Summer film 8: Burnt by the sun (1994)

In Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, summer has never seemed more beautiful or more poignant. Set in 1936, it’s the story of Colonel Kotov (played brilliantly by Mikhalkov himself), a popular hero of the Russian Revolution and the summer he spends in a village with his young and beautiful wife, Marusia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) six-year old daughter (Nadezhda Mikhalkova – the director’s real-life daughter) and other family and friends. The peaceful atmosphere is disturbed by the sudden arrival of Mitya (Oleg Menchikov), Marusia’s long lost love.  It seems he is trying to win Marusia back but Kotov suspects darker motives at work.

The tension in this film builds slowly – you sense the jealousy when Mitya arrives and then it gradually becomes a battle for survival between the two men. As a backdrop to this, you have a last glimpse of the old Russia disappearing. We learn that Marusia comes from an aristocratic family and that her relatives have only escaped because of her marriage to a Red Army hero. Comparisons with Chekhov are inevitable but there is something of the atmosphere of his plays in the drawing room scenes and eccentric behaviour of some of the characters. This is the Russia of forests, fields of corn and shimmering water and there is something unbearably heartbreaking knowing that this world will be lost forever with the Stalinist purges which are beginning and the Second World War. How can such cruelty exist when everything is so beautiful?

For me, this is one of the most magnificent and haunting films I’ve ever seen. It captures the poetry and tragedy of the Russian soul. The balloon scene with Stalin’s face towards the end is pure genius.

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Summer film 7: Plein soleil (1960)

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ is a wonderful film that should definitely be on your summer viewing list but somehow I like René Clément’s version (called ‘Purple Noon’ in English) even more. It’s more faithful to the book and Alain Delon has a kind of glacial, dangerous edge to his Ripley which makes Matt Damon seem a bit dull. Maybe if Jude Law had played him instead, they’d be evenly matched.

Clément was the first to adapt this book and it’s a great pity that he’s rather neglected today.

Everything about this film oozes style from the opening credits, the clothes, the gorgeous photography by the great Henri Decaë (particularly the yacht scenes) and the wonderful score by Nino Rota. Delon’s Ripley and Maurice Ronet’s Philippe Geenleaf look disturbingly alike and you can feel the tension between them building up constantly. Delon is so beautiful and charismatic though that you find yourself wanting him to get away with it, despite knowing that he’s simply a cold blooded killer.

This is a gripping, sun drenched thriller where jealousy and murder are never far below the surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer film 6: Mr. Hulot’s holiday (1953)

Ah, if only all summer holidays could be like this. There isn’t much of a plot – Jacques Tati’s film is rather a series of beautifully choreographed sequences about the gentle anarchy created by the central figure in the sleepy French seaside resort. Tati came from a music hall background and he creates character through gestures and actions, instead of dialogue and facial expression. Mr. Hulot is something of an outsider with his pipe, hat and trousers that are too short. As Roger Ebert commented, people rarely seem to notice him except for the chaos he unwittingly leaves behind. Women and children instinctively love him though (with animals, it’s a mixed bag as you’ll see from the horse riding sequence and the dogs that pursue him). This isn’t a laugh out loud, slapstick comedy, although it is often very funny. The genius of many scenes comes from the balletic precision and timing – they’re deceptively simple but also amazingly inventive.

I must also mention the soundtrack which is think is very clever and really helps to create the special atmosphere of the film – the breaking of the waves, children playing, exasperated parents’ calling them, the constant ‘boing’ of the swing doors in the hotel restaurant, the vintage radio programmes, Mr. Hulot’s spluttering car and the cries of the ice cream seller. The smooth jazz tune contrasts nicely with the ‘Tiger rag’ which bursts out at full volume from Mr. Hulot’s room.

You get so used to seeing the same characters and places that it feels like a terrible wrench to leave them after just 80 minutes, as if the summer has suddenly come to an end. It has a charm and nostalgia that I have yet to encounter elsewhere.

