Director: Jules Dassin
By Roderick Heath
A dark and stormy night in a small, ancient, Spanish town. A figure prowls through the rain, as light bulbs explode at the cold of the raindrops, and the world seems to shake with some primal force awakening. Within a few moments, just before the lights go out all across the countryside, a man and his mistress have been shot dead, she having advanced fearlessly on her killer just before swallowing a lovely bullet.
Soon the police are out in force hunting for the killer, Rodrigo Palestra (Julián Mateos); the victims were his wife of less than a year (Beatriz Savón) and her lover. Between their roadblocks and the blackout, many travellers passing through are forced to try to spend the night in town, cramming into the corridors of its lone hotel. Amongst them is a quartet of tourists—Paul (Peter Finch), his wife Maria (Melina Mercouri), their young daughter Judith (Isobel Maria Pérez), and their friend Claire (Romy Schneider).
Maria’s a drinker, and her reasons for insisting on Claire coming on the holiday are mysterious, but whatever she wanted, a sure thing is that attraction between Paul and Claire is combusting. Immediately upon hearing about Rodrigo’s plight and history, Maria is fascinated and sympathetic with the wayward murderer, and fixates obsessively on him. She braves the rain and the threatening atmosphere to go for a drink by herself in a local tavern crowded with men arguing furiously about the scandal. An unacknowledged game is going on between herself, her husband, and her friend. Things come to a climax when, as the stranded travellers settle down for the night, Paul and Claire sneak off and kiss on a balcony, Maria spies on them, gripped by a violent mixture of excitement, anguish, and amusement. Then she spies Rodrigo, skipping across the rooftops, trying to shelter from the rain and the spotlights of the police with a dark blanket.
10:30 PM Summer was adapted by Marguerite Duras from her own novella, and it bears close resemblance to other films made from her oeuvre (or the films she made herself), like her collaboration with Alan Resnais, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). She’s flirting with melodrama and exotic kitsch on the surface, but really more a kind of erotic fever dream, trying to look prefeminist European femininity in the eye and also escape it. She has here a perfect avatar: Mercouri, the incredible Greek actress, who prowls through the film with restless, unfulfilled energy and potential, in turns desperate, kittenish, rapacious, devastated, drunken, acute, motherly, and barren.
Duras and Dassin take care to avoid figuring Maria as a nobly suffering martyr; her own vividly kinky intentions slowly become apparent even as she tries to quell them with booze, motivated by desires and emotions and fascinations beyond her own understanding. She soon steals out from the hotel and into her car to aid Rodrigo’s escape from the town, driving out along the highway and turning off to a remote place, where she watches over him. Looking like “a great black bird” when he first appears, a demon lurching out of the dark, Rodrigo slowly emerges from under his sodden blanket, chilled, sick, exhausted, and slowly reborn under Maria’s ministrations. She sits with him until the early morning, before walking out across a dawn landscape of frigid light and reeling birds. She leaves Rodrigo in a hideaway promising to return for him, and returns to the hotel, tired but subtly exultant.
Mercouri’s husband, director Jules Dassin, who died last year, was one of the most talented American directors to appear in the ’40s with a handful of noir mini-masterpieces to his credit (e.g. Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1949), Rififi chez les hommes (1955)), before meeting and marrying Mercouri and broadening out with the new-wave sex farce Never On Sunday (1960), and the self-satirising heist romp Topkapi (1964). He had survived being chased out of the United States by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but didn’t survive a series of flops after Topkapi. But the first hour of this film achieves an admirable, morbid texture that combines the stark, moody precision of his noir films with a brooding sense of threat and hothouse emotion, aided by breathtaking cinematography and lighting (courtesy DP Gábor Pogány) that conjures a Goyaesque evocation of the nature-assailed Spanish town—the menace of Rodrigo’s destructive progress through the town, and the tavern full of men watching Mercouri in stunned silence as she downs her drinks with careless vigour.
The opening credits of the film commences with a pair of hands soon joined by others clapping out a flamenco rhythm, establishing the film’s darkly compulsive Iberian flavor. The tourist board elements of the landscape are however quickly by vivid feeling and real danger, and offer a means of expression the characters can’t find anywhere else. In the final sequences Maria, Paul, and Claire are enraptured by a flamenco dance that offers the promise of combustible group ecstasy, for Maria in particular. “Maria wants everyone to be in love!” Claire declares. Maria obsesses over, and attempts to rescue Rodrigo, not simply out of personal identification—they’re both stricken, stranded outsiders in the world of passion—but also out of romantic fixation.
