It's incredible the leap that queer cinema has taken over the past decade. While classic queer films fill the history of the medium, it's only been recently that they’ve really hit the wider social consciousness, thanks to extraordinary films like ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘Weekend’ and ‘Carol’. The latter, Todd Haynes’ extraordinary love story set in the 1950s, is all the more significant in that it delicately and passionately depicted a lesbian relationship in a way that we hadn’t seen before on this level. You would think, in a similar way to how ‘Brokeback’ changed cinematic language around depictions of relationships between gay men, that a film like ‘Carol’ would elevate the language around depictions of lesbian relationships, so potent is its effect. However, if ‘La Belle Saison’, the latest film from French director Catherine Corsini, is anything to go by, that maturity of language hasn’t quite hit yet the way it should.
Set in 1971, the film follows the relationship between country girl Delphine (Izïa Higelin) and teacher Carole (Cécile De France), who meet in a feminist group at the height of a militant feminist movement in Paris. Caught in a whirlwind romance, the two have to battle Carole’s pre-existing relationship with her boyfriend and the expectations of Delphine’s rural family.
From the very beginning, something just seems a bit off with ‘La Belle Saison’. Beginning with Delphine working on her parents' farm, it establishes a gorgeous, golden hue and relaxed visual style that warms you to it and its protagonist, but Corsini and Laurette Polmanss’ screenplay instantly starts to falter over obvious and hammy dialogue. The shift to Paris is a shock, because nothing about the first ten minutes suggests a 70s setting, and this inability to maintain a sense of period becomes more and more problematic as the film goes on. Choosing to set the film against the backdrop of the feminist movement at that time is a terrific move and provides some of the most powerful moments of the film, but in a move typical of French cinema these days, it isn’t explored except in quick, perfunctory bursts. It has absolutely nothing to say about these women and the movement except the Wikipedia dot-points, and the final impression you get from the film is that they are painfully white, reactionary women with no clarity of purpose sitting around yelling at one another. The most painful moment sees them arguing over which minority group deserves more attention from them like they’re discussing what movie they should watch. Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted more fire from the film on this subject and more drive, rather than (like in Olivier Assayes’ deplorable ‘After May’) watching French people dipping into important political movements like it’s a leisurely afternoon activity.
'LA BELLE SAISON' TRAILER
Thankfully, the film stops messing around with politics like it’s splashing in a shallow paddling pool and gets onto the task of exploring the relationship between Delphine and Carole. When tragedy strikes, Delphine is forced to move back home, and Carole follows, staying with her and her family as a friend and keeping their romance secret. It’s the better part of the film, especially with the strength of Higelin’s performance as Delphine and the superb performance from Noémie Lvovsky as her mother Monique, but it still feels like a TV movie melodrama, with overwrought dialogue and perfunctory filmmaking techniques. It also doesn’t help that I personally found Cécile De France’s performance as Carole surprisingly irritating, swinging between care-free aloofness, dangerous disregard and operatic emotional outbursts. It’s a shocking contrast to the restrained performances from Higilen and Lvovsky, but more akin to the kind of performances that irritate me about modern French cinema – showy, affected and lacking in depth or subtlety.
It still feels like a TV movie melodrama, with overwrought dialogue and perfunctory filmmaking techniques.
And while the romance is at points affecting and it’s still wonderful seeing a lesbian relationship shown on screen with this level of respect and delicacy, it’s a story we’ve seen before. There’s nothing original about it; the film has nothing new or significant to say, all the more deplorably frustrating when combined with the feminist ideals and movement hanging around in the background. I wanted it to have something to say, to rattle cages and speak volumes about the passion and danger of a love between two women, not watch pretty French people sitting in the grass under pretty French trees casually discussing women’s rights while eating bread and cheese. It’s lazy, bourgeois, ineffectual and safe, and I can’t help feeling that films like this are a step back for queer cinema and for films about women’s rights.
‘La Belle Saison’ is a film that thinks it has a lot to say without saying anything at all, a film that thinks it possesses remarkable craft without demonstrating anything, and thinks it has genuine heart and soul without possessing the honesty such things requires. I was probably the wrong person to review this, as French cinema of late leaves me irritated, but I can’t help feeling that Catherine Corsini hasn’t made a film that will contribute as much as it could have. In the wake of a significant shift in the right direction for queer cinema, ‘La Belle Saison’ just feels like a disappointment.