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one deadly summer review
A young woman seeks revenge for the assault that led to her birth.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jean Becker

Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Alain Souchon, Suzanne Flon, Jenny Clève, Maria Machado, François Cluzet

one deadly summer poster

Director Jean Becker's genre-bending 1983 adaptation of author Sébastien Japrisot's 1977 novel One Deadly Summer is almost impossible to categorise. Its mix of romantic comedy, film noir and spaghetti western is a curious experiment, if not an entirely successful one. Despite its narrative flaws, it's mostly engaging, thanks in no small part to its lead actress, Isabelle Adjani, who delivers a performance, like so many of her iconic turns, that's tuned entirely to her own unique wavelength.

Before we meet Adjani, we meet Roger Daltrey lookalike Alain Souchon, who plays 'Pin-Pon', a mechanic in the sort of small French provincial village where there's little to do but shag and gossip about who everyone else is shagging. At this particular moment, everyone seems to be shagging Elle (Adjani), the beautiful 19-year-old who recently arrived in town with her German mother (Maria Machado) and invalid father (Michel Galabru). Everyone, that is, except the hapless Pin-Pon. That is until Elle approaches him one night at a disco. The mismatched pair end up in Pin-Pon's bed, and so smitten is the poor schlepp that he moves Elle into his home, much to the chagrin of his disapproving mother (Jenny Clève).

one deadly summer review

What Pin-Pon doesn't realise is that Elle has targeted him specifically. 20 years prior, her mother was raped by three men who arrived at her family's remote farm on their way to deliver a piano. One of the men was an Italian immigrant, just like Pin-Pon's late father, and in a barn next to his house, Elle uncovers the very same piano.

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At 130 minutes, Becker's film takes too many unnecessary narrative detours of the sort that can hold our attention in a novel but too often prove mere distractions on screen, and his storytelling relies heavily on didactic flashbacks that appear either too early or too late in the story. By the climax, it's all become a little too predictable and we've lost much of our intrigue into Elle's misguided quest for vengeance.

one deadly summer review

What does keep us engaged however is Adjani. Her performance is like nothing else I've ever seen, a manic imitation of both a naive sex kitten and a cold, focussed femme fatale. The actress perfectly embodies a young woman in over her head. Her character requires Adjani to convince us that she's initially an intelligent young woman playing at being a bimbo, then later something like the opposite, and she somehow manages to pull this off, adding humanity to a character that often veers closely into the realm of the cartoonish.

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If Adjani's performance is about imitation, then so too is Becker's film, which sees two very Italian sub-genres transposed to the French countryside. Much of the first half of his film plays like a riff on all those '70s Italian erotic comedies in which pneumatic women were always causing trouble in small villages. Once the revenge subplot is revealed, the movie morphs into spaghetti western territory, complete with violent flashbacks to the inciting incident of our hero's quest, and Georges Delerue's theme sounds like it should be played on a saloon's barrel organ.

one deadly summer review

Perhaps what's most interesting about One Deadly Summer is its subversion of the rape-revenge genre. Usually it's either the female victim or some male associate who seeks vengeance, but Becker's film may be the first case where it's the offspring of the assault who seeks justice by killing her own natural father. It's a fascinating idea, but Becker's messy film rarely pauses to explore the psychology of such a premise.

Japrisot's novel may be ripe for another, more nuanced take (and there are plenty of talented French women filmmakers who would now be up to the task), but Becker's film did cement Adjani's reputation as one of the most alluring screen presences of her generation.

One Deadly Summer is on BFI Player now.