Loneliness and independence aren’t opposites but twins: Gemini states of being that can give even the shyest adventurers the courage to stride forth into the world. When a man refuses to be tied down, preferring freedom to all else, he’s an iconoclastic hero. But a woman without a partner, either by choice or by fate—or as the result of a choice she isn’t even conscious of having made—is often looked on with pity. If she’s younger, well-meaning friends reassure her that she still has time to find the right mate. If she’s older, it is assumed her ship has sailed, leaving her on some imagined shore of regret. For centuries, the term spinster—the very sound of the word conjuring grayness, the hollow ring of a lonely bell—was the easiest one to reach for in trying to describe a woman without a partner. And even today, the idea that a woman might cherish her freedom and at times feel incredibly lonely seems too complicated for many people to grasp.
Yet David Lean and Katharine Hepburn, paired as director and lead actor for Summertime (1955), capture this not-really-a-paradox in a cerebral pas de deux, as if each has found an unspoken understanding in the other. Their seemingly disparate sensibilities—Lean’s attention to craft and sense of decorum, Hepburn’s forthright crispness, which serves as a fortress for her eggshell fragility—merge in this incomparable odd-couple picture. Summertime is about how fear of living is more paralyzing than fear of death. Its ending should seem sad, yet it’s piercingly jubilant, like a celebratory cocktail with a complex, bittersweet finish. And the film is so rapturously beautiful to look at—shot by cinematographer Jack Hildyard on location in Venice, that most poetic and haunted of cities—that it seems more a song than a movie, a wordless expression of some ancient romantic longing. Yet with Hepburn at the center of his vision, Lean also teases out something surprisingly modern, not just for its time but for our time. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson—a self-described “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio, who has saved her money for a once-in-a-lifetime trip—is a woman who has done well for herself. But she can’t escape longing, because no one can. Longing for things is how we know we’re alive, though Summertime is less about longing than it is about that knowing. That’s what makes it extraordinary.
When we meet Jane, she’s making her way to Venice by train, later to board a water-bus to her hotel, loaded down with her suitcases and movie camera. This trip means everything to her; she wants to remember it forever, and she thinks the best way to do that is to capture it on film. But the camera will cause more problems than it solves. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes—though not necessarily its best one—Jane tumbles backward into a canal while trying to capture a picturesque storefront. (The anarchic street urchin who has insinuated himself as her guide to the city, played by Gaetano Autiero, grabs the camera just in time.)
Bergman Island: Form and Feeling
In this shape-shifting exploration of creativity, couplehood, and artistic influence, Mia Hansen-Løve offers a glimpse at the existential heavy lift required by her deceptively simple autofictions.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection: Staying Power
Filled with evocative images and guided by the unique aesthetic sensibility of the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s film is an exploration of the power of grief that is paradoxically uplifting.
Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy: Straight to the Bottom of the River
One of contemporary cinema’s most provocative filmmakers launched his career with three deeply unnerving, deliriously genre-blending portraits of Europe.
Imitation of Life: On Passing Between
In its ambivalence toward its provocative themes, John M. Stahl’s groundbreaking exploration of racial identity demonstrates the insolubility of Hollywood’s representational conundrum.
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