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BERLINALE 2024 Generation

Review: My Summer with Irène

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- BERLINALE 2024: Maria Camilla Brandenburg shines in Carlo Sironi’s second feature, which is otherwise subtle to a fault

Review: My Summer with Irène
Noée Abita and Maria Camilla Brandenburg in My Summer with Irène

Summer is a transformative time of year, with blue skies promising so much freedom even as the heat of the sun awakens our senses. By contrast, in Carlo Sironi’s My Summer with Irène [+see also:
interview: Carlo Sironi
film profile
]
— premiering in the Generation section of this year’s Berlinale — the season almost seems like a cruel joke to Clara (Maria Camilla Brandenburg) and Irène (Noée Abita): the two girls, 17 years old and on the cusp of womanhood, are part of a special summer camp for young people like them in treatment for or recovering from cancer. We learn this very early on and it is impossible not to constantly wonder throughout the film how much this condition must change the girls’ perspective on the passing of time, the beauty of nature, the very idea of far niente, or even the concept of life stages. The soft and delicate cinematography by Gergely Pohárnok (who also worked on the Italian director’s debut Sole [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Carlo Sironi
film profile
]
) matches the quiet and somewhat melancholy nature of Clara, the film’s main protagonist, who quickly forms a connection with Irène and soon follows her much more obstinate new friend to a small island in Sicily. Running away from the group, during what looks to be the 1990s, the two diametrically different girls are clearly trying to find some place where they would not be defined by their illness and could instead enjoy the simple act of being. 

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The resourceful Irène finds the girls a soon-to-be-renovated house to stay in, and days of idleness follow. But the spectre of illness never leaves the mind of us viewers, and it is in constant tension with the relaxation seen on screen. While the two protagonists have lived with their conditions for at least two years, for most of us in the audience it remains a rare and unusual reality to consider. The hand-off approach to the subject from Sironi and co-writer Silvana Tamma presumably aims to help us see the characters are fully rounded people who are not entirely defined by illness, but it often makes for a film that feels frustratingly vague about the psychological toll of such a diagnosis. Irène’s state of mind is easier to intuit than Clara’s because she is more expressive, talkative and spontaneous, but Clara remains something of a mystery throughout. Brandenburg’s laid-back, extremely naturalistic performance thankfully imbues the character with a believable personality, that of an observant young woman comfortable moving at her own rhythm. 

The relationship between Irène and Clara is marked by subtle hints that the latter may be more fond of the former than a platonic friendship usually implies. Irène’s disparaging comments about men when a group of young people arrives on the island, and moments of physical contact that verge on playful teasing, suggest an attraction. But the film thankfully refrains from too strictly defining what is after all a still burgeoning friendship between two very young people who, in this time and place, have no need for labels. This subtlety is also allowed by Clara’s own calm nature, who doesn’t let herself be smothered by Irène’s bigger personality. In her own time and her own patient manner, inspired by Irène’s thirst for freedom but a lot less brash in her methods, Clara opens herself back up to chance and the unknown, two facts of life that are synonymous with youth but naturally rejected in times of illness. In a gentle summer romance with a nice boy, she can also begin to once again have hope and dreams for the future. It seems a shame, then, to see the film eventually fall back on a cliché, with Irène finally adopting all the traits of the inspiring but tragic gay friend, making of My Summer with Irène an ultimately rather conventional coming-of-age film relying more on character tropes than it initially appears to. 

My Summer with Irène was produced by Kino Produzioni (Italy), June Films (France) and RAI Cinema (Italy). International sales are handled by Italian company Fandango

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