Not many people saw Lost and Delirious, the 2001 boarding-school drama about two girls in obsessive love, and that was probably for the best. Yes, Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) made a stunning androgynous rebel, but she couldn't rescue the film from its unctuous self-importance. My Summer of Love, a bewitching new movie with essentially the same subject and a similar ambition, is what Lost and Delirious could have been.
Only that's shortchanging it. Directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski (a Pole working in English), My Summer of Love is the kind of film that rises above its particulars. Its immediate subject is a few months of heated passion between two girls, but it's really about the psychology of need, and of want, and of abandonment -- especially for adolescents whose parents are, in one form or another, elsewhere. What's so lovely about Pawlikowski's style is that he marshals nearly every tool in the box -- character, action, setting, dialogue, lighting, camerawork, music -- to create something both recognizable and new. It's a fantastic level of commitment, and the result is a mood movie that sweeps you into its infatuation and holds you there.
The protagonist is Mona (Natalie Press), a West Yorkshire lass who is down on her luck. She is first seen in a fever of scribbling, drawing the face of a girl on her pocked bedroom wall, framing it in flaming red marker. We don't know why she's doing it, but her desperation is easy enough to read; in the next scene, as Mona rides a motorless moped down a gravel road, we get another image of roughness (the road, like the wall) and of hardship. Mona never knew her father, her mother has died of cancer, and her brother Phil (In America's Paddy Considine), once the violent owner and operator of the pub they live above, has turned to Christianity. "He went inside, and he came out funny," Mona says of Phil's transformation. "Inside" is a reference to prison, but it seems to refer to his emotional interior as well.
Natalie Press is essentially an unknown to anyone who missed this year's program of Academy Award-nominated shorts. In "Wasp," the winner for live-action, Press gave a harrowing performance as a 23-year-old mother of four, a fraying girl-woman who deposits her children outside a pub for untold hours while on a date. Press' Mona is of the same world as that mother, only younger, and the impression in both films is indelible: These women are bereft. They lack the basics, and they seem on the verge of falling over a cliff. "I haven't got any family," Mona says to Phil, begging him to return to the way he used to be. "Nobody fancies me."
That's when Tamsin (Emily Blunt) saunters in on a white horse, like a fairy-tale knight. She is home early from school, suspended for being a "bad influence," and she's bored. She invites Mona to come around. When Mona does, she discovers an ivy-covered English estate like something out of Waugh -- only this one is in a romantic state of semi-decay, with spookily empty rooms and grass growing tall on the tennis court.
Tamsin is a beauty as well as a romantic. She discusses Nietzsche and Freud as only an adolescent can (with enthusiastic agreement) and plays Piaf, loud, while discussing the singer's life. Of Piaf's supposed third husband: "The last one was a boxing champion, and she killed him with a fork. She didn't even go to prison, because in France, crimes of passion are forgiven." It's not hard for an adult to see the theater in this, and to suspect Tamsin of self-dramatization, but Mona is smitten. She has never met anyone like this sophisticated sylph, and besides, Tamsin is suffering losses. Her sister has died of anorexia, and her father is shagging his secretary in a tasteless housing development.
Ryszard Lenczewski's camerawork is both close and shaky, almost feverish in its gaze. Using a handheld camera, he zooms toward the faces of the actors, slicing off a chin or a forehead, gulping in the girls as well as the landscape. Everything feels urgent, important, unquenchable. There's also the delicious juxtaposition of English pastoral and contemporary adolescent anomie -- the girls with their midriff-baring shirts, bottomless glasses of wine and ubiquitous cigarettes, lying listless in a field or under a canopy of trees. We see them as Mona sees them, sexy and grand.
In the end, My Summer of Love has a surprise for Mona, if not for the attentive viewer. It's a sad one, but very real, and Pawlikowski allows Mona a final act of dignity. For that, and for this film, we thank him.