Maria immediately reconfigures the sorry, scared Rodrigo as a dark marauder ready to become a perfect fourth for the sexual tennis game she’s playing with Paul and Claire, and also because they’re polar opposites: “He didn’t realise there could be people like us,” she muses at one point, that is, “sophisticated,” modern Europeans who have abandoned the savagery of exterminating unfaithful lovers. Within its diptych structure, the film lays out reversals, opposites, and contradictions: night/day, male/female, old morality/new sophistication. The night belongs to Rodrigo, his vengeful passion, the fecundity of darkness, water, earth (Maria’s unquenchable thirst seems keyed into this), the organically tangled shapes of the Spanish town. The day belongs to Claire and Paul, sneaking off to screw when Maria is passed out from drinking too much, having found, in the harsh light of noon and the white-scoured, moistureless hills of Spain that Rodrigo has shot himself. Maria exterminates herself as thoroughly by drinking too much and giving Paul and Claire a chance to go to bed at last.
The central movement of the film begins in the hotel, Dassin setting up his visual formulas sometimes with care. A long travelling shot along the hallway emphasising bedded couples reflects Paul and Claire’s imminent coupling, whilst a series of shots of people on their own blowing out candles introduces Maria’s solitary venture into the night. Dassin offers a long, point-of-view sequence of her movements from a hotel that is transformed by scant light into an underworld filled with bodies sprawled in sheets that look like corpses in shrouds. Soon, Maria is evading patrols and coaxing Rodrigo down from his perch, and then driving him out into the hinterland to the strains of Shostakovich. Maria, whilst defined by her sexual nature, is also awesome in her maternal qualities. She tends to Rodrigo like a mother bird overseeing a wet, naked chick’s emergence from its shell, and later, to distract her daughter from the ugly emotion gripping the adults over Rodrigo’s suicide, starts singing a song with her, instantly connecting with the child’s easily provoked gaiety as Paul and Claire grimace and ponder.
Almost inevitably, the film begins to lose its grip from here, but it fulfills the promise of its structure as the mysteries resolve and the promise of the night dries up in the sun. Maria is in love with Claire and is feeding on thrills from the prospect of her affair with Paul whom she no longer loves. He’s angry with Maria, disgusted by her alcoholism, attracted to Claire, but still in love with Maria. They collectively dismiss Rodrigo as a coward. Duras’ script, written with Dassin, reveals an awkwardness with film (and English) dialogue, but it’s not exactly supposed to be naturalistic, considering that Duras sprang from the same tradition as Anaïs Nin and Jean Genais, writers who filtered their raw concerns through heightened prose poetry.
In places, Duras’ script takes aim at romantic fluff (at a time when literary and cinematic artists were struggling to find an appropriate argot for rawer portraits of sexual emotion), whilst also respecting its power: “White white white is the colour my true love wears,” Maria drones to Claire upon encountering her in a bathrobe, a sarcastic but also earnest overture; Claire responds by inviting Maria to take a shower with her in a scene invested with a more-than-faint homoerotic crackle. When Claire and Paul finally consummate their affair and the ménage-a-trois reaches a brittle final phase, Maria walks out of the flamenco café, having been raised to a pitch of exultance, and vanishes, forlornly pursued by Paul and Claire. Finch, at the height of his gifts as an actor, infuses Paul with subtleties: his anger at Maria for her alcoholism, his love for her, his mixture of hunger and hesitation in chasing Claire. Schneider’s eyes glitter with fascination and wariness for the strange couple courting her.
The disappointment of the conclusion is that Dassin swaps the drenched noir precision of the beginning, which exactly captures the necessary prose-poetic mood Duras is chasing, in exchange for some tricks awkwardly borrowed from the fashionable arthouse flicks, for example, the frankness of Paul and Claire’s bedroom antics partly obscured by a drizzle of dreamy effects (admittedly, it is supposed to be unclear what is real and what Maria is imagining in her dozing state, but this doesn’t forgive some sad purple dialogue dubbed over it either). The final scene is a complete mistake, a too self-conscious a steal from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. 10:30 PM Summer looks to me like a transitional film. Today, spare, cryptic portraits of the psychic and sexual life are more common; how to create psychologically and emotionally penetrating works of film was a major question for earlier directors. This film, like Losey and Pinter’s Accident (1967), which possibly had an easier time of it for centering more happily on male sexual transgressions, stand somewhere between the stylistics of the “alienation” films of the early ’60s and the New Wave, and the approaching full-bore works of Bertolucci, Breillat, Eustache, and others. Whilst no masterpiece, it’s far better than its reputation reflects, and it’s a film worth checking out.