Plot: one hot summer, a lot of beautiful people, romance for everyone.
Muriel Catalá made a splash with the World War II drama The Savior (1971). That much was certain. It bombarded her to an instant sex symbol and she was primed to become an international star. If her debut made one thing clear it was that Catalá looked good traipsing around in the French countryside, doubly so when she’s naked. After something deadly serious it’s completely natural that la Catalá would go for something lighter. Like the best of French cinema from around this period this too is pervaded with that magic realism. This is probably what Monika (1974) would have looked like had it been French and focused more on the various romantic entanglements and the countryside instead of leering on Gloria Guida’s remarkably well-formed ass. How do you follow up something as incredibly poignant and tear-jerkingly tragic as The Savior (1971)? By indulging your innermost nostalgia and that romantic longing for those simpler carefree days of youth and those lazy hazy days of summer. For her debut Faustine et le bel été (or Faustine and the Beautiful Summer, pour ceux qui ne parlent pas français) Nina Companéez chose exactly that sort of quiet meditation or wistful contemplation on all the beautiful things that make life worth living.
To understand how Faustine and the Beautiful Summer came to be we need to look at Nina Companéez’ past. She got her start as an editor and writer under Michel Deville in an association that encompassed nine movies between 1960 and 1971. Later that year Companéez would venture back into the pittoresque environs of Montreuil-sur-Epte in Normandy where she cut her teeth under Deville but this time to film her own creative endeavour. Surely this idyllic region speaks to anybody’s imagination and certainly that of a creative. Then there’s the Epte river itself that famously inspired Claude Monet's 1899 oil painting The Waterlily Pond and to a larger extent his extensive Water Lilies collection in its entirety. Aided by a serene piano score from Bruno Rigutto (as well as as renditions from Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) and oneiric photography capturing the warm palette and vivid colors of the pastoral French countryside - as well as the often naked bodies Muriel Catalá and Claire Vernet - in all their unspoiled beauty; Faustine and the Beautiful Summer is tale about the beauty of youth, the magic of first love, and the inevitable loss of innocence. To put it more succinctly, it’s about that nostalgic and romantic longing of days past. While history has recorded the Isabelles, Adjani and Huppert, to be the actual and most enduring stars by a very wide and considerable margin, there’s no doubt that Faustine and the Beautiful Summer was designed primarily as a vehicle to showcase Muriel Catalá and her mouthwatering disrobed form. This, first and foremost, begs the question: who was Muriel Catalá and why was she so dreadfully important?
Muriel Catalá was born in Paris in 1952 and blessed with a fragile, natural beauty. She often played Lolita roles in domestic sex comedies and coming-of-age dramas. Around these parts she known for her stunning debut in the World War II drama The Savior (1971) from director Michel Mardore. It was a role that Isabelle Adjani tested for but didn’t end up playing and here the two were finally united. Faustine and the Beautiful Summer marked la Catalá’s first collaboration with director Nina Companéez and that partnership would extend into The Edifying and Joyous Story of Colinot (1973). Soon Catalá found herself mixed up Italian exploitation in The Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) (with an all-star Euroshlock cast of Anne Heywood, Ornella Muti, Martine Brouchard, and Claudia Gravy) and similar nudity-heavy roles followed in the German co-produced comedy First Time with Feeling (1974) and the thriller Verdict (1974). Marvelous Muriel was wide-eyed, full-bodied, and disarmingly natural in her naked uninhibitness. It’s surprising that Catalá didn’t end up working with fantastique specialist Jean Rollin, general madman Michel Lemoine, shaman-turned-filmmaker Mario Mercier, or master of subversion Joël Séria who’d appreciate her innocuous beauty and simmering carnality. Catalá had the good fortune of sharing the screen with Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Donald Pleasence, Sophia Loren, and Horst Buchholz. She also became an unfortunate victim of typecasting and was primarily offered roles that revolved more around her naked form and less about acting. Truth be told, Muriel was an exceptionally beautiful girl but a strikingly bad actress. Not that that ever stopped anyone from having a career. Oh, Muriel. What a star you would’ve made.
