French director Jean Becker's 1983 film One Deadly Summer, originally L'ete meurtrier, is a little difficult to describe. Is it a modern iteration of Greek tragedy? Is it an anti-romance? Is it an erotic thriller? Indeed, it has elements of all of these, and more. It is a subtle film, at times uncomfortable, but expertly crafted, and it is given a fine presentation here.
The film centers around the relationship between Florimond Montecciari, known as Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon), a young mechanic, and Elle Wieck (Isabelle Adjani), the emotionally unstable but beautiful young woman who has just moved to town. Pin-Pon, along with every other man with a bit of life in him, pines after Elle, he even obsesses over her. This obsession doesn't lessen when she allows him to take her to dinner, and they begin to date. She's not the type of girl who easily lets go the grasp she has on one's thoughts. She soon moves in to Pin-Pon's family home, much to the dismay of his mother, and the two are swiftly engaged.
But Elle's motives are far from honorable. She is not so much interested in Pin-Pon as his now deceased father, whom she believes was one of three men who brutally raped her mother before she was born. Pin-Pon's father, an Italian immigrant to France, used to make his living travelling around the countryside with his player piano, referred to as a barrel organ in the film. That very piano was present during her mother's rape, and the perpetrators danced to its tune as they worked their savagery. This assault on her mother deeply affected the young Elle when she learned of it, and discovering the identities of the rapists (and which one of them might have sired her) has become her own obsession, even leading to the deterioration of her relationship with the man she had thought of as her father.
The film alternates between her quest for the rapists, her stormy relationship with Pin-Pon, and the intimate relationships within her own and Pin-Pon's family. In many ways, One Deadly Summer is a character driven story. Great time and attention is given to character development, to depicting their relationships and the subtleties that operate between them. Pin-Pon's deaf aunt, who lives with the family, is a particularly lively and interesting example, but almost everyone is given ample opportunity to flesh out. And this focus on characterization isn't awkward or forced in, or done at the expense of pacing. It flows organically with the story, letting the characters unfold and be informed by their own actions. And Becker doesn't pull any punches, or gloss over the more unseemly or unpleasant aspects of these people, but neither does he allow them to be despicable or grotesque. Elle is of course bent on revenge and manipulative, but in many ways she is an innocent. And Pin-Pon is far from a hapless victim. These are recognizable people, with the flaws and virtues that everyone has.
The film is cleverly structured, narrated at various times by Pin-Pon, Elle and even Pin-Pon's aunt, allowing us to gain deeper insights and fresh perspectives on the action. The back story, especially the details of Elle's mother's rape, are fed to the audience piece-meal, with little flashes and bits of information, finally fitting together into the broader mosaic. The full truth is not known, at least by the audience, until the end of the film. For Pin-Pon and others, the full truth is never known, leading to tragic results. Becker is confident in his direction, and nearly flawless. The performances are all top notch. Adjani won a Cesar for her turn as the unbalanced ingénue, but even among the supporting cast there is never a false note. Alain Souchon plays off of Adjani expertly, and his more reserved performance is none poorer for it.
One Deadly Summer is a film that will discomfit many, not the least because of the copious amounts of Isabelle Adjani's bare flesh and the sexual assault themes. This is a film that confronts this kind of material head on, without descending into simple minded black and white oppositions or caricature. Jean Becker delivers an engrossing and subtle film that doesn't pull its punches. Very much recommended.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and generally looks good, with rich colors and good contrast. There is a fair amount of grain and the occasional piece of lens dirt, but these are minimally distracting. This is a good transfer, and showcases Becker's camera work admirably.
The sound is Dolby digital 2 channel, and does the job but is nothing spectacular. The dialogue is always clearly audible, though with the available English subtitles this wouldn't be a problem for most. There is no discernible hiss or other problem with the soundtrack. There is no alternate language track.
Disappointingly, no extra material is included. Since the main cast and director are still alive and active, a commentary track or some interviews would have been appreciated. Alas, the effort was not made.
One Deadly Summer is a subtle and impactful film, shot beautifully and masterfully directed by Jean Becker. The cast is superb. The story engaging. And Isabelle Adjani is decidedly easy on the eyes. Her energetic performance is worth attention on its own, but luckily there is much more on display here to enjoy. This is a film worth owning, and watching more than once. Highly recommended.