The shot I chose from David Lean’s Summertime is central to the fleeting grasp of Jane and Renaldo’s (played by Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi) romance, built around the symbols of goblets, white gardenias and a red shoe. This is the first Hit Me With Your Best Shot I’ve participated in where the chosen film was a first-time viewing!
At night in the Piazza San Marco, Jane and Renaldo are approached by an elderly peddler with a basket of flowers. The eventual lovers go back and forth, so obliviously caught up in each other that even picking out a flower becomes foreplay. Jane wants to know which one he thinks she’ll pick and she surprises him by picking the gardenia. When he asks why she chose the white flower she says:
“I once went to a ball. Not just an ordinary dance, but a real ball. Was the first one I’d ever been to. Somehow, I got it into my mind that I had to wear a gardenia. I don’t know why. I guess I’d read about gardenias in a book or something. I must have, I didn’t even know what they were.”
Renaldo asks if she got to wear one and she disappointingly answers while gazing at the flower, “Gardenias turned out to cost two dollars apiece. And the boy I was going with was still in college.”
Director David Lean places as much significance on the gardenia as Jane does. Her quick monologue is the most concentrated piece of information we find out about her past; the singular story about her life she tells. The shot I chose for Summertime overlooks the endless splendor of Venice as captured by Jack Hildyard or the conflicted tics of rapture and resistance in Katherine Hepburn’s bravura performance. Yet it sticks out to me because it ties so strongly into Jane’s overall arc (and don’t worry, I’ve got some runners-up to share at the end.)
Soon after, the gardenia falls in the water and the pair tries to retrieve it as it floats by, just out of reach. The shot shows the reflection of their failed efforts, struggling to reach for their own shared paradise. For Jane, the gardenia is a simple adornment that she latched onto as a young woman having her first experience at a proper ball. Having it would have elevated her evening. For Lean the gardenia becomes both a symbol for Jane and Renaldo’s affair which will carry its significance to the final scene and a representation of Jane’s tendency to infuse memories into objects as a substitute for experiencing life.
The central love affair sort of engages the viewer but Jane’s internal struggle, and the way Hepburn plays it, is what ultimately rings true in Summertime. She constantly wants to separate herself from typical American tourists but it doesn’t quite stick. Though free of life-sucking schedules, she romanticizes like the rest, camera securely attached to hip. Her professed desire to travel alone suggests hidden loneliness. Most of all, she loves the idea of Venice, but is afraid to give herself over to its stereotyped ideals. When fantasy threatens to meet reality, Jane pushes and pulls every step of the way. Even at the end, she begs Renaldo not to see her off at the station only to anxiously gape out from the window of the train, hoping with every fiber of her being that he’ll show up at the last moment.
This is 1955, so obviously Katherine Hepburn was never going to be allowed to glide away in a gondola with Rossano Brazzi because, as she puts it, ‘it’s wrong’. The story also makes sure that it is Jane’s decision to end things.
When the gardenia fell in the water and Renaldo attempted to retrieve it, she said ‘it doesn’t matter’, but it clearly did as seconds later she joined him, and the reflection revealed that both the gardenia and each other were unattainable. Summertime’s final scene sees Renaldo running alongside the train, gift in outreached hand. He can’t catch up to Jane so he opens the present, holding it up to reveal a white gardenia. She is immeasurably moved and she mouths the words ‘I see it’ blowing a satisfied wistful kiss. This time she really doesn’t need the white gardenia or the infused memory it would carry; just seeing it, and him one last time, is enough.