What is it about summertime that brings out the sexual worst in us? Is it the exposed shoulders and bare legs? The fact is, you just don't see too many steamy tales of lust and betrayal set in the dead of winter.
To wit: Stefan Krohmer's Summer '04 meticulously captures the idyllic laziness of August while telling a chilly tale of summer love that spins into something subtly creepy. What begins as a subdued comedy in the vein of Eric Rohmer twists into unsettling dread and tragedy.
Precocious 12-year-old Livia (Svea Lohde) has come to stay with her petulant boyfriend Nils' (Lucas Kotaranin) family. Mature beyond her years, she meets and then begins sailing with a cheerful hunk named Bill (Robert Seeliger). Unfortunately Bill is easily in his 30s and Nils' mother, Miriam (Martina Gedeck), becomes deeply suspicious of their "friendship." One evening, when Livia doesn't return from one of their outings, Miriam drives out to the man's estate and discovers that the handsome ex-American has depths she never considered. Before you can say "frustrated marriage," Miriam finds herself competing with 12-year-old Livia for Bill's affections. Nothing quite goes the way you'd expect as an afternoon out on the water turns dark and menacing, upending the light drama of the film's first half.
Aping the same detached icy formalism Michael Haneke has built his career on, young German director Krohmer relies on the delicate performances of his terrific cast to ground the high melodrama (and unfathomably outrageous human behavior) in Daniel Nocke's deadpan script. A frank and unpretentious examination of contemporary German attitudes about youth, sex, parental responsibility and middle age, Krohmer and Nocke dare to suggest that the affected open-mindedness of Miriam and her self-absorbed husband André (Peter Davor) is actually less insightful than their teenage house guest's casual observations. Livia's rejection of their notions of morality and sex is depicted as less a matter of youthful naiveté and rebellion than an honest assessment of emotion and libido. It's smart and meaty stuff.
But while the film's eyebrow-raising dialogue walks a thin line between high camp and savvy commentary, Summer '04 can't help but reveal the calculated mechanics behind each of its plot twists. The end result is an overly schematic story that methodically puts its characters through their paces but never earns them any emotional connection. The sick soul of the upper middle class is once again on display, and it's only Krohmer's relentlessly underplayed sense of drama that masks the shallow familiarity of watching complacent rich folk rediscovering life through adultery and suffering. Doesn't anyone get a hobby anymore?
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday Nov. 16 and 17 and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov 18. Call 313-833-3237.