Directed by David Lean; Written by H.E. Bates and David Lean
David Lean gave us one of the all-time great stories about a romantic episode with Brief Encounter, and with Summertime, the story of an American tourist’s romantic sojourn in sunny Venice, he retraces his steps, not quite reaching the same yearning heights, but at least giving Katharine Hepburn a podium from which she can show us (still) another side to her.
She plays Jane Hudson of Akron, Ohio, who arrives in Venice to fulfill a life-long dream to visit. It lives up to expectations and she’s in awe, looking wide-eyed at everything, a ring almost forming around her eye from the impression left by the camera she constantly whips in front of her face in order to catch the many architectural wonders.
A solo traveler, she revels at first in the discipline’s advantages: the freedom to do as you please, being open to detours, making friends with fellow travelers and curious locals. Composer Alessandro Cicognini’s buoyant score prickles with the excitement of it all, and Lean’s camera (out of the film studio and now on location) feels directed by the Venice Tourism Board as he cross-cuts from Hepburn’s dilated eyes to Venetian landmarks big and small, every shot a $1000 postcard. Even the street urchins are charming, and someone’s household trash being thrown into the canal can’t spoil the view.
It’s wanderlust at 24 frames a second and Hepburn’s initial forays through the narrow streets are full of the energy of being someplace new and exotic on your own, yet Summertime doesn’t truly get underway until her character has a chance to sit still for a second, collect herself, and get caught up in the piercing loneliness she thought she could escape here, thousand of miles away from home.
It’s wistful, alright, and as Hepburn’s eyes go clear and she clutches herself in the sudden chill, we wonder what she’s steeling herself from: lost love, fear another will never come, fear even companionship is out of reach? Then, one day, a handsome local walks past her in St. Mark’s square…
The possibility, and fear, of a genuine romance hangs over Summertime like an August breeze, lovely but bittersweet in its transience. Jane’s insecure to her core and mistrustful of the man, Renato, and his advances, yet she can’t help but give in. She was dying for something like this to happen, yet faced with its existence, doubts shake her.
The chemistry between Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi as Renato won’t inspire many Petrarchan sonnets, but Jane’s crushing anxiety makes her an intriguing romantic lead, if only how peculiar it all is. This is not a sweeping seduction for the ages, but rather surprisingly, one woman’s battle for self-love in the midst of what’s supposed to be an invigorating getaway.
Summertime’s cinematic tourism and tribute to Venice puts it in a curious conversation with Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers, released 35 years later. While Summertime is a more straightforward enthusiastic celebration of the historic city, Strangers makes the city alien and uncanny with its love of shadows, old world aesthetics, and a Middle Eastern-infused soundscape. With their outsets and outlooks on romance about as contrary as possible, they almost make more of an argument for the richness of Venice than any symphonic duet ever could – versatility!
The film is a romance that doesn’t quite sweep you off your feet, but does have some noteworthy things keeping it in the history books. One, Lean going on-location was a departure for him, and the vigor with which he immortalizes Venice has to be one of the most remarkable instances of a filmmaker making the location its own character.
Secondly, Summertime, with its exploration of loneliness and what love can do to uplift you, provides a pedestal from which Katharine Hepburn shows another side to her acting. She always cut a strange romantic figure in Hollywood as a strong, quick-witted scene partner as opposed to an ultra-feminine foil whose partnership existed in how well they could flirt and put up resistance before ultimately succumbing to inevitable conquest. In Summertime, she’s anything but strong-willed. Still quippy, but a trembling leaf otherwise, her enthusiastic tourism act revealed to simply be the aftershocks from the deep-rooted anxieties that grip her.
To see Hepburn convincingly reduce herself like this is to watch one of the greats reinvent and deepen their professional persona. Watching her cry in solitude, twisting her face as loneliness taints what’s a long-awaited experience is akin to watching an elite, storied athlete suddenly have their body betray them; the subsequent rally is all the more stirring as a result.
Summertime is a minor love story mostly interesting because of its cynicism and personal importance for its principal creative forces, etching its name in history as the starting gun for Lean’s string of back-to-back-to-back classics The Bridge on The River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.