Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Summertime

On this day when the highly anticipated film Eat, Pray, Love is set to be released in theaters, I thought I might provide a bit of contrast. Namely, I decided I'd write a movie review (for the first time in ages) about a much older film that covers much of the same territory. While it's not a perfect fit, many of the same plot elements are present. Released in 1955, Summertime stars Katharine Hepburn and Italian actor Rossano Brazzi. Originally a play, the screenplay stays faithful to the original by preserving a primary interplay between two major characters, a device that is commonly used in that form. As the action begins,we focus upon the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged secretary (Hepburn), seeking something very different while on her summer vacation. Appropriately, she has chosen to visit Venice after saving up for years in order to go, she informs us. The point of the trip, she alludes to in an off-hand fashion, is to find herself and spread her wings, though even this pronouncement is jittery and quavering.

A self-proclaimed independent woman flaunting the still very traditional trends of the day, Jane Hudson (Hepburn) is content in the beginning to pass her time eating in restaurants, taking pictures of the city, and engaging in small talk with fellow tourists. Hepburn had a way of playing nervous, ill-at-ease characters with exacting detail, and through the person of Jane we see a woman who can barely conceal the outward display of her life of quiet desperation. One would never call her confident. She's clearly an emotional wreck, stuck together with glue. Authentic repression requires dexterity or at least self-confidence and there is nothing skillful about any personality this self-doubting and uncertain.

Seeking a reason for this obvious discomfort with the self, we are led to believe that Hepburn's character, Jane Hudson, is simply approaching spinsterhood. What could be more frightening than the promise of being of being alone forever, of course? This might suffice for an answer, if it were not for one crucial, and very brief scene that shows a woman in absolute anguish and fear regarding the promise of real love. The response I got after viewing it was not that her neuroses and doubts always had kept her from finding a relationship partner, but rather that she had recently been severely heartbroken and had taken a trip to Italy to heal. We never know for sure, but I find the latter scenario a bit more plausible than the former.

Enter shopkeeper Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi). de Rossi takes an immediate like to Jane. While sitting in a large open air cafe he spies her sitting by herself and smiles appreciatively. Her immediate reaction is to furiously put on a pair of sunglasses and shrink away from the attention. She is flattered/humiliated at the outset and not in the right frame of mind to be receptive to it even a little bit. So, he continues to pursue her, hoping to find her in better spirits eventually. He succeeds in his efforts, only to have (SPOILER ALERT) one nagging detail threaten to destroy the nascent affair and ruin her fantasies. He is married, but in the process of separation, a detail he explains that he intended to tell her eventually, but didn't say up front, not wanting to scare her away. Even after her Puritanical streak drives her away once, she seeks him out a second time, whereupon they engage in a brief, but passionate love affair.

A Feminist critique of Summertime is occasionally difficult. Hepburn's character is a contradiction in terms. She claims to be self-reliant and strong, and yet she is neither of these in reality. The shopkeeper de Rossi is a tender, gentle lover all in all and seems to instinctively know that being forceful is the only way the relationship will ever get underway. I wouldn't say that he ever broached consent, but rather that, from his perspective, he probably found it difficult to know how to properly approach someone so violently conflicted within the self. She is her own worst enemy, more so than any man ever could be. Is she the portrait of Fifties-era spinsterhood, a living example of why every woman needs a husband? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

Here's why. The film does not end up happily ever after for either character. Neither he nor she find their needs satisfied, which is in line more with a tragedy than a romance. Perhaps the basic idea is that falling in love, to say nothing of romance, can only be accomplished with the expectation that it will not be easy and will require pushing past fears that are simply not justified. Feminist critique often talks about fears that are very justified and often not taken seriously by others. Here, it would seem that the general message is that love is imperfect, it doesn't always arrive in socially acceptable forms, and yet to turn away from it would be throwing away the chance at contentment. This is subversive now, and subversive then.

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