My Summer of Love (2005)

Directed and Written by Pawel Pawlikowski

Based on the novel by Helen Cross

With: Natalie Press: Mona

Emily Blunt: Tamsin

Paddy Considine: Mona’s brother, Phil


Now (2016), when Emily Blunt’s career has taken off, this early flick is a relatively minor work, a testing of the waters one might say; still, it’s worth a look.

Focus Films, an associate of BBC, has produced some films that walk the line between mainstream and art cinema—that is movies that are entertaining enough to attract other than specialized audiences, while having pretensions of complex psychological themes of social relevance. Pawlikowski’s film, My Summer of Love, is advertised as a psychological thriller, but it titillates the prospective viewer with the promise of a lesbian affair, racy scenes, and less than a serious treatment of a subject that has increasingly piqued the interest of audiences.

As it turns out, My Summer of Love happens to be a rather slow-moving, mild-mannered romance between two young women, with sinister overtones and with a somewhat predictable end, for the title gives it away. It is a summer fling that can last only as long as the end of the summer, when one of the lovers has to depart. If the lovers were heterosexual, the result could have been just as predictable. There are complications of course, in the person of a third party, a brother, who resents the goings-on and veritably puts an end in them. In the process, and in the inevitable let-down, there is some character growth, some resentment, anger, violence (but no blood), and a sense of liberation from the illusion of permanent liaison. The viewer has the satisfaction of having seen a dream-work pass him by, as he indulges his senses in color, sensuous looks (or at least one of the women), music that pulsates with Edith Piaff’s songs, Latin rhythms, and one or two chilling atonal notes, and some of the most luscious landscapes in Yorkshire, England. Aside from anything else, The movie is a visual treat, with sound and color working to its advantage, to promote and supplement its themes.

Perhaps the best way to describe this film is to see it as an excursion into a fantasy world, not the fantasy of animation and digital wizardry, but that of a made up world superimposed on the real, as the layers of the psyches of the two women surface, revealing suppression, neurosis, and unfulfilled desire. Mona is rustic girl, bred in the countryside, her parents being dead, living with a born-again Christian brother, and tied to a married lover, Rick, who drops her as the plot is about to takes its initial twists. Mona rides a motorless bike into the countryside, when a young beautiful young woman appears, Amazon-like from a fairy tale, riding a white stallion, an image of an ambivalent relationship that starts at this moment. The young woman, Tasmin (Emily Blunt), who has an aristocratic bearing, lives in a nearby manor, and pretty soon we learn that she has been kicked out of pre-school, that she is spending her summer vacation there alone, that she plays classical tunes on her cello, and that, despite her languorous looks, she is full of vitality and prone to mischief. She is bored but vibrant, her eyes unleashing a flash of undeclared sensuality, as she invites Mona to her sumptuous manor. The two girls engage in various tomfooleries, playing pranks on neighbors who live in the posh apartments nearby, or taking long hikes into a lush countryside, clambering down rocky hideaways, and, as they get to know each other, what is expected happens—caressing, kissing, fondling, and finally making love in the inevitable bed scene.

Mona’s brother senses what is going on, but at first refrains from interfering, too preoccupied as he is with his gatherings at his place, where a great deal of sermonizing takes place. He is in the process of constructing and transporting a twenty-foot wooden cross to be carried up a hill, where witches used to be burned in that part of the country. The cross is to be erected at that spot, dominating the landscape and exorcising evil. Phil, played with barely restrained emotional ferocity by Paddy Considine (a part-time actor), is not totally free, it seems, from the darts of jealousy or a developing passion for Tasmin, who entices him into a scene of mock confession, but when he tries to kiss her, she laughs at his face. Dreadfully bitter, Phil drags his sister back home, locks her in a room, and, when she pretends she will hang herself, he vehemently dismisses his small group of faithful, to whom he had been preaching. Mona soon leaves him to go away with her Tasmin, but when she gets to the manor, she discovers that the latter had been lying about her sister Sadie (she had said she had died of anorexia), and that she going back to school. In a last scene between them, while the two get into the pool for their last caresses, Mona grabs Tamsin by the throat, pushes her underwater, and nearly chokes her death. Then she abruptly lets her, and rushes away in a flurry. End of movie.

