How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…or at least the granules of sand caught in my undershorts. Oh right, I’m not wearing any. A lot of flesh – taut or otherwise – and some very photogenic Grecian backdrops, sparkling white stucco and craggy burnt sienna rock formations, fill the vast expanses of Randal Kleiser’s Summer Lovers (1982); an otherwise soulless, gutless and pointless excursion in navel-gazing, either into one’s own or, preferably, the closest available nude (look to your left, or right…there are plenty to choose). Ménage à trois has been the subject of a good many uber-clever/faux-Freudian exaltations in the European cinema, most prolifically mined for quality than camp. I suspect Kleiser’s going in the other direction would still desire some sort of homage to François Truffaut’s superior, Jules et Jim (1962). World-savvy nation – the French. Ditto for the Italians a la Fellini, with their adult gestures, a sly wink and existentialist nod to all things sexually explicit, but without degenerating into a Cook’s Tour of softcore masquerading as baseline entertainment. Summer Lovers is about as far off that mark as mainstream ‘entertainment’ gets; taking our minor fascination with the sheer pleasure invested in vintage European art house cinema and transforming it into a veritable tit soup of tawny tuckuses.
American cinema has never been good at using sex to tell a story. Either because of the enduring stigma associated with middle class morality or some fickle attempt to defraud and deny ourselves the genuineness of this basic bodily function, – unless, of course, one is referencing any number of ‘blue’ movies in which the most threadbare of plots is meant to connect the crotches with the concubines - whenever legitimate film-making turns its klieg lights on the purposeful art of love-making the experience degenerates into farcical filth. A more skilled director might have been able to make something deeper of all this genitalia swinging in the Mediterranean breezes. Alas, Kleiser is too enamored with the ubiquitous raunch factor, even if the act itself registers about as exhilarating as two clammy salmon whacking their tails together; the camera nervously ricocheting from sweaty curvaceous forms, caught by candlelight, to a nearby roaring fireplace or frantic waves crashing against the roughhewn bulkheads. Even more ironic, Kleiser’s inability to illustrate passion without a nauseating soundtrack of mostly bad pop tunes, and as anything more graphic beyond a hushed gasp or prolonged series of disingenuous clutches, becomes mildly distasteful to downright dull, if marginally trashy. I’ve said it before, so I’ll say it again: want porn? Watch porn. A good story requires more than just a series of great locations married to some tanned flesh bouncing up and down.
Summer Lovers is nothing like cheap porn or a good story. It’s the sort of movie one watches just to see how terrible it will be. How good is your imagination? On this promise, we are never disappointed. But in no way does it even remotely resemble competent film-making; what, with Kleiser’s script wallowing in the crapulence of a man who either has just discovered the movie camera for the first time (hey look, honey…the film goes in there) or in a star, Peter Gallagher, having recently unearthed an even more primal pubescence. ‘T’ and ‘A’ will only get you so far; as will the exoticism of these ancient Grecian coastlines, glistening at the peak of noonday sun; long stretches of seashore becoming a hedonistic hit parade of topless hotties and other perfectly formed specimens from the world of the anatomically gifted; all of them hired straight from Central Casting. Summer Lovers is a plague on human sexuality, not because it flashes its business like Sharon Stone across every inch of the proscenium to anesthetizing effect; rather, because Kleiser can never work up enough passion in his insincere exchanges of dialogue (“Making love to you is like riding a horse…it’s the way you respond”), slapdash acting (the initial ‘cute meet’ between co-stars, Peter Gallagher and Valerie Quennessen is played in pantomime, reminiscent of a truly laughable TV commercial from the 80’s… “so if a man you’ve never met before suddenly dives off a craggy precipice just to prove he’s got brass balls and is interested in you, that’s ‘Impulse’) or a premise so one-dimensionally designed, it remains virtually indigestible except as pure pulp. Kleiser’s Greece isn’t infused with the Eros of ancient Hellenic mythology, but a Dayglow nightmarish landscape of laissez faire free love; blonde-haired, perky little no-nothings, smelling of sweat, banana oil and stale semen.
