“I write of love and death. What other subjects are there?” asks writer Arthur Schnitzler, whose fixation on sexual longing has supplied source material for film adaptations ranging from La Ronde to Eyes Wide Shut. Maybe it’s because Stefan Krohmer’s Summer ’04 makes an explicit (albeit brief) reference to Schnitzler that it, too, reads like a spiritual adaptation, sharing Schnitzler’s fascination with the inexhaustibility of desire — with fascination understood as encompassing both horror and enchantment.
Like Jacques Deray’s La Piscine or Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga, Summer ’04 belongs to a sizable subgenre of unrelaxing vacation films, where bourgeois families navigate the listlessness of leisure time as anxiety increasingly shimmers toward the surface, a current whose heat you can feel but barely see. Livia (Svea Lohde), 12, accompanies 15-year-old Nils (Lucas Kotaranin) on holiday in northern Germany with his parents, André (Peter Davor) and Miriam (The Lives of Others’ Martina Gedeck). Soon Nils returns from sailing on his own, Livia having stayed behind with a man they met that afternoon. The stranger is sheepishly handsome Bill (Robert Seeliger), an American transplant whose motives Miriam wastes no time in questioning. In a scene as foreboding as Haneke’s most patient windups, Miriam drives to Bill’s house to verify Livia’s safety and finds the front door open, the large rooms empty; when Bill emerges, their conversation is elliptical and strained, as if Livia is under the floorboards and not just out for an impromptu walk. Later, as Bill remains within the family’s orbit and Miriam shifts gears from suspicion to infatuation — and thus from Livia’s maternal protector to her sexual rival — one wonders whether this initial confrontation was the film’s idea of flirting, tonally uncertain as it is (aptly, the first time Miriam makes a move on Bill, she asks him — archly and without concern — Are you afraid?).
Ultimately Summer ’04 succumbs on the level of plot to the melodramatic excess its dispassionate performances resist, delivering, at the expense of “other subjects” (like whatever happens to André and Nils?), love and death in preposterous correspondence. But of all the film’s tensions, the most harrowing is that projected onto Livia, “almost 13” and both a beacon and a threat. “If she’s as mature as you said, she knows what she’s doing,” André says at one point — but we know better: the way youth and beauty confer currency without power, often at the expense of those who appear to wield it.
Summer '04 is streaming on Mubi