Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah and Valérie Quennessen oil up in Grease Director’s ode to French Cinema.



It’s been said that the early 1980s were the golden age of movie nudity.  It’s tempting to assume that Summer Lovers might be seventy-five percent of the reason.  

Without much of a plot to speak of but nubile skin to spare, it’s safe to say that Summer Lovers is a sunny example of the kind of movie that Hollywood ain’t makin’ any longer.  In this case, the studio in question is that venerable mini-major, Orion Pictures.  (Acquired from the recently defunct Filmways company- it was a good run).  Though not critically well received at the time, this film’s continually display of blissful hedonism was far from enough to stop Orion’s perpetual ring of stardust in the solidifying era of Ronald Reagan.  (Though Ron and Nancy lived to host contemporary movie nights regularly during their reign, it’s safe to say that they skipped this one).  

For writer/director Randal Kleiser, fresh off the massive success of his debut, Grease, and its buzzy follow-up, 1980’s notorious The Blue Lagoon, Summer Lovers may’ve proven a step too far.  With this one, he’d assure himself none of the restrictions of the faux-American Graffiti teenybopper musical nor the need to contend with the innocent deserted island underage near-nudity of Brooke Shields.  With this one, there’d be no restrictions.  No splashy musical numbers (though plenty of lite-rock needle-drops play throughout, many of which are unintentionally amusing), sprawling cast, and no long hair-glued-to-breasts, the poor girl.  With Summer Lovers, set on the beautiful picturesque and fairly remote island of Santorini, it would all hang out.  It does, and they do. This is Greece after Grease, in every way possible.

“One of the most vapid movies I’ve ever seen”.  Those are the words of my wife shortly after we watched the Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray edition of Summer Lovers.  (Not to be confused with the slightly older 2015 Blu-ray edition from Twilight Time).  There was little-to-nothing in the way of high-minded objection or barb in her matter-of-fact critique.  She’s certainly not wrong.  “Gloriously vapid”, I quickly followed up.  She chuckled, not in disagreement. 

What’s best about Summer Lovers is indeed how nothing ever truly interferes with the lazing responsibility-free exotic spell it casts.  It simply refuses to go down any roads of manufactured drama that so often detour the impossible air of pure vacation that lured us to the movie in the first place.  No one gets sick with a life-threatening disease, no one has to leave to go fight in a war, and not one of our miserable sinners suddenly gets hit by a car and killed in the final minutes of the film.  There’s a close call late in the movie when one character on a bicycle is run off the road and then has to wear her arm in a sling the next scene, but that’s about as threatening as it ever gets.  Thank goodness.

For any fans of classic Hollywood who might’ve wandered into this review and made it this far, you might appreciate the description that Summer Lovers is a story that basically begins where Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 Design for Living ends.  That precode boundary-kicker starred the attractive threesome of Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper as a classy trio so enamored with one another that in the end, it is decided that for them, that way it shall remain.  What Kleiser’s Summer Lovers trifecta may lack in Lubitsch’s top-hat-and-tails charm they make up for in casual undress.  Then-newcomers Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah and Valérie Quennessen radiate welcome freshness if not charisma as they spend the movie frolicking on pebble-covered nude beaches and their plaster hillside eight-week rental home.  

Gallagher, all eyebrows even then, wears his ruffed mop hair as well as Hannah wears her pronounced character arc, which is as well as French starlet Quennessen wears nothing at all.  All three actually harness a palpable chemistry, thoroughly selling the validity of their partnership.  Quennessen, in terms of performance, has the trickiest role, playing the bohemian third wheel whose interference in the pre-existing Gallagher/Hannah’s committed relationship would almost always assure her as the target of audience scorn.  Yet, she proves achingly sympathetic. 

The eyes of Valérie Quennessen.

While the gender dynamics of this trio undeniably fuel a standard male fantasy of being able to please two amazing women (lest we forget that a man wrote this film), Gallagher’s character, just beneath his emotional surface, is nothing more than the sexual meat of this meal.  The true connection proves to be that of the ladies- though oddly, no lesbianism is ever depicted.  Again, cue the standard male fantasy…  Nevertheless, if Hannah is the moral compass of this picture, then Quennessen (who tragically was killed in a car accident in 1989 at the age of thirty-one) is the heart.

The late Greek-American composer Basil Poledouris, a musician who’s melodramatic earnestness in his work knew no limits, is the absolute perfect choice for the Summer Lovers original score.  He must compete, though, with wall-to-wall songs on the soundtrack by some of the era’s biggest hitmakers, including Chicago, Depeche Mode, Stephen Bishop, Tina Turner, Prince (Not one but two songs of his with “sex” derives as the title: “Sexuality” and “Sexy Dancer”), Elton John, a title song by Michael Sembello of Flashdance “Maniac” fame, and most notably, The Pointer Sisters with “I’m So Excited”.  

Kino Lorber’s disc does a wonderful job of capturing and presenting the film’s noteworthy soundtrack as well as its often-breathtaking naturally lit cinematography.   It’s the situation with the disc’s bonus features that might give a fan of Summer Lovers pause.  Some features are carried over from Twilight Time’s release, some are not.  Everything on the KL disc (aside from unrelated trailers) is on the Twilight Time version.  Not carried over from the Twilight Time Blu-ray: an isolated music & effects track, the featurette “Basil Poledouris: His Life and Music”, and screen tests.

The eyebrows of Peter Gallagher.

What does carry over is Kleiser’s audio commentary track, and the twelve-minute nudity-friendly (via clips) behind-the-scenes film, The Making of Summer Lovers.  It makes one wonder what the intended outlet for this particular bit of promotion might’ve been.  As for the commentary, it’s much appreciated.  Kleiser, though acknowledging he’s recording this thirty-four year’s removed from the movie’s release, is clear as day about the production.  As he explains how this was his nod to free and easy French films (maybe Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is closer to his mark than Design for Living?), his demeanor is entirely down-to-earth and conversational.  The track has all the info and detail of a film that any director might’ve just wrapped, but without the inherent stigma of promotion that commentaries recorded in close proximity of release all too often harbor.

For Kleiser, the hopscotch from “Summer Lovin’” to Summer Lovers is ultimately revealed to be not so pronounced as one might assume.  If nothing else, Summer Lovers may be his epitome of rose-colored-glasses libidinous escapism.  All three of his aforementioned early films are tales of youthful romance without much in the way of outside world distractions.  Rather, it’s one of mileage, character, and frankly mild MPAA challenges.  Indeed, let it be known that though the central ménage a trios lives up that label throughout, there are no sex scenes in the movie.  In that sense, the same rules of fade-out/morning-after implication that Lubitsch abided by also applies to this fair drama.  Meanwhile, in the decades-removed afterglow of the failure of Summer Lovers, should it be considered ironic that Kleiser turned his cinematic attentions away from eros and toward technology?

In that soft-filtered pre-MTV moment of Bertie Higgins singing about  “Key Largo” but really singing about sex and Michael McDonald’s micro-managed beard serving as a euphemism for some supposed virility with the ladies and the latent thrusts of Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind” blowing right through our pastel button-down shirts, a movie like Summer Lovers lays bare just how “adult contemporary” the jet-setting youth of the day could get.  Because after all, back then, this was a summer movie.