Am I supposed to get excited or am I merely supposed to be shocked? If anything, Summer Lovers is the antithesis of Jules et Jim; dragging sex back into the bedroom or flaunting it on the windswept and sun-kissed sands of Santorini with all the subtly of attempting to cook raw eggs on an anvil with a flyswatter instead of a spatula Okay, check your Freud to unpack all the buzz words in this previous sentence…but you get my point. Summer Lovers is the Fifty Shades of Grey for its time, before our experimentalists discovered whips and chains and simply got off the ole fashioned way. In watching this movie again (regrettably, I saw it in 82’), I was reminded of a more recent internet article by Michael Sonmore, who claims to have strengthened his marriage by consenting to his wife’s desire to have dangerous liaisons with other men while he quietly sits at home feeling guilty about having stifled her sexual creativity with his expectations of (choke) fidelity in their relationship. Summer Lovers is not a story about insecure twenty-somethings getting in touch with their inner fantasies in order to unlock some deep-seeded inner appetite, likely to strengthen their bond, but a crazy quilt of moral decay; its misguided vacationers swept up in a maelstrom of a brothel-light counterculture more at home between the pages of Hustler magazine.
In Summer Lovers we have the perfect post-70s/pre-AIDS poster child and/or ‘how to’ guide for all wayward couples who think unprotected kink with a proper stranger is the way to spice up a dull Saturday night. It’s not. Avoiding at least one cliché (the seven year itch occurring herein only took five years to incubate), we are introduced to our ‘unhappily ever afters’: Michael Pappas (Peter Gallagher) and Cathy Featherstone (Daryl Hannah). Each has made a plan – and their beds – to explore the Greek Isles and each other’s orifices for eight sun and sex-drenched weeks away from home: no harm/no foul/no reprisals…well, sort of. In these salacious affairs of the heart, all other appendages are optional. Mike proves this when he stumbles upon lovely Lina (Valerie Quennessen); a firm Frenchie studying more than fossils in Santorini. She shoots him a very feline ‘come hither’ glance; more like a penetrating ‘take me before I claw and cut your thing off’ stare. This understandably sends Mike plummeting into the ocean for a quick dip to douse the roaring flames of desire prickling through his shorts. Hey, Mike…they make a cream for that.
But Mike – he’s hooked. We might call this the ‘fatal attraction’ segment of the picture, as Mike rediscovers Lina, nude on a balcony through the lens of his binoculars, then stumbles upon her again – this time, fully clothed and virtually tongue-tied; trailing her like a lost puppy through the winding streets. It’s frankly embarrassing because we’re not talking about some star-crossed virgin interested in losing his cherry, but a supposedly mature, sexually experienced and emotionally committed guy who, alas, cannot even seem to work up a winter’s passion for Cathy (Darryl Hannah, no slouch in the topless department either). More nude sunbathing and swimming follows. More visits to the beach, the town, and, the upstairs apartment where things get momentarily silly as Cathy endeavors to spice up their sex lives with a little amateur bondage and candle waxing. Too much conversation from Hannah as the dulcet, if mildly intoxicating dominatrix ruins this scene, as does Peter Gallagher’s utterly laughable squeamishness over the prospect of feeling a few semi-heated drops of wax dripping across his abs. Come on, Peter…I mean Mike…oh hell, does it really matter? I mean we’re not watching any of this for plot – are we?
