One Deadly Summer July 20, 2016
In 1983, One Deadly Summer was one of France’s biggest films. It was nominated for nine Césars (France's equivalent of the Oscars) and won four, was the second highest grossing movie of the year in that country, and continued Isabelle Adjani’s reign as the premier actress of the 1980s. A deadly concoction of erotic thriller tropes, vengeance movie delecatations, and Sirkian melodrama, it has the makings of a fervent arthouse masterwork. But its initially tightly wound, lurid promise slowly disintegrates to reveal a bumbling mess distinctly unsure of what direction it wants to move in.
In One Deadly Summer, Adjani plays Elle, a new-to-town floozy so wet dreamy in her appearance and attitude that she immediately enraptures the attention of the male population in her new place of living. But while most assume that she’s nothing more than a walking exhibitionist looking for a cheap thrill, Elle is anything but: in actuality, she’s a revenge seeking dame hungry to avenge the decades old gang rape of her mother. Believing that the descendants of the perpetrators are living in the area, she hopes to right the wrongs done to her family, specifically seducing (and, thus destroying) Fiorimonto (Alain Souchon), the son of one of the men she thinks is responsible for the cold case.
But when it is discovered that payback was definitively taken care of years earlier, with the family she’s presently preying upon verily innocent in the matter, Elle begins to lose grip of what’s left of her stability, ultimately ensuring that damage, based in bloody reprisal or not, is a given.
In One Deadly Summer, Adjani is as terrific as she is sometimes cloyingly coy — she treads a fine line between overacting and deftly calculated embodiment. Per usual, there’s no one better at pretending to lose their mind on the silver screen than she is. But Elle, trashily sexual and never quite coherent enough to be sympathetic, is a character too incomprehensibly written for Adjani to flawlessly portray.
And with its swamp of characters, saddled with Jean Becker’s (who co-writes and directs) fatal decision to switch the film’s perspective through varying voiceovers, One Deadly Summer goes from stinging to muddled stunningly fast; rather than be supplemented by the insight it so ardently tries to fulfill, it’s more discombobulating than effectual. He’s incapable of setting a surefire tone, and his beating around the bush is noxious to the potent effect the film is looking for.
Sometimes it’s a sex farce, sometimes it’s a rape and revenge stereotype, and sometimes it’s a good old-fashioned femme fatale oriented noir. But the flurry of styles is so scattershot that the film oftentimes feels as though it’s still in the stages of planning, as if Becker expected Adjani’s versatility to distract us from noticing his indecisiveness. Frequently, that is a reality. Most of the time, though, it isn't, and the film swims about looking for a cinematic life raft when there’s none for miles.
Thirty-three years later, in comparison to One Deadly Summer, I find myself reminded of 2015’s Joy, a Jennifer Lawrence starrer that, despite its mixed reception, netted the actress a Best Actress nomination. Currently, Lawrence is a cultural phenomenon so beloved that one can expect Oscar adoration no matter the characterization. Three decades from now, no one is going to be talking about Joy. And there’s a sense that One Deadly Summer was the same way back in 1983: not a masterpiece, but acclaimed nevertheless because of Adjani’s dominance over the French film industry at the time. Now that she’s a legend rather than a fresh-faced star, one can see One Deadly Summer for what is actually is — a misfire of a tale of obsession. C-