Summer film 5: Summer Interlude (1951)

My love of Ingmar Bergman films goes back to Sixth Form when a trotskyist teacher showed us clips of old films, including Ginger and Fred, Antonioni, Godard, Buñuel and Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’. I’ll be forever grateful to him because that lesson changed my life and I’ve been collecting and watching classic films ever since. Bergman was, by then, already deeply unfashionable and had not been making films for some time but I’ll always defend him as one of the all-time greats. I love the actors he worked with and the way he directed them, the strong female roles in many of his films, the honesty with which he confronted difficult themes and then there’s the pure technical brilliance in his directing and the camera work from great cinematographers like Gunnar Fischer (who did the photography for this film) and Sven Nykvist. There are quite a few Bergmans I could have chosen for summer: ‘Summer with Monika’ and ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ are both masterpieces. ‘Persona’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’ would also work. But I picked ‘Summer Interlude’ because it’s undeservedly neglected and arguably Bergman’s first great film.

A young ballet dancer, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) receives a package containing a diary which brings back memories of a summer at her uncle’s house on an island years before and a romance with Hendrik (Birger Malmsten), her first great love. She takes the ferry back there to confront the painful memories which still haunt her. There are themes Bergman would use in later films, most notably Wild Strawberries – returning to places with painful associations, the story told in flashback, youthful mistakes we cannot escape from,  the lies of artistic performance and isolation. Summer has rarely been more beautifully captured on film – dazzling light, days by the shimmering water and magnificent scenery. It goes by too quickly and as the season turns to autumn, you have a sense of lost innocence and something irreparably broken in Marie (compare the bright sunshine on the island with the dark, claustrophobic sets of the theatre).

If you associate Bergman with painful psychological confrontations between couples, heavy symbolism or extreme close-ups, you might be surprised at the lightness of touch and freshness of this film. It’s still a very honest story of a love affair that ends tragically but it’s intimate and poetic rather than harrowing.

Summer film 4: Avanti (1972), Billy Wilder

Like with Summertime, the plot is fairly straightforward; Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Jack Lemmon, always fabulous), a successful businessman travels to the island of Ischia to make arrangements for the return of his father’s body. But he discovers that his father died alongside his long-term mistress whose daughter, Pamela Piggott (beautiful Juliet Mills in probably her finest role) is also making the journey there.

Unlike the frantic pace of Some Like It Hot, this is a romantic comedy where everything unfolds at a leisurely pace. The scenery is absolutely stunning, there’s a musical score that you’ll be humming for days afterwards and a terrific cast. Lemmon and Mills are wonderful together as two older people from completely different backgrounds who find themselves becoming more like their parents the longer they stay on the island. My favourite though is Clive Revill as the hotel manager, a performance so funny and beautifully nuanced that you can scarcely believe he’s not actually Italian. There are many very funny scenes, often with black humour, as well as some poignant ones such as the scene in the morgue which is beautifully lit and also very sensitively played by Juliet Mills. For me, this is yet more proof of Billy Wilder’s greatness – the fact that he could direct some of the funniest films every yet also tackle darker themes, sometimes doing both in the same film.  This movie is 140 minutes but it goes by much too quickly. By the end, you really feel you’ve travelled to Ischia yourself and there’s a bittersweet lump in your throat knowing that we can’t come back again next year with Wendell and Pamela.

Summer film 3: Jaws (1975)

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Everybody knows that it’s the story of a small island community threatened by an enormous great white shark. Don’t be put off though by people sniggering about the fake looking shark, humming the famous theme tune or doing impressions of Roy Scheider’s police chief finally coming to the conclusion that “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” They can sneer all they like as far as I’m concerned because I think this is a truly great film. Nothing beats it for a sense of menace and fear of what lies underneath. Take the early shots of the woman swimming, accompanied by John Williams’ brilliant score. We don’t see the shark as the mechanical one wasn’t working but they’re still truly terrifying. We have no idea where the threat is or what will happen next. Also, the three leads, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, then unknown actors, are absolutely brilliant together. The studio had wanted Charlton Heston, Sterling Hayden and Jon Voight but thankfully, that didn’t work out as there can only really be one star in this film.

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CGI wasn’t around back then so Spielberg and his team did the best with what they had. Sure, today the shark would be more sophisticated but special effects can also look overdone and I’m not convinced it would make the film more any frightening. Jaws stands out today as something rare –  a summer blockbuster which also manages to be a great work of art. jaws.jpeg