Thursday, July 14, 2005

BEFORE A FALL

Posted on Thu, Jul 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

***

My Summer of Love
Studio: Focus Features
Rated: R
Website: http://www.mysummeroflovemovie.com/home.html
Release Date: 2005-07-15
Cast: Natalie Press, Emily Blunt, Paddy Considine, Dean Andrews
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Michael Wynne, Helen Cross
Music Score: Goldfrapp
WorkNameSort: My Summer of Love
Our Rating: 3.00

Just as certain music critics will go gaga over the most pedestrian pop if it's sung through a mouthful of bad British teeth, so is the mediocre psychodrama My Summer of Love being enthusiastically received on the art-house circuit, where a Yorkshire setting and some semi-decipherable accents are apparently enough to make an otherwise ordinary exposé of unhealthy relationship dynamics seem like the Second Coming. Then again, maybe I'm understating the movie's thematic hooks: There's lesbianism, too. See, the exotica never stops.

Slight and predictable at its core, the film uses one of the dodgiest techniques in modern cinema to gussy up its garden-variety goods. It's the old "omitted information" trick, in which the introductory minutes of a film – the portion that should be devoted to explaining who is what to whom – are whittled down to nearly random slice-of-life episodes. Scenes come from out of nowhere and quickly vanish, displaying little connection to one another; only after a good while do we grasp the story's basic parameters.

Working-class girl Mona (Nathalie Press) is adrift in life, left alienated by her mother's death and the stigma of never having known her father. Her one connection to the past is rapidly fraying: Her brother, Phil (Paddy Considine), has become a born-again Christian and converted the pub they used to run into a spiritual meeting center. To Mona, it's a betrayal of the highest order.

A chance encounter with mysterious rich kid Tamsin (Emily Blunt) introduces Mona to a whole new world of possibility. Their backgrounds are wildly and obviously divergent: When Mona first sets eyes on Tamsin, the latter is astride a horse she owns. Yet underneath it all, they appear to share a certain wounded disaffection. Tamsin, too, has had tragedy shake her family tree, though her coping mechanisms are far more erudite. Early in their relationship, she says that she's found comfort in the philosophies of Nietzsche, as well as fascination in Edith Piaf's numerous ill-fated marriages.

Personally, whenever I meet someone who claims to take her cues from Nietzsche, I make it a point to run the other way. But both Mona and the movie are well behind us in judging that Tamsin may be bad news. This despite the fact that writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (adapting a book by Helen Cross) throws out some clever signifiers, like giving the character dark hair. While we await the payoff to our natural awareness that no good can come of their burgeoning friendship – which, in truth, is more of a seduction – the ladies indulge a penchant for black humor that endows the movie with most of its genuinely entertaining moments. Both Mona and Tamsin get off some wicked pranks at the expense of Phil, who's trying to walk the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, the film depicts him as ridiculously easy to tempt, suggesting some nasty things about the fragility of faith and short-circuiting the one character who could have been genuinely sympathetic. Tamsin's out, of course, and ostensible protagonist Mona is ill-served by the patchy script. There's no telling if she's legitimately affronted or just whiny and selfish, and her morals are seriously suspect – unless one counts back-seat rutting with a married fella as a qualifying event for Britain's Next Top Role Model.

Press, Blunt and Considine take quietly intense approaches to their acting that couldn't be more beneficial, given that the story depends almost entirely on two-person exchanges. Blunt is especially good at conveying the volatility that rests just below Mona's sour demeanor. Still, I'm getting really tired of having to write that a movie, though conceptually flawed, was "well-acted." That's what professional performers are supposed to do, isn't it: act well? As indie virtues go, I'd gladly trade the occasional flawless line reading for some inventive yet solid storytelling. But if all you require is yet another bad-influence flick – and with pretensions in place of suspense – then have at it.

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