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Early Sex

Lila Says (Samuel Goldwyn) and My Summer of Love (Focus)

Sex can be very helpful. For a screenwriter who wants to treat a subject that might seem insufficiently interesting to some viewers, a strong sexual element can serve as hook and medium. As multiple instances have shown, that sexual element can bring along the background material that may have been the first reason for making the picture. The latest example is Lila Says.

The screenplay of this French film is by Ziad Doueiri, who is Lebanese-born and has done a lot of technical work in Hollywood, particularly for Quentin Tarantino. Doueiri has made one previous feature, West Beirut (unseen by me), but to judge by his latest, his aims in film-making could hardly be further from Tarantino’s. Lila Says is based on a novel whose author is unknown (it wouldn’t stagger me to learn that Doueiri wrote it). The story provided the chance to make a film about some of the problems of Muslim young people in France, which was probably the first point of the enterprise, and the sexual element provided a means to make the subject viable in film. At any rate, that is the picture’s effect: the sexual element is trenchant, while the status of Muslim youth registers strongly.

Marseilles, today. Chimo is a nineteen-year-old Muslim who, at the start, is trying to record in notebooks the experiences that, in extensive flashback, are the substance of the picture. He lives with his mother, who supports him; his father has run off with a French woman. Their apartment is in the Arab quarter of the city, and, like his three best friends—also Muslims, of course—he is jobless, aimless, bitterly sure that these conditions are his future.

A sixteen-year-old non-Arab girl named Lila, blonde and proud of her blondeness, approaches him one day in a park and quickly proceeds from chat to provocation. Soon she boasts of her body and asks him whether he wants to see her pubis. (OK, her pussy.) Chimo, for all his inner anger about his status, is a shy youth, reflective, emotionally wary. He doesn’t immediately respond, which apparently is what Lila counted on and what, in some sort of presentiment, attracted her to him. The scene ends with Lila on a swing in the park, riding up high. She is not wearing panties, so Chimo can glimpse what she promised.

They often meet again, sometimes through her arrangement, sometimes through his, and each of their meetings is filled with her torrid accounts of her wild sexual past. These hot tales are clearly meant to tease him, and, though there is one brief sexual moment on her moped, she is almost relying on his innate delicacy to keep him from making moves. Still, in their peculiar, oblique way, this racially diverse pair grows steadily closer and closer.

Chimo’s three friends, who have often seen Lila in the streets, have taunted and badgered her, and seem particularly heated because she is blonde and non- Muslim, and therefore would be a special conquest. They know little of Chimo’s closeness to her, and they behave explosively toward Lila when they learn of it. In the end our suspicions about Lila’s past are confirmed. So is the fate of her curious romance with Chimo. He is left with a roiling emotional legacy, which prompts the scribbling in his notebooks.

Doueiri has cast his film acutely. Chimo is played by Mohammed Khouas, who manages to blend social truculence and a sensitivity that verifies the end of the story. Vahina Giocante is perfect for Lila. She has no conventional sexpot quality: she simply seems an appealing, odd adolescent. Doueiri handles the encounters of this pair with sufficient empathy to make the frank sexual talk seem only the way in which they get to know each other. And he avoids the usual patness of paradoxical love—as when the pair are an Israeli and a Palestinian, a white person and a black person—by making this encounter seem inevitable, given the environment in which Chimo and Lila live. That environment lingers with us after the love story wisps away.

Pawel Pawlikowski is Polish-born but has been living in England for a number of years and has had his directing career there. After some BBC documentaries, he made his first feature, Last Resort, about which I remember chiefly its gritty naturalistic texture. So the texture of his new film, My Summer of Love— dreamy and shimmery—was surprising.

Naturally a director would want to suit his style to his subject, though it is notable that few distinguished directors have varied widely in style. Each usually chooses subjects that fit his style. In contrast, Pawlikowski seems, in some degree, to have been drawn to this subject because he wanted to change his style.

The screenplay, adapted by the director and Michael Wynne from a novel by Helen Cross, is about two teenage English girls and their summer of emotional growth. The setting is Yorkshire, whose landscape is here celebrated. Mona is a working-class girl who one day meets the upper-class Tamsin. Opposites do what they are proverbially supposed to do, and the two girls are soon intimate. This intimacy includes meetings in the manor house where Tamsin lives with her family. (Mona lives in a former pub that her evangelical brother has turned into a religious meetinghouse.) The girls’ intimacy includes sexual investigation, of course, but the relationship seems almost equally based on Mona’s desire to learn from the more widely knowledgeable Tamsin, who tells her about Freud and Nietzsche and Edith Piaf. (Piaf is heard over the closing credits.) For her part, Tamsin seems attracted by, among other things, a stubborn yet tender pride in Mona. The evangelical brother clearly portends some sort of trouble for them. His fervor, which in one aspect leads him to build a gigantic cross and carry it up a hillside with his followers, in another aspect makes him maneuverable to Tamsin. She is able to blunt his threat to her link with Mona.

The girls exchange heated avowals of lifetime love for each other, yet the summer ends as it had to end, as both girls tacitly knew it had to end—and not just because of class distinctions, though certainly they figure. We are left with a concluded lyric whose lyricism depended, in a way, on its conclusion.

Both actresses are talented beyond their years. Tamsin is played by the lovely Emily Blunt, who has a precocious imperial quality. Mona is Natalie Press, who is more homespun in appearance but creates an individual searching for herself, not a type taken from the shelf.

Little in this picture is intrinsically novel: Adolescent emotional discoveries are hardly a fresh subject. But the film is emotionally and visually sustained, so it is pleasant, in a long-range sense, to see the story again. The director sometimes urges Ryszard Lenczewski’s cinematography toward the arty, yet the film leaves us with the scent of the brisk Yorkshire air and the soft fragrance of inevitable parting.

This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.