As we enter the home stretch of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, two old-timers join the competition and may have gifted us with this year’s acting winners. First off, we have 74-year-old French director Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer, a remake of the 2019 Danish drama Queen of Hearts – with a French twist.
Léa Drucker plays Anne, a successful lawyer specializing in cases of abuse involving minors. Anne lives with her husband Pierre and their two adopted daughters in a beautiful country home. When Pierre’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, Théo (played by Samuel Kircher), moves in with them, Anne’s blandly perfect life is disrupted and it doesn’t take long before she begins a risky affair with her underage stepson.
Those who have a cursory knowledge of Breillat’s filmography would not be surprised by her decision to remake this particular film, the subject matter is right up her alley. Over a career that spans nearly 50 years, Breillat has made a name for herself through films that deal with tricky gender/sexual politics, often featuring female characters who subvert societal expectations. With Last Summer, she revisits a story of taboos and makes changes to the original to have it be even more about female sexuality. It’s provocative and a lot of brazen fun.
In the 2019 film, for example, the line between stepmother and -son is only crossed after a lot of accidental sparks, whereas here their relationship is portrayed pretty much as an unmistakable affair with two equal, willing participants. Which makes the first sex scene between the two even more shocking to watch. Breillat also rewrote the third act to downplay the thriller element of the original and focus on the perverted sexual dynamics between husband, wife and the verboten lover. As is the case with many of her films, the final scene of Last Summer hints at something quietly, wickedly subversive.
At one point, Anne says she thinks vertigo is not the fear of heights but the fear of succumbing to the temptation of falling that one voluntarily jumps. The sentiment gives us access to Anne’s psychology and Drucker built a fiercely truthful performance around it. As Trine Dyrholm did in the original, her portrayal of Anne maps a stunning curve of transformation and at no point is she less than utterly convincing. In the scene where Anne denies the affair to her husband and the subsequent scene where she calls Théo a liar to his face, she basically turns into the type of abuser she defends her clients against, and the force of her conviction is frightening. Based on these scenes alone, she should be considered a strong contender for the best actress prize.
On the other end of the subversion scale, we have the soothing, breezily tender drama Perfect Days by 77-year-old German director Wim Wenders, winner of the Palme d’Or for Paris, Texas back in 1984. Set in Tokyo, the film follows Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho), a janitor who drives around in a van to clean the city’s public toilets. Hirayama is a man of few words and many routines. On a work day, he wakes up, gets ready, cleans toilets around the city, washes at his local bathhouse, eats at his favorite diner and goes home to sleep. In his downtime, he reads, takes pictures, hangs at his bar of choice. As the film establishes with its entire first act, Hirayama’s life is so fully dictated by to-do’s there’s hardly room for improvisation, for other humans.
A co-worker’s love life emergency, an anonymous note left at one of his toilets and the unexpected visit by an estranged niece would eventually stir up ripples in Hirayama’s perfect, unchanging days, allowing us glimpses into the mind of someone leading such a self-imposed isolated existence.
The film is very gentle, untheatrical in tone. The first half-hour almost feels like a documentary as it neutrally, quietly records the protagonist’s daily grind. And yet, from its opening frame on, the film is never stale or uninteresting. DP Franz Lustig’s camera finds the soul in everything it sees, rendering shots of everyday objects, Hirayama’s upturned face, trees large and small that so capture his fancy splendidly full of life. Co-written by Takuma Takasaki, Wenders’ screenplay excels at telling stories with all that it doesn’t say. Why does the hero live alone? Why is he so reluctant to talk to anyone? How did such an avid reader end up working as a janitor? A meeting later in the film with his sister would fill in some blanks, but it’s the mystery that keeps the character so vividly alive.
Considering how little the protagonist speaks, it takes a performance of great charisma for the film to work, and Yakusho radiates such elegance and humanity he just about glows. We often see him silently pondering, deciding and doing things that are never explained, and yet on a most basic human level, you’re right with his character every step of the way. The film closes with an extended close-up shot of him driving in the morning sun. There’s no dialogue or title card but the frame bursts with the warmth of understanding, everything is illuminated.