So, moving on…or rather, to more of the same: Michael and Lina flatten a little sand together. This leaves Mike confused and unable to connect the dots where his manhood ought to be. Cathy pokes and prods for the truth until Mike finally confesses he has been with another woman. In this postmodern feminist fallout it’s the guy, getting in touch with his feminine side, who carries the emotional baggage and goes through the latent anxious phase – briefly – leaving Cathy to troll for love in all the wrong places. After a false start, she winds up with Yorghos (Vladimiros Kiriakos); a gangly reject from a Frizz-eez convention. He drags her back to his man cave, wallpapered in cutouts of famous American stars and other sundry celebrity faces; offers her quaaludes, cocaine and wine to get her in the mood. Okay, Prince Charming, he’s not. More discussions about love and sex and what jealousy means in a relationship: according to Lina, not how much one loves; rather, how insecure one is with his/herself. Oh, good: a side order of snap psychoanalysis neatly fitted between the sheets and the pop tunes. I get the distinct sense director, Kleiser doesn’t know what narrative structure is (or screenwriting 101 for that matter), because whenever he runs out of dialogue or situations to film (this happens frequently) we are indoctrinated with music-video styled montages set to some truly deplorable pop tunes; from disco to disdain in thirty minutes or your pizza’s free.
Cathy befriends Lina, learning all the little secrets Michael never thought to ask about her past. And here’s where it gets interesting…or rather, where it’s supposed to – but doesn’t. Lina and Cathy become good friends, then experimental lesbians, before inviting Michael to rejoin them in their group activities. It’s more heatedly bothersome than ‘hot and ‘bothered’, Cathy unable to be the magnanimous one. I get it, Cate. The penis is not a share toy. Thus, an idiotically cordial tête-à-tête between these three, discussing ant hills and some ridiculously loaded comments about an absence of space leading to a buildup of unnecessary pressure, paves the way for some suppressed, though potentially volatile, emotional friction. If only the two crotch jockeys in charge of Mike’s testosterone-fueled male fantasy would take the time to expand their common sense instead of their vaginas, then Kleiser’s movie might have had something more ravishingly on point to add to this conversation.
But no, we get more of Kleiser’s clit-tease instead; a yachting expedition Lina describes as a ‘circus’ while she was growing up, actually devolves into an ‘all hands on deck’ orgy, hosted by flamboyant queen, Cosmo (Carlos Rodríguez Ramos) and a ragtag troop of hedonists. Presumably, these haphazardly strung together and strung out, heavily edited vignettes are meant to illustrate the gradual breakdown of Mike and Cathy’s sexual inhibitions. Again, this transition is not made in the mind of an adult sensualist but between the loins of a surreptitious adolescent with a boner to spend; the trio attending an outdoor Three Stooges film festival, showing scenes from the classic Columbia 2-reeler; Hoi Poloi (1935). See the parallel? Neither do I, except if one choses to regard Mike, Cathy and Lina as the Larry Moe and Curly-Jo of this foolish humbug.
As all good things, and mercilessly, very bad movies, must eventually come to an end - things begin to fall apart when Lina inexplicably dumps Mike and Cate for a local, Jan Tolin (Hans Van Tongeren). A clearer picture begins to emerge about Lina; her inability to love or commit to anyone for very long; the recklessness with which she disposes of lovers like used Kleenex, simply to run away from any friendship getting much too close to her truer self. It’s a young person’s game, one in which all aging participants must eventually mature and move on or succumb to a sort of sexualized escapism a la the proverbial Peter Pan syndrome. Things reach a clumsy impasse when Cathy’s mother, Jean (Barbara Rush) and her Aunt Barbara (Carole Cook) arrive for a visit; both concerned for Cathy’s wellbeing, particularly after they discover Lina has given up her villa to move in with the couple.
Lina slips away, staying out until all hours; Cate and Mike lying in bed, fully clothed, like a pair of middle-aged concerned parents worrying about their favorite teenage daughter – or just another f_ ck buddy gone astray. Not to worry; this being a thoroughly misguided sex fantasy from the 1980s, we get another round of pop tune infused montages and Lina on a motor scooter to intercept Mike and Cathy as they are about to board a plane bound for home. Instead, and predictably, this spineless/witless and charm-free couple throws caution to the wind - again. Lina abandons the scooter on the tarmac, and, everyone finds their way back to the rugged cliff side where it all began – diving into the crystal blue waters for another stint as mindless and interchangeable sex partners.
