“I tried to keep the whole film in a strange in-between land,” says Pawel Pawlikowski, the Warsaw-born, London-based director of the sinuous, luminous My Summer of Love. Hovering in the liminal space between girlhood and adulthood—a strange in-between land indeed—the film distills Helen Cross’s sensational 2001 novel of the same name down to its core relationship: In a timeless, near empty Yorkshire, Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a wealthy troublemaker home from boarding school, meets Mona (Natalie Press), an orphaned working-class teen. On the grounds of Tamsin’s ivy-sheathed Tudor estate, Mona luxuriates with her posh conspirator in a hothouse of wine, sex, aristocratic leisure, and what feels like love, with occasional delinquent intrusions into the increasingly ridiculous outside world.
“For me it’s like, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi‘—I can totally empathize with these teenage girls,” says the affable Pawlikowski during an expansive chat on the roof of his office in London’s Soho. “I responded to the book the way I did to The Catcher in the Rye at one point in my life. I thought Mona was a great character—this combination of naïveté, cynicism, sense of humor, and erratic behavior, but she’s also got this strong romantic yearning, which is a rare thing in this country. I liked the layered relationship between two girls from different classes—from different cultures, really. And I knew it would be an opportunity to find interesting young actors; I have a slight phobia about working with actors whose bag of tricks I’ve seen before in other films.”
Both his previous film, Last Resort (2000), and My Summer of Love achieve an extraordinary spontaneity of incident and performance, and the thrill of discovery owes as much to the director’s partiality to unknown actors as to his ingenious adaptations of documentary methods to his fiction films, which he molds from impromptu combinations of spare scripting, improvisatory workshops, and last-second revisions. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Pawlikowski began as a documentary maker for the BBC (his subjects included samizdat author Venedikt Yerofeyev, fascist Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and Dostoyevsky’s great-grandson).
“I don’t have a strict Mike Leigh-like method,” Pawlikowski says. “Some things are fixed very early on, and I use these scenes for the auditions; some scenes are very sketchy, and I rely on input from the actors to bring them to life. None of this means that the day before filming I won’t change everything again. Which is of course quite frightening for producers, because the ground keeps shifting.”
“It was scary at first, because sometimes he directs as we’re filming,” says Natalie Press, who won her first major role with My Summer of Love. “You’re in the moment and suddenly you’ll hear him shout things like, ‘Now kiss her!’ or ‘Tell her you love her!’ and I had to get used to not looking over at him. He wouldn’t say, ‘Emily do this’ or ‘Natalie do that,’ so in the film you can often see a hesitation there—we’re wondering what to do and who’s going to make the first move, just as the characters would.”
“I try to be a bit documentary about everything, and think on my feet, to create a situation where cinema can happen,” Pawlikowski says. “It’s not drama I’m talking about, or realism. I’m talking about a poetry of cinema.” His idiosyncratic process earned him rave critical notices for Last Resort, in which a mother-and-son pair of “refugees by accident” become mired in a bureaucratic limbo. The film’s success in turn earned him the director’s spot for the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes biopic that eventually became Sylvia, but when it became clear that star Gwyneth Paltrow’s schedule would not accommodate extensive workshopping and rehearsals, Pawlikowski cordially bowed out, and returned to Last Resort‘s no-stars, low-budget model for My Summer of Love.
Pawlikowski once called his documentaries “surreal tales of small heroes caught up in the vortex of history,” and his fiction films also percolate with between-the-lines social commentary: Last Resort provides a mordant, sidelong critique of contemporary Britain’s treatment of refugees, while My Summer of Love and his earlier featurette, Twockers, are witheringly frank about the drudging futures laid out for underclass Yorkshire teens. Yet My Summer of Love leaves us with the hopeful image of Mona striding purposefully away from her situation. “That’s the idea—Mona will leave that valley, and in some ways Tamsin was instrumental in getting her there,” Pawlikowski says. “Tamsin opened up this exotic world to her, even if it was bogus. When I was a kid stuck in Warsaw, as much as I love it, I felt there must be some other world out there; for me it was the Beatles who suggested a bigger world. You need that energy somehow, a magnet that will draw you out of your hole.”