It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French - a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point, Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances - well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.
Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.
If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long, languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely when you started to feel it was just getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy - it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.
Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing, but there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said - not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way where you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.
Nothing really happens and there are no grand life changing events, but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t shy away from showing us what might become of them, with the unhappy grown-ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko, who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and willing see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.
Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end, but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. This is just as well, because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling, Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.
Au revoir l'été will be screened at London's Horse Hospital on 24th April 7pm, The Proud Archivist 28th April 7pm and available to view on Demand from 24th April via Day For Night's Website and Film Doo. The film will also be released on DVD later in the year.