One Deadly Summer (L’été meurtrier) (1983)

One Deadly Summer (L’été meurtrier) first published by Movie Gazette

One Deadly Summer (L’été meurtrier) begins as a portrait of life in a small village in 1970s France. The narration of local fireman Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon) introduces us to his French-Italian family and describes his awkward crush on Elle (Isabelle Adjani), a pretty girl who has just moved to the village with her crippled father Gabriel (Michel Galabru) and her German mother (Maria Machado). Pin-Pon is quickly smitten by Elle’s free-spirited unpredictability, but there are dark hints in his retrospective narration (“Seeing her look at me like that, I made my biggest mistake ever”), and of course in the film’s title, that there is trouble ahead. Sure enough, it soon becomes clear (although not to Pin-Pon himself) that Elle has insinuated herself into his life as part of an elaborate plot to avenge the rape of her mother by his now dead father and two other men twenty years earlier – a rape which led to Elle’s conception, and contributed to her damaged personality.

Near the end of One Deadly Summer, Pin-Pon comments: “Who can say what really happens? None of us sees it all” – and these words cut to the heart of the film. Featuring multiple narrators (including, in addition to Pin-Pon himself, commentary from Elle, her mother, and Pin-Pon’s aunt Cognata, played by Suzanne Flon) and a series of ambiguous flashbacks from different perspectives, all designed to complicate as much as to clarify, One Deadly Summer is primarily concerned with limited perception and ignorance – whether it is Elle’s literal (as well as metaphorical) myopia, Cognata’s deafness and vanishing memory, Pin-Pon’s infatuation, or the obliviousness of Elle’s mother to Gabriel’s various doings. All these characters are plagued by a past which they can neither properly recall or understand, and their blindness is reflected more generally in the community’s misplaced prejudice, abiding long after the War has ended, against Italians and Germans. 

Far from being a rape-revenge exploitation movie in the tradition of I Spit On Your Grave, Jean Becker’s film plays itself out like a Greek tragedy, full of domestic ruin, catastrophic nemesis, fatal errors, incest and madness – and ending in violent, futile rage. The film has a look very much of its time (and not a little bland), and could probably afford to be at least half an hour shorter – but it is hard to imagine that Adjani’s multi-faceted performance, ranging from wanton seductress to malevolent Fury to lost child, could be outdone in any generation.  

Strap: Jean Becker’s One Deadly Summer (L’été meutrier) is a tale of small-town rape-revenge and tragic myopia, starring a versatile Isabelle Adjani

© Anton Bitel