Reviews Short Narrative

Always Summer (2023) – 5 stars

Director: Hans Dessers

Writer: Bülent Özturk

Cast: Tom Vermeir, Flo Martens

Running time: 20mins

What do you do with old celluloid photos that you no longer can keep? You are moving home, and you have not the space for all the boxes the images seem to be defiantly clambering out of. You do not want to throw them in the trash – pictures of the people you love or have loved – it would be as if you were throwing their souls into the bin. What you might do – if you have an open fire in the house or garden – is you burn them. The event becomes a ceremony of remembrance where the chemicals that make up the image of your memories combust to become the very air that you will breathe. It is strange to think that for most people under thirty, the dilemma of redundant print images will never be an issue – their memories never printed out, leading a simple existence till the End Days, as slices of binary code swirling in the great electronic nebulae.

Thoughts of images turned to ashes were brought to mind by the opening shot to Always Summer – the indy film debut by a director from Belgium, Hans Dessers. And it is certainly an elegiac composition. I am a sucker for the use of natural sound to establish the mood of a movie’s opening – that is what the talkies can do that even the best novelist can never accomplish.

A night shot. We hear the crackle of a fire. We see a forty-something man by the side of a lighted brazier. The camera homes in on the man’s eyes illuminated by the firelight. He is drinking from a short glass – we assume it is whisky. We see what he is burning in the brazier – a photo of a woman round about the man’s age – we assume a lover. The man does not look at ease with the world. Dessers has given us a succinct, well-crafted establishment of mood.

We next hear what sounds like the sea but, as the camera pans out, we realise what we are hearing is the sound of a young child blowing into the man’s ear – suddenly the mood has lightened.

What follows in the twenty minutes or so running time of Always Summer is a depiction of the interaction between the man (played by Tom Vermeir) and the child who I would guess is about seven years old (played by Flo Martens). The action takes place over a weekend. Bülent Özturk’s economic and effective screenplay builds a picture of the relationship based entirely on the discourse between the two characters. All we learn is that the child is the man’s daughter, and that her mother will be picking her up at the end of the weekend. By focusing relentlessly on Father and Child, the movie establishes a conflict between anguish and despair against hope and joy (a dynamic further underscored by a scene in which the daughter organises a living-room performance of Belgian musician Stromae’s Papaoutai – itself an angry interrogation of an absent father-figure – which it seems from a statement at the end, the artist greenlit himself) enabling the director to switch the mood of the piece back and forth from light to darkness.

By giving us little information as to the characters and their history, Dessers invites us to speculate. We assume that the woman from the photo in flames is the mother of the child, and the man’s lover or ex-lover – but that is simply our presumption. The director deftly turns us the audience into cops or, given the man’s evident mental trauma, psychologists. The house where proceedings take place is bourgeois modernist, set in its own grounds with bonsai trees in ceramic pots on the terrace. Therefore, we presume that the origins of the man’s troubles are not to be found in the simple sorrows of poverty. The man’s clothes are well cut bohemian, he sports an elegant haircut, and what initially appear to be hipster trinkets on his wrist (though depending on your reading of the film’s ending, this assumption might alter) – so we are left thinking he may be some kind of arts professional. But then – what can we know?

What can we know, and what we can truly know about another person’s inner turmoil, is also the question at the heart of Always Summer. As we learn more about the relationship between the father and the daughter, we realise that the father, because of the state of psychic disequilibrium they are going through, is acting the part of being a father. The director is in a sense asking Vermeir to simultaneously take two parts – a tough call which Vermeir handles exceptionally well. Throughout the movie, Vermeir’s performance is terrific, as is that of Flo Martens as the daughter.

We see that the father uses alcohol to self-medicate throughout the weekend, generally unsuccessfully, thereby Dessers skilfully introduces a feeling of impending violence which seems to hover as a spectrum over the proceedings, and which Vermeir manages to convey superbly well. I thought it brave of the director to examine the possibility of not only self-harm, but harm to others that mental trauma invariably inflicts. Spoiler alert – we see no physical violence, but the man does something else which might well inflict a great deal of psychological pain far into the future.

Aided by some fine cinematography by Danny Elsen, Dessers manages to paint a picture of things coming to an end. The father sits in their car reminiscing about good times. The daughter joins him, and they talk about a trip to the beach and all the ice cream they will enjoy but, given Vermeir’s disintegrating psyche, we realise this is not going to happen. The cause and effect of end times. Or at least, that’s the conclusion I reached.

When I review films for ILF, I go straight to the play button and watch the movie without reading the submission notes beforehand to try to avoid any preconceptions. However, in the case of Always Summer, when I opened the email, due to some psychic happenstance, my eye caught a social media post on the side of the page: “Director from Mechelen presents first short film Always Summer: ‘My way of grieving after the suicide of a good friend’”. This caused something of a problem. After reading the post, I inevitably took a preoccupation with suicide into my reading of the movie.

But why should my interpretation of a portrayal of end times be the correct one? Possibly, the father will come out of their trauma in a good space, and the act of psychic violence would prove to be a gesture of love. Dessers makes no overt reference to suicide in the whole movie. As a truly great bookend to the opening fire side scene, the director ends the movie with a shot of the house at night. Left alone in the house, we simply hear the shutting of doors and, one by one, the house lights are extinguished leaving us with just the night sky.

My dilemma as to my reading of the movie after the social media irruption is in one sense irrelevant as it emphasises the central point that I think Dessers is trying to get across in Always Summer. Likewise, we can never truly know the depth of anguish of anyone who is suffering from mental trauma – we can only imagine what forces might impel someone to end their own life. All we can do is respond with empathy, compassion, and respect for the worth of every individual human being.

Always Summer represents a significant achievement for a first time indy filmmaker. Dessers got all the big calls right in what is, essentially, a flawless production. One of the most important decisions must have been the casting which shows fine judgement by the director. Also of note, is the director’s ability to conjure up notable performances from their actors – both Vermeir and Martens are spellbinding throughout. Almost uniquely, in reviewing a debut director’s efforts, there is nothing here to note as clunky or misjudged. Finally, this might seem an obvious point, but it is important to the success of a movie, Dessers has demonstrated that they know how to start and end a piece of work – leading to this standing as an absolute triumph of a film. I hope Dessers is able to find funding for further projects after the strength of this first outing – and we at IFL would look forward to receiving new submissions from them and their team.

On a final personal note, I hope that through the making Always Summer the director found some solace and some roads to take to grieve for the loss of their friend.

Our shadows roam the garden gravel still,

The living seem more shadowy than they.

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