Starring Melvil Poupaud, Amanda Langlet, Gwenaëlle Simon, Aurelia Nolin
My rating: ★★★★ stars
A young man on holiday tries to juggle his interest in three different women.
A Summer’s Tale, by French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) director Eric Rohmer and released in 1996, is one of his lesser known films, but is my favorite of his 24 feature-length films.
Rohmer, who emerged as part of the New Wave, has always been uniquely different from his New Wave colleagues. He is not interested in strongly plot-driven films, but rather in the exploration of the emotions, thoughts, interests, and ideas of his characters as they work their way through a slight story. What is revealed about the characters is not by action but by talk—lots of talk, more talk than one could ever imagine. The core of A Summer’s Tale involves long walks between the two main characters as they chatter away.
Rohmer’s films tend to be slow-paced, and he only accentuates the slow-pace by filming the quotidian movements of his characters. In A Summer’s Tale, one sees the male protagonist arrive at his vacation destination on his bicycle, enter the building where he is using a friend’s apartment, walk up the stairs, enter the room, unpack clothing, noodle around on his guitar, and then walk aimlessly around the beach area—nothing that advances the story.
In addition to slow-pacing and the presentation of ordinary moments, Rohmer mostly avoids non-diegetic music (music that, like a score, doesn’t come from a source within the story) in his films because he felt that it artificially heightens emotions (which is frankly the purpose of scoring). In A Summer’s Tale, all the music has a source within the story, and the absence of scored music is not even noticed.
As a result of his distinctive filmic practices, Rohmer has developed a singular reputation for his, ahem, “boring” films. The Gene Hackman character in a 1975 film, Night Moves, famously sneered, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
However, Rohmer films challenge us to expand our ideas about what film should be. They are not for those who want non-stop thrills and spectacle. They are for viewers who want quiet moments of contemplation and interesting observations on the world.
A Summer Tale is perhaps the most Rohmerian of all his films, finely distilled to present the ideal Rohmer cinematic world. Many of his films are parts of cycles, his first being Six Moral Tales, which featured his most famous film, My Night at Maud’s. A Summer’s Tale is part of the Tales of the Four Seasons film cycle. A Summer’s Tale should not be confused with an earlier Rohmer film, Summer, the name which the American distributor gave to his 1986 film, Le rayon vert (The Green Ray). The great film critic, Roger Ebert, in one of his lapses, mistakenly listed Summer as part of the Four Seasons cycle. A Summer’s Tale was obscure enough for even Ebert to miss it.
Rohmer, as is typical with his films, populates A Summer’s Tale with educated middle class young people in their early twenties. He was 76 years old when he made this 1996 film, and by this time his films featured mostly young people. What is amazing is how good he is at writing dialogue for twenty-somethings and about their interests.
The story features a recent math graduate, Gaspard (played by Melvil Poupard), who is taking a holiday at one of those fabulous French beach resort areas, Dinard. He arrives with the intention of meeting his girl friend, Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who is scheduled to arrive in a few days. He meets another girl at the beach, Margot (played by the utterly beguiling Amanda Langlet), who strikes up a friendship with the shy Gaspard. She has a doctorate in ethnology, and one interesting side story is the time Margot takes Gaspard with her to interview an old fisherman who came from the outer banks of Nova Scotia. Rohmer films always features his characters having interests and studies—some involving dense philosophical or theological ideas—but which are often unrelated to anything in the story, which is just like real life.
Much of the film involves Gaspard on long walks with Margot featuring their delightful and engaging conversations. At some point Margot introduces Gaspard to another girl, Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), and she aggressively develops a relationship with Gaspard. With Solene, Gaspard takes a trip to her parents’ place, where they go on a boat and Gaspard introduces a sea chantey he had composed (the sea chantey is a rewrite of a song Rohmer introduced in his Medieval film, Perceval). Gaspard claims his main interest is American blues, and that his sea chantey is not his real interest. The sea chantey is a good one, and the whole family all join in singing the song. Back at Dinard, Gaspard finds that Lena finally has shown up—a few days late.
Excepting his early films, the women in most of Rohmer’s films are generally smarter and more interesting, with more agency, than the men. Solene and Lena practically boss Gaspard around, while Margot gently helps Gaspard understand what is happening in his relationships and how he is going to handle them. In some of his films, typically two women will be the main protagonists, while the men all have marginal roles. Rohmer films are a refreshing contrast to many Hollywood films where male characters have all the agency, and where the female characters are marginal.
To complain about the slightness of the story is of course missing the point. Instead one should just enter and enjoy the world of these young French men and women as they negotiate relationships and deal with day-to-day life.