The Time of Her Life: Time as Antagonist in SUMMERTIME
14 July 2013
Time. A double-edged sword. As Dickens’ once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” because Time is as elusive as it is obvious, as joyful as it is sorrowful, and as simple as it is complicated for each one of us in any given moment. Put another way, Time may seem one’s friend in its best, but Time can also seem an enemy when one experiences its worst. This is the case for Jane Hudson in Summertime. While Time, at first, seems a friend to Jane, who is traveling on the trip of a lifetime to Europe, Time eventually shows itself to be the film’s antagonist, working as much against Jane as it does with her.
David Lean’s 1955 film Summertime stars Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a single, middle-aged school secretary on summer holiday in Venice, Italy. Alone in the city on water, Jane struggles with loneliness, but finds herself falling in love with the beauty of Venice. Despite her solitude, Jane’s love affair with Venice blooms, and then, unexpectedly, she meets Renato, a handsome Venetian shop owner. Initially, Jane avoids Renato (Rosanno Brazzi), seemingly scared to fall in love with the tall, dark, and handsome Italian stranger; however, Renato’s pursuit soon wears Jane down and the two begin a romance during Jane’s Venetian holiday. As their relationship becomes intimate, Jane learns Renato is married and abruptly tries to call off the tryst; yet, Renato assures Jane he and his wife are separated. Nevertheless, Jane finds it difficult to love Renato knowing the truth, and, through this truth, realizing their time together is short; at some point she must return to America and leave him forever. Therefore, Jane decides to leave Venice early, and Renato with it, ending both of her love affairs simultaneously.
Starting with the title, Summertime, Time is a significant part of Lean’s film. What time is it? It is summertime, a time of bounty and vivacity; a time that compliments and encourages the film’s protagonist. The film begins with Jane’s train ride into her prime; her arrival into the most important moment of her life, her long-awaited trip to Venice. However, summertime, figuratively speaking, is also a time of maturity, and with maturity comes age. Jane, our middle-aged protagonist, is not young. She has finally arrived in Venice, her life’s dream, and now her peak has been reached. Summertime captures Jane at her climax, and no climax lasts.
In consideration of how fleeting this time is for Jane, summertime, a seasonal reference, also suggests the passing of time; summertime’s following season, fall, is approaching. Thus, Time may initially appear to be a friend to Jane, but actually reveals itself to be the film’s sly antagonist. The film may begin at the start of Jane’s figurative summer of life, but the film concludes with Jane departing her summertime, symbolically passing her prime and entering her fall.
A motif Lean uses in Summertime to highlight Time’s presence as the film’s antagonist are the chiming clocks. Periodically in the film clocks chime throughout Venice, flooding the city with the reminder that time is passing. Early on in the film Jane is out, alone, sightseeing when she hears a bombastic chime, one so loud she runs toward the noise to see the structure producing such a sound. The structure is a massive, looming cathedral which immobilizes a stunned Jane with its size and grandeur. Later, when sightseeing once more and chatting with Mauro (Gaetano Autiero) , a clock’s chime fills the background noise again. Without communicating that she consciously hears the clock’s chime, Jane tells Mauro, “I’ve got to go,” reinforcing the power of Time, and highlighting how this symbolic chime pushes the present forward. Lean’s repeated use of clocks’ chimes, often without even filming the clock overtly, keeps subtle attention on Time in Summertime, reminding the audience how all-encompassing Time is, giving voice to his antagonist, and subtly pushing Jane forward beyond her peak.
Despite her best efforts, Summertime’s protagonist cannot overcome the film’s antagonist. At the start of the film, Jane always has her camera in her hand. From her arrival in Venice and throughout her sightseeing, Jane constantly photographs the city. In a way, Jane is trying to freeze Time; she is stopping Time to capture moments. A futile but relatable effort, Jane confronts the antagonist, Time, with her weapon, the camera, trying and stop its passing. However, as the film continues on Jane’s camera goes missing, and by the time Jane and Renato’s relationship climaxes, her camera is nowhere in sight. Perhaps seeing the futility of it all, Jane stops seeing Venice through her camera’s lens and allows herself to see the city directly, with the silent acceptance that life’s moments cannot be captured, but must be let go as they are experienced.
By the film’s conclusion, Jane accepts Time. That is not to say Jane is defeated by the antagonist; instead, Jane accepts that Time cannot be overcome, and she embraces that by moving on from Venice and returning to America. The ending of Summertime is a bit sorrowful because the protagonist does not get to keep the love she found; yet, what the film also communicates, in its reality-based conclusion, is that Jane found love and had time to experience her dream. In the end, the antagonist may still be standing and the protagonist retreating, but the conclusion is not tragic; Jane still succeeds in every way.