For movie connoisseurs and critics, a film’s style is often as important as its content if not more so. After all, content comes in many forms, but what’s the point of loving film if the presentation can be delivered just as fruitfully in a different medium? Of course style comes in many forms – elegant (Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard), lyrical (Terence Malick’s Badlands), kinetic (John Woo’s The Killer), realist (Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief), minimalist (Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rebels of the Neon God), or deadpan (Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) – to name a few. Mastery of style is an easy measure of authorial aptitude for critics because in many ways, it’s as hard to land properly as the most difficult gymnastic vault. So many elements and so many tasks by so many people go into making a movie, that getting all that to cohere into the pitch-perfect style is a minor miracle. Paul Pavlikovsky’s My Summer of Love looks like it’s going to perform just such a miracle during its first half, but then the content gets in the way.
In the opening moments, young red-head Mona (Nathalie Press) lies in the grass amid the hazy midday sun when she opens her eyes to find a figure on horseback looking down on her. The way Pavlikovsky shoots this, the audience is Mona, with all the attendant repose followed by intensity of light, heat, and momentary confusion. Working-class Mona has just met Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a beautiful and wealthy young woman home from boarding school for the summer. Soon the two are commiserating over sorrows – Mona over her older brother Phil’s Jesus obsession since he left prison and Tamsin over her sister Sadie’s death from anorexia as well as her father’s adultery. After some swooning, Heavenly Creatures-like bonding, the two women declare their undying passion for each other.
Pavlikovsky keeps this working as a visually sumptuous tone poem, a free-spirited, youthful, joyful romantic idyll between the two women. But midway through, he decides to switch the emphasis to narrative. While initially joining Mona in her mockery of Phil’s Jesus fanaticism, Tamsin appears to find interest in what Phil (Paddy Considine) has to say about finding meaning through Christ while also noting how attractive he is. She gets the hesitant Mona to join Phil in a ceremony putting up a giant crucifix on the mountain above their small Yorkshire town. But is Tamsin serious or is she just playing Phil? Or is Phil playing her?
Unfortunately, the more the plot takes over, the more Pavlikovsky falters, until at the end, he reveals one of those now all-too-common twists that makes everything that came before a convoluted conceit. In hindsight, the movie is primarily about lies and fakery, but only in hindsight. Once this is clear, it is equally clear just how contrived the plot was just to make these points. Pavlikovsky ends up falsifying everything his style was working so effectively to create, and only because he ultimately chose content over style.