Summer Lovers is a travesty. Someone clearly forgot to tell director, Randal Kleiser the sexual revolution was over. He must have shot this one, either for the money, the breathtaking view or free nooners in between takes. The only thing less developed than the plot is Valérie Quennessen’s anemic chest. Okay and ouch…that was cruel, but fitting nonetheless. Despite her expressive eyes and piercing glances, Quennessen is a fairly benign third wheel in this assembly line hump equation. I am still trying to figure out whether Darryl Hannah is the American version of the inflatable doll – bubbly, but boring – or Keanu Reeves with breasts. One gets the sense the guy standing just out of camera range, holding up her cue cards, is also having to point to the letters phonetically, just to get Hannah to utter a syllable. Even in an era before all male stars had to look as though they just left Gold’s Gym with a satchel full of steroids, Peter Gallagher is a fairly goony object of desire. It’s a veritable tossup what’s thicker: his rag mop of hair, his lips or his eyebrows, in desperate need of a good tweezing. For certain, his girth is not in his shoulders, pecs or arms; nor, in his acting ability. Poured into ill-fitted pants and shirts, cut two sizes too small, he could easily pass for Sporus; the castrated gimp.
Enough about the cast’s shortcomings. They are titans compared to Kleiser’s sloppy screenplay and mindless direction. We’re given no transitional phase from Cathy’s initial and understandable reluctance to share her boyfriend with another woman and her more devil-may-care reaching into this highly experimental relationship of convenience. Kleiser seems disinterested with just about every aspect of his storytelling, except how many naked people he can squeeze into this cinematic game of Twister. As I said before, if he had wanted to carve a niche for himself as a softcore artiste de porn, Summer Lovers had enough buoyant body parts to float the film to success. But somewhere along the way, Kleiser’s trying much too hard to tell a story – even one as overcast in ennui and meandering as this. Plot all but ruins the palpable smut factor that otherwise might have translated into steamy sensuality on the screen. The old cliché, ‘if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’ is generously overplayed in this film. Just say no to crack – butt crack, that is, and leave the heaving cleavages to Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint, because in the final analysis there is nothing even quaintly controversial about this movie.
I suppose I ought to thank Twilight Time for giving us the first properly framed 1.85:1 aspect ratio home video presentation of this wholly forgettable clunker – in 1080p hi-def no less. But honestly, I cannot get excited – either figuratively or…you know – about crap like Summer Lovers coming to Blu-ray when the list of infinitely more worthy contenders remains as deep as that proverbial journey to the center of the earth. MGM/Fox has provided the transfer, and on the whole, it is very good. Although a handful of shots are softly focused, most of the image exhibits razor-sharp clarity and a rich saturation of colors. Perhaps, owing to the fact this movie has had very little playtime in the intervening decades, the elements used in this remastering are remarkably free of age-related artifacts. The ceaseless succession of pop tunes is radiantly distracting in 2.0 DTS. I don’t think the movie’s sound design was particularly interested in achieving any sort of fidelity where dialogue is concerned; fading in and out of conversations to accommodate the music and a few well-placed atmospheric effects.
Okay, I’m just going to make a point here; that for a movie as thoughtless and mind-numbing as Summer Lovers, TT has gone to an awful lot of trouble to incorporate a ton of extra features, beginning with its usual isolated score. I’ll confess, Randal Kleiser’s audio commentary was both interesting and informative. It’s hard to believe someone this articulate could have made such an awful movie. Even the production featurette, The Making of Summer Lovers was more engaging than the resultant movie. The most startling extra: Basil Poledouris: His Life and Music (1997). At just under an hour, it is a sincere documentary on the late Emmy-winning composer. Extras continue with screen tests of Hart Bochner and Patrick Swayze. I shudder to think where Swayze’s film career would have gone if he had won the part. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are, as always, well formulated and thought-provoking. I simply would wish her better material on which to spend both her time and talents. Bottom line: pass on this one and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)