It is in the layers of text and subtext that this movie offers its rewards. Controlled, paced with rhythmical rather than logical leaps, suggesting rather than blaring its message, this film engages the viewer with seductive, magnetic, sensuous imagery (including sound), rather than with explicit or overt messages. In a sense, one could find no message in it. But its symbolism is loud enough—not just in sound, shape, ambience, color—to cry for attention. Symbols, or rather, nodes, invite the viewer for a feast of the senses and for recognition signifiers. Tamsin is always photographed in artificial as well as in natural light, so her face, attire, and even the background appear in red—a Satanic color. The entire movie, as Pwalikowski admits,[1] is dominated by reds and greens, the colors of Hell. Red is reflected in her face, is seen in her dresses, in the interiors of the mansion—when a fire burns lighting the two girls’ silhouettes, for instance. Green is seen in the hillsides where the two girls lie, and in the canopy of foliage the girls go for a hike. The tone is dominated by lushness, which the valley in which the movie was filmed was noted for in the English countryside of Yorkshire. Summer there is rich, colorful, an allure to the senses. The air is fraught with the breath of temptation, an exhalation of aroma, that of sin. Tamsin, real enough to the eyes, is not, metaphorically, an actual person, but the embodiment of guilty passion and the manifestation of sinister eroticism and beauty. She eyes Mona as her victim, in the same way that Geraldine tries to bring Christabel under her spell, in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel.” The evil spirit has entered the guarded and isolated countryside bastion, which is not innocent but blighted with a curse—the past torture of witches, now countered by the reformation movement that a lone man, a born-again Christian, has undertaken in trying to restore the order by extracting the devil from it.

Quietly, the movie builds towards the exploration of this theme. Tamsin is a diabolical specter that targets a vibrant but downtrodden victim, a girl that despite setbacks and no prospects of good life is still ripe for adventure, thence easily lured by the magnetic flash that comes from Tamsin’s face, the sensuous and suggestive smile forming on her lips. A love between the two, seemingly exotic and fascinating, and intense, develops. Opposites attract, and the unreserved Mona falls for a rich, spoiled, teasing girl that came her way, holding her captive and brightening her life. The brother is not spared, for an evil spirit entering tranquil environment with undercurrents of turbulence is not satisfied until it wins through and through. Phil is fighting devils of his own, and at this point he seems to have turned the corner. Tamsin, a virgin, supposed unschooled in the affairs of the heart, is, however, capable of wreaking destruction. Her targets are easy ones, despite the fact that the hard-boiled Mona has had some track record in love. But Tamsin, vampirish and satanic by nature, has no real feelings, knows instinctively how to recognize a potential victim—targets both brother and sister, and sets out to explore and exploit their vulnerabilities. As all diabolical figures, she is a master of disguise, seeming playfully innocent, still a virgin and half a child, she wears the mask of passionate eroticism on her own terms. She is designing and a good actress (as Emily Blunt who plays her is), and she possesses the entire panoply of seduction of a weaker person. She plays Saint Saens’s, “The Swan” on the cello (the name of Phil’s and Mona’s parents run down pub), she always dresses in red (with a green bracelet), and she gives the impression of passion that comes from the heart. But she leads Mona through successive steps towards moral dissolution, kissing her in a stream, giving her her red dress to wear before a mirror, kissing passionately in a lush garden before they transfer to the bedroom scene, and gradually taking over her life. When they are invited by her brother—while lying on a hill side, her bosoms exposed, she accepts his invitation to go to the raising of the cross up a hill, where witches used to be burned, an act that will purify that hill, and the surrounding area, from the devil. Tamsin then leads Mona to a mock ceremony of baptism, in her bathtub, and from there to a “resurrection” scene, where her sister Sadie will be revived, and then gives a drug, supposedly taken by her and her sister, and takes an equal dose herself. She deliberately attempts to seduce Phil who comes to inquire, and laughs mockingly when he kisses her, leading him on.

Though Mona is hard-boiled and experienced in sex matters, she falls for the less “experienced” satanic figure of Tasmin. When Mona catches her lying at the end, she explains that she a “fantasist.” Her life has been one of suppression (it seems), so the summer fling is an explosion of the libido, but her emotion is not real, for she does not really love Mona, who is much more serious about deploying her feelings openly and without reserve. The brother too has had his battles with the Devil, and has conquered him, as he tells his audiences. And yet, he too, is a sham, for he has replaced one devil with another—his libido has not been quieted. It is possible that he has an incestuous desire for his sister—thence his jealousy. But the cross he has to bear to the hill—his Golgotha—is a pretense, a mask to hide his real anxieties and insecurities. In the end, it is Satan that will triumph, for this a triangular relationship that can only lead to separation, loathing, and alienation. The parties part without any sympathy for each other. Their love entanglement has born no fruit—only a colorful sterility. For their sensuous flings, in the midst of a veritable paradise, the garden of Kubla Khan as false there as they are in the scriptures (Arabian Nights) or in poetry. This is a false paradise, and there cannot be any other result for the participants than exit. All are going in different directions, though nobody knows where. Love, whether lesbian, heterosexual, or incestuous—is no guarantee of cementing relations in human beings—especially though who seeks those with unusual and playful passion. Romance is an alien word here, for it is left only for those who dream—but those who dare not escape the guardrails of their narrow existence. To break the bonds—the narrow rules—means emotional death, hatred, loathing, separation. And a shedding of illusions.

[1] See “Commentary,” on Focus DVD.