In the summer of 1970 wide-eyed, idealistic 16-year-old Faustine (Muriel Catalá) spends the summer not with parents in Saint Tropez but at the estate of her grandfather Henri (Pierre Plessis) and her grandmother (Andrée Tainsy). Of the four seasons, summer is her favourite. Faustine loves nature, grew up close it and loves nothing more than enjoying it in every way she can, where and whenever possible in the way nature intended her. One day on one of her sojourns she catches a glimpse of her next door neighbours, a well-to-do, artistically inclined family living in an opulent villa. There she sees Jean (Maurice Garrel), his two sons Joachim (Francis Huster) and Florent (Jacques Spiesser), aged 18 and 25, as well as his second (and much younger) wife Claire (Claire Vernet) and their 6-year-old daughter Marie (Valentine Varela). Also living in the villa are Jean’s brother Julien (Georges Marchal) and his two daughters Camille (Isabelle Adjani), who holds a torch for Florent, and Ariane (Marianne Eggerickx, as Marianne Eggerikx). Discovered spying one day Faustine is invited to spent the rest of her vacation at the villa. There she catches the eye of amateur poet Florent and the libertine Joachim – with both of whom Claire finds herself in the throes of incestual desire - and strikes up a friendship with Camille and Ariane, the latter drawn to peasant Haroun (Jacques Weber). While being courted by Joachim, Faustine develops an infatuation with Jean, a man old enough to be her father. Over the course of that idyllic summer everybody in the house experiences the magic of that first kiss, blooming love, untamed passion, and the inevitable heartbreak that follows…
Isabelle Adjani was born to an Algerian father and German mother in 1955 in Gennevilliers, a northwestern suburb of Paris. Her role as Camille was one of the minor parts she played prior to starring in Claude Pinoteau’s The Slap (1974) that François Truffaut saw, who in turn casted her in The Story of Adèle H. (1975). Her work with Truffaut exposed her to an international audience which led to the crime thrillers The Tenant (1976) from Roman Polanski, The Driver (1978) from Walter Hill, and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of F. W. Murnau silent horror classic Nosferatu (1922). Adjani is a five-time winner of the César Award for Best Actress, a two-times Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress award winner for the Merchant Ivory film Quartet (1981) and Possession (1981) (for which she won one of her five César Awards) as well as the first French actress to receive two Oscar nominations. From 1989 to 1995 Adjani was in a relationship with decorated actor Daniel Day-Lewis and was later engaged to electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. In mid-July 2010 Adjani was made Knight of the Legion of Honour and a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2014 for her artistic contributions to French cinema. Then there are Claire Vernet, Jacques Spiesser, Francis Huster, Valentine Varela, Marianne Eggerickx, Nathalie Baye, and Isabelle Huppert. It seems that just about everybody was able to build an extensive and lasting career on the back of this harmless piece of fluff. Everybody, except Muriel.
For whatever reason (probably having to do with distribution at the time) this is sometimes erroneously categorized as a comedy but that would be a bit facile. It has nothing in common with the Italian, German, or Danish sex comedies of the day. There are no outright comedic situations and none of the sexual permutations are painted as funny. More than anything Faustine and the Beautiful Summer is a veneration of nature, in all of its many breathtaking facets, and a celebration of the exposed female form within it. Especially the first act is an exaltation of Catalá as she daydreams in the golden wheat fields, navigates the verdant forests, bathing in the clean water of the serene rivers and ponds, and lounging in the comfort of the lush meadows. This section in particular often has the feel of a fantastique but never ventures into that territory. This is not Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1974) after all. Director of photography Ghislain Cloquet never fails to capture the beauty of la Catalá, Adjani, or any of the other girls present. While Faustine and the Beautiful Summer has no outright bad dialogue Catalá’s "I haven't allowed you to caress my back" is easily the movie’s most memorable line. As a romance this is far more straight forward than the wartime drama The Savior (1971) and it’s fairly obvious why a rising star as Muriel Catalá would be attracted to it. Her role starts out as fairly passive and peripheral, she got to do what made her famous (get nude) and had the chance to share the stage with some promising young talent. Equally understandable is that she would forge onward with Companéez after this. There’s no denying that Faustine and the Beautiful Summer is as light as a feather but that doesn’t diminish or negate that it’s absolutely beautiful to look at. The palette of colors alone makes it worth viewing. It might not be a fairytale but it damn well feels like one – and that should count for something.
It was screened out of competition on the 1972 Cannes Film Festival where it shared a bill with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil, and Federico Fellini’s Roma, among many others. In the company of such illustrious and celebrated innovators of cinema perhaps Faustine and the Beautiful Summer was a bit too light and dreamy for its own good. Regardless, director of photography Ghislain Cloquet would go on to work on Juan Luis Buñuel's Expulsion Of the Devil (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979). For Nina Companéez it pointed towards a long and prosperous as a director. She would only helm two more theatrical productions before moving onto television, where she has remained since. And Muriel? Well, a decade after big screen debut her career hadn’t gone anywhere in particular. Perhaps there’s a point to be made that she was no Ewa Aulin, Birte Tove, Lise-Lotte Norup, or a Gloria Guida yet she was able to be part of a classic, cult or otherwise. Understandably she bowed out of the profession she tried a good ten years of her life to break into, unceremonious and disappointed. In that time she made enough of an impression never to be forgotten by those who know her, yet for whatever reason she has always remained one of the more unsung starlets of that decade. Muriel, marvelous Muriel, wherever you are. We see you, we know you. Your career might have amounted to nothing but a footnote in cinematic history but your roles in The Savior (1971) and Faustine and the Beautiful Summer are forever etched in our memory.