ON STREAMING | August 19, 2022
Summertime is an All-Time-Great Romantic Film
An American touching foreign land and getting “healed” in some way is a tired trope. But Summertime energizes it. (Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in Summertime.)
Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, and Al Pacino in 2021's House of Gucci.
n Summertime (1955), David Lean’s exquisite romantic travelog, Katharine Hepburn plays Jane, a chronically single, 50-something “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio, at long last visiting Venice, a city that’s always lived in her dreams as a gondola-rich idyll. She’s here alone, and isn’t too worried
about it; when inquiring minds wonder aloud how she could possibly travel solo, she describes herself as an independent spirit.
Loneliness, though, still begins to creep in after she arrives. Jane bonds with some fellow travelers — all coupled up — but not enough to become a frequently invited tagalong. You sense that in this picturesque place where she hopes, deep down, something akin to magic will happen to her, the scores of blissful couples strolling along the water with their hands interlocked and sipping espressos shoulder-to-shoulder on charming café patios only remind her of something she doesn’t have, and for years has pretended she doesn’t want.
Then that yearned-for magic finds Jane, and with a too-good-to-be-true suddenness that makes her instinctually react with distrust. It’s incited by a red, centuries-old goblet she buys at an antiques shop near the practically paradisiacal pensione where she’s staying. Though beautiful, it’s not the goblet itself that’s magic. It’s Renato (Rossano Brazzi), the dashingly handsome shop owner who sells it to her. The bartering process is strictly business. But you feel the flirtatious charge underneath. Both people, without saying so, also can’t help but notice they were at the same café yesterday night, when Renato, alone, was sitting behind Jane, also alone. He was taken with her nervous fiddling with her camera, her struggles to get the head waiter’s attention. Maybe fate is reuniting them with ulterior motives. You can tell they’re wondering the same thing.
Lean loves accentuating the touristic details emphasizing the anxieties of traveling abroad: misunderstanding local transportation jargon, getting a little red-faced after mispronouncing something, fretting over a picture gone untaken. But most evocative among Summertime’s vacationary tribulations is that vague melancholy one inescapably gets when traveling alone — the way, to paraphrase the critic David Denby, the kind of beauty especially found in Europe can feel particularly oppressive when experienced in solitude, without another person there to help you process it.
Jane and Renato’s inevitable affair is born from her interest in a matching goblet to go along with her new one if Renato ever comes across another. And he does. This all would feel more like a dream if it weren’t eventually revealed that Renato were married. (It stings, but the hurt mostly goes away when it’s clarified that he and his wife are basically estranged and living separately.) Though apprehensive at first, Jane comes to appreciate this romance for what it’s going to be: a summer fling whose beauty depends in large part on its transience and connection to perhaps the most overwhelmingly beautiful place she’s ever been. An American touching foreign land and getting “healed” in some way is a tired trope. But Summertime energizes it.
he romance itself in Summertime isn’t necessarily that interesting. Fittingly brought to life by the romance novel-pretty Brazzi, Renato is intentionally never defined as much more than a ravishing, golden-skinned escape. Lean seems to have carefully made it so that while we’re
happy seeing this couple together on this vacation, we can live with an ending not involving Jane packing her Ohioan life up for one in beatific Venice, or Renato schlepping his antiques to Jane’s small town.
What’s more moving about Summertime is the surprise significance this romance holds for Jane. Hepburn does some of her best work as a woman stuck, relearning how to take her desires and pleasures seriously after years internalizing the idea that she’s reached a point where they’re no longer worth pursuing. Romantic cinema is dominated by couples in the earlier part of adult life, ready for someone to come help them build one. Summertime is the rarity that takes an interest in a middle-aged woman for whom that narrative never happened. It still feels like something of a minor miracle that a movie like Summertime exists. Cinema isn’t necessarily entirely uninterested in the stories of middle-aged women. But there’s still a massive dearth. And you seldom see ones like Summertime, which, with Jack Hildyard’s sumptuous photography and Lean’s painterly compositions, has an almost knock-you-over vitality. It’s especially skilled at conveying the momentousness with with the person on the receiving end of a minor-seeming gesture might take it.
Lean, who wrote the script with H.E. Bates, never subliminally patronizes the smart and funny Jane in her singledom, implying she’s somehow less a person by never settling down. The romance here is instead presented as purely enriching — deserved, almost like a belated present. Summertime plays like a fantasy wished true. It’s given the perfect amount of time to live and die as one; Jane decides when to let it take its last breath. When she finally comes home after her summer away, it’s doubtful her life will change much. But it also will never be the same. A+