures creates between the two main characters, only here instead of being a product of overactive imaginations the make-believe world is fueled with lies, infatuation, drugs and, in the case of the brother, religious fervour.

My Summer of Love is set in a small, Yorkshire town at the height of summer. Quite spectacular cinematography serves to set the scene for us, washing the town and its inhabitants in glorious brown, yellow and orange hues. In this town Mona lives with her older brother Phil, above the pub that was left to them when their mother died. Phil has just returned from a stint in prison, having found God while he was there, and has decided to turn the pub into a prayer house or temple or something like that.

Mona meets Tamsin in the fields by chance. Tamsin is a typical, spoiled, rich brat home for the holidays, ignored by her parents and able to get away with pretty much anything she wants to. The two girls strike up a friendship more out of boredom than anything else. Then they bond over stories of deaths in their families, Mona's mother who died of cancer and Tamsin's sister who has recently died of anorexia.

Soon the two girls are doing everything together. They begin to reveal their innermost secrets, fears, desires. Gradually the relationship becomes one of sexual exploration. I say exploration rather than passion deliberately. There is no sexual chemistry, just a mutal isolation. Intense declarations of love are made over dim firelight. It should feel romantic, passionate, alive. It doesn't. Why it doesn't is because one of them is spinning a web of deception for her own amusement and the other is infatuated with the lie.

Phil eventually becomes overzealous in his attempts to have Mona find God. He invokes Jesus while attempting to comfort her. In one bizarre scene the townspeople carry a huge, wooden cross Phil has constructed to the top of the hill overlooking their valley. (Again, here the cinematography is quite extraordinary.) Phil leads them in a prayer meeting at the raising of the cross. In front of the assembled gathering he prays for his sister who he feels has lost her way. She responds with indifference.

Tamsin attempts to get close to Phil and nearly succeeds in seducing him. She laughs at how easily Phil can be tempted away from his religious morality and into her arms. In retaliation, Phil kidnaps Mona from Tamsin's house and locks her away in her room until she repents and finds salvation in the Lord. Mona is fiery in her resistance. All she can think about is escaping to be with Tamsin. We're left to wonder, which is actually more destructive: Phil's obsession with God or Mona's obsession with Tamsin? Both obsessions seem to be based on a desire to create some kind of real meaning or direction in their lives. The fact that ultimately both of their obsessions fail to live up to their expectations is no surprise.

Parts of the film seemed beautiful in their conception, but other parts grated on me incessantly. The problems I had lay mainly in the relationship between the two girls. Adding yet another psychotic, pseudo-lesbian to a long list doesn't particularly appeal to me when there are so many better options out there. Tamsin is an extraordinarily unattractive character who, despite being externally beautiful, is empty and deceitful to the core. Mona is taken in because she yearns for any touch that is gentle and kind in her bitter existence. Tamsin appeared just at the right moment to fill a gap caused by her mother's death, her boyfriend dumping her and her brother's religious conversion. It is a relationship based on need and manipulation, and it feels ugly and wrong. I couldn't help but wonder, is this director trying to tell us something?

My favourite section of the film was the final reel as the puzzle unravels. It's impossible to talk about the end except in vague terms so as not to ruin it. Let's just say Mona develops an inkling of a spine and reasserts her independence, so we see what her real personality might be for the first time in the entire film. Nathalie Press looks really beautiful here as she lets the depths of Mona's satisfaction shine through. As she walks away (with a cold, icy stare Tilda Swinton would be proud of) I really believed in the character for the first time, just in time to see the credits roll.

Any points I give this film would not be for the lesbian content, but for the feeling of isolation and abandonment it creates. This effect is in no small part helped along by the look of the film which deserves major kudos. My Summer of Love is on the surface an absolutely gorgeous film, but underneath it feels depressed and hollow, which is, now I think about it, probably the film's most successful metaphor.

Afterthoughts...
I do feel a bit odd because all of my favourite film reviewers seem to have loved this film, but I'm afraid the best I can manage is an appreciation of what the director was trying to accomplish. I know I loved a film when I feel I would like to spend more time in the company of the characters. With this film I knew instantly that I didn't want to spend a moment longer in their company. Considering my brief here on this site I feel justified somewhat in "looking lesbian" at this film, but please somebody tell me, what am I missing here?

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