Lovely people, beautiful places, a suicide attempt and echoes of a French New Wave classic — these ingredients seem to promise lots of passion in A Burning Hot Summer. But this existential-romantic roundelay barely simmers, and certainly doesn't scorch.
Veteran director Philippe Garrel's latest film opens with apparently parallel events: a woman reclines naked, alone in a room, as a man guns his car, heading straight for a tree.
Flashing back to the main narrative reveals that the woman is Angele (Monica Bellucci), an Italian actress, while the man in the car is Frederic (Louis Garrel), a French painter. They're married and live in Rome.
A few minutes later, the film's narrator makes his first appearance on screen. He's Paul (Jerome Robart), who plays bit parts in movies. So does Elisabeth (Celine Sallette), who meets Paul when they appear in a French Resistance drama. Soon, they're living together.
Also soon, Paul and Elisabeth are sharing Frederic and Angele's large apartment. The painter, who seems to be independently wealthy, likes having them around, and the underemployed actors enjoy their hosts — and the free rent.
Too much togetherness can be problem, though, especially when needy Elisabeth begins to fear that Paul is falling for Angele. But couple No. 2's problems are minor compared with the turmoil between Frederic and Angele, both of whom are frequently unfaithful and periodically spiteful.
None of these conflicts has any great urgency, and the film's heady themes — art, fidelity, religion, death, the search for meaning — are merely invoked rather than explored. One oddity is the casting: Bellucci is 18 years older than Louis Garrel, which is unusual enough to rate some comment but doesn't. (The fictional marriage must be a nod to the actor's real-life relationship with actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who is the same age as Bellucci.)
The scenario recalls Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, another tale of an actress who comes to disdain her husband. Both movies are set in and around the Italian film industry, but Godard had a lot more fun with that fact. Philippe Garrel uses the movie-set vignettes mostly to punctuate the talkier scenes with action, although that French Resistance movie suggests one possible theme: Earlier generations had a sense of purpose lacking in kids today.
For cinephiles who like to connect the dots, A Burning Hot Summer offers links galore. Philippe Garrel is directing his son, and there's a cameo by his father (playing Louis' grandfather).
The youngest Garrel also appeared in his dad's Regular Lovers, the 2005 film that attracted more international attention than any of the director's efforts in decades. It was co-written by Marc Chodolenko, who also helped script this movie, and was set in politically charged 1968 Paris — as was Bernardo Bertolucci's 2002 The Dreamers, which also starred Louis Garrel.
And in A Burning Hot Summer, Paul holds out hope for a 1960s-style "revolution," a dream Frederic dismisses.
One other footnote: The spare score is by John Cale, who has known the older Garrel since the 1970s, when he was producing music by Nico, the director's then-lover and an actress in a half-dozen of his films.
Cale's piano-based music is simple and strong, as are a few moments of unexpected spontaneity: a party where Angele dances vivaciously, and a scene where Frederic and Paul ignore an event behind them as they walk under a Paris viaduct.
But such outbursts are rare in A Burning Hot Summer, a movie whose most apt metaphor is one of Elisabeth's traits: She sleepwalks.
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