A SUMMER’S TALE (CONTE D’ÉTÉ) (1996)
Starring Melvil Poupaud, Amanda Langlet, Aurelia Nolin, Gwenaelle Simon, Aimé Lefèvre, Alain Guellaff, Evelyne Lahana, Yves Guérin and Franck Cabot.
Screenplay by Eric Rohmer.
Directed by Eric Rohmer.
Distributed by Big World Pictures. 113 minutes. Rated G.
Originally released in its native France in 1996, but just getting its first American release now, A Summer’s Tale is part of the late, great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons series. Each film, as you may have guessed by the series’ title, is a look at life in France during a different season of the year. The other films (A Tale of Springtime in 1990, A Tale of Winter in 1992 and Autumn Tale in 1998) all had American release back in the 90s.
It’s hard to imagine that a smart and funny film like this would never have made these shores, so it’s a nice surprise that four years after Rohmer’s death, A Summer’s Tale is finally getting it’s long-delayed US art house release.
Not that the film seems even the tiniest bit dated. Except for occasional little background details (the hero listens to music on cassette tapes and has a corded land-line phone), this movie looks like it could have easily been filmed yesterday.
Rohmer, who was well into his seventies when this film was made, always had an impressive understanding of teens and young adults.
A Summer’s Tale could be milked for sex and sensation. It is the story of a shy young student and musician who finds himself involved in relationships with three different women in a gorgeous little French Riviera town while on vacation. It is loaded with beautiful people, often dressed in bathing suits, trying to navigate the waters of love and sex.
However, Rohmer is not interested in exploiting the inherent sexiness of the situation (even the topless bathers in the resort town beaches are kept discretely off to the side). Instead he uses A Summer’s Tale to explore a self-delusional man and his complete inability to understand his romantic relationships.
That man is Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a college-aged mathematician and wannabe musician. The film eavesdrops on a few weeks of Gaspard’s life (literally, each separate day has a title card) as he on a whim decides to go down to a little beach town of Dinard on the French Riviera.
The reason he has decided to go to the town is to meet up with Léna (Aurélia Nolin), a girl who he had been trying to date for a while. It is a rather whimsical decision, even he acknowledges that they are far from boyfriend/girlfriend status. She hasn’t told him for sure when she will be arriving, nor has she given him names or contact info for her cousins with whom she is going to be staying. And if he is completely honest with himself, even Gaspard recognizes that he does not particularly love (or sometimes even like) Léna.
Still, even though he knows no one in town, when a friend offers him a room rental in town he snaps it up. He goes down and walks around alone, exploring the town and passing the time until Léna shows up, that is if Léna shows up. Trusting his audience, the film starts completely without dialogue, since the kid knows no one in town, covering a couple of days and seven and a half minutes before the first line of dialogue, and almost eight minutes before Gaspard speaks.
The person he speaks with is Margot (Amanda Langlet), a young fellow student (she’s studying Ethnology) who is working as a waitress at a local café. The first day their interaction is simply customer and waitress, but the next day they run into each other on the beach and start talking. Soon they have become friends, walking and talking about love, relationships, their hopes, their dreams, their insecurities. The relationship is rather chaste, she has a vague boyfriend who is working out of the country, but her relationship with Gaspard does sometimes become flirtatious and charged.
Through Margot, Gaspard meets Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a pretty local party girl who works at a bank. They meet in a dance club, and though she is with a boyfriend, she’s obviously keeping an eye on Gaspard. Days later, they also run into each other and hit it off, starting a sort of up and down relationship.
Just when Gaspard has decided things might just work out with Solène, Léna finally shows up in town. Suddenly he is juggling two relationships, both of which have their good points and some significant bad ones. When he tries to explain things to Margot, she takes things much more personally than he ever expected. Out of the blue, this guy who was a self-professed loser at love has three women in his life.
If A Summer’s Tale was less adventurous and more clichéd (read: American), Gaspard would eventually realize, like the audience does, that Margot is “the one.” However, whether or not Gaspard finds the one is a bit beside the point in A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer is more interested in the folly of his hero’s self-involvement than any fairytale happy ending.
A Summer’s Tale does not have much in the way of action, it is more interested in his characters simply walking and talking. The film is rather reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, which had come out the year before. More to the point, Before Sunrise is rather reminiscent of Rohmer’s earlier work.
However, when the talk is as smart and incisive as it is here, time flies. A Summer’s Tale is a lost treasure. I’m glad it has finally made it to the States.
Jay S. Jacobs