The Girls Can't Help It

Forbidden fruit: Emily Blunt in 'My Summer of Love'
Focus Features

Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love is a wry marvel of lean lyricism, as compact and determined as a sonnet. Which isn't to say the Polish-born Pawlikowski adheres to any prescribed scheme. Following a pair of crushed-out teenagers in a timeless, near-empty Yorkshire, the movie hovers in the spaces between adolescence and adulthood, calculation and spontaneity, uncanny verisimilitude and dreamy abstraction.

Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a wealthy troublemaker home from boarding school, meets Mona (Natalie Press), an orphaned working-class teen who lives with her born-again brother Phil (Paddy Considine) above a pub that he's busy transforming into a "spiritual center." ("I miss my brother," sobs Mona; for her, Phil died when he was born again.) Riding into Mona's purview on a white horse, accessorized with kerchief and hoop earrings, Tamsin has all the bearings of a chivalrous pirate-prince here to rescue the foundling damsel from a bored, alcohol-soaked torpor. On the grounds of Tamsin's ivy-sheathed Tudor estate, Mona luxuriates with her posh conspirator in a hothouse of wine, sex, aristocratic leisure, and what feels like love--with occasional delinquent intrusions into the increasingly irrelevant and ridiculous outside world.

Through verdant, near-pointillist imagery, My Summer of Love visualizes the girls' pulsing cocoon of transgressive infatuation, buoyed by the woozy electronic surge of the score. The film's fervent cross-class romance and gathering threat of violence unavoidably summon Heavenly Creatures. But Pawlikowski, loosely adapting Helen Cross's sensational novel, slyly avoids generic traps. A former documentarian, Pawlikowski molds his narratives out of spare scripts, improvisatory workshops, and last-second revisions; during shooting, he'll even feed lines to his performers as they occur to him. The thrill of discovery that illuminates Pawlikowski's movies owes not only to the director's methods, but to his eye for unknown actors. As the irresistibly impetuous Mona, Press has razor-edge comic timing and some of the just-hatched, spectral purity of the young Sissy Spacek. As Tamsin, the deadpan-gorgeous Emily Blunt achieves a remarkable feat: an understated characterization of a bad actress.

Mona and Tamsin romp and loaf in what seems to be a vivid, webbed-light dream, one weirdly denuded of commercial signposting. But Mona soon wakes from this sun-dappled reverie to find herself inside a mere passing fancy: Her faith in a yin-yang connection with Tamsin proves to be as ardent and misplaced as the newfound religiosity that has led her brother to erect a massive cross on the dales. As the audience realizes long before Mona can, Tamsin is the mistress of the italicized gesture, a virtuoso of slapdash pretension; she moves and speechifies on the likes of Nietzsche and Edith Piaf as if a camera were forever trained on her. To Tamsin, Mona is an exotic, somewhat pitiable plaything, worthy of all the noblesse oblige the privileged fantasist can spare.

It's in Tamsin's inadvertently cruel spinning of fact and fiction that My Summer of Love gains a layer of subtly inflected social commentary: the blasé, even unthinking exploitation of the poor by the rich. Shielded by the protective quilting of wealth and the regal bearing of entitlement that goes with it, Tamsin can stew in her romance-novel dreams all she likes; Mona, as she herself finally realizes, cannot. Like the flaky but resolute Tanya in Pawlikowski's Last Resort, Mona is an alien in a bizarre milieu, a sleeping beauty who must rouse herself and stride purposefully from a stagnant now into an uncertain future. Forcibly divested of her illusions, Mona gains strength and resolve. But Pawlikowski leaves candidly ambiguous whether she's lost more than she's found.

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