A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, 1996)

Poster for A Summer's Tale

Up till now I’d only seen three of Eric Rohmer’s less typical films: Perceval (1978), which was an adaptation of Chretien de Troyes’ medieval romance; Triple Agent (2004), which was a spy story of sorts; and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), which was another adaptation of an old — in this case Renaissance era — literary romance. A Summer’s Tale, which has finally received its first theatrical release in the US nearly 20 years after it was made, is apparently a more typical Rohmer film. It is a contemporary romantic comedy in which people try to talk through their romantic dilemmas and troubles with each other. It’s part of a four movie series called “Tales of Four Seasons” that Rohmer made in the ’90s.

The basic set-up is that Gaspard, who has just gotten his master’s degree, is taking a summer vacation on the coast of Brittany before he starts his job. He meets a woman named Margot who has just completed a PhD in ethnography and is working in her aunt’s restaurant while waiting for her boyfriend to return from abroad. Through conversations with Margot, we learn that Gaspard was expecting his girlfriend Lena to show up after a trip to Spain with her sister. When Lena hasn’t arrived after a week, Margo encourages Gaspard to go out with another girl named Solene. Eventually Gaspard finds himself having to make a choice between these three women, but he isn’t sure which one he wants.

For the most part the film is comprised of conversations between Gaspard and the three women, with a few scenes in which Gaspard is alone or there’s an outing with other people. Rohmer has a reputation for making talky movies, and that’s certainly true of this one. The conversations are generally interesting, but I did feel that at times the staging of the action included a lot of moving around for no reason other than to break up the static feeling of people just talking to each other. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I wasn’t picking up on how the seemingly random movements of characters were actually communicating a state of mind or relationship between the characters on screen.

The characters are well drawn. I’ve seen at least one criticism of the movie that the three female characters are all underdrawn compared to Gaspard. Gaspard is obviously the focus of the film, but I thought it actually did a pretty good job of creating distinct characters for all three women. Margot in particular seemed nearly as well wrought as Gaspard, as we get a strong sense of her interests and opinions toward a variety of things. She’s also the one that Gaspard is most honest with, even though he isn’t completely honest even with her. Rohmer is at pains to show us that none of the characters is particularly honest, in fact, and all are manipulating each other and hiding from their own real motives on some level or another. That’s the richest source of the comedy, as we watch these young people trying to fool themselves with their brave talk and confused behavior.

In the end I had a similar reaction to this film as I did to the novel by Iain Banks that I recently read, The Crow Road. I just don’t seem to have much appetite right now for stories about the romantic turmoil of twenty-somethings, and while I found Rohmer’s more focused story of more interest, I still ended up feeling pretty disengaged from the whole thing. Maybe that’s also partly a response to the unsentimental view of the characters, and I might like this better the second time around. As I say, I did find the conversations generally interesting.

One thing that I really liked about the film, which I also really liked about Astrea and Celadon, is the way it cuts away from scenes. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but Rohmer has a way of ending his scenes at moments that are poignant, funny, or otherwise expressive, but in very subtle, often deadpan, ways. He often gives us just enough to imply whole depths of emotion without hammering us over the head with it, as when we get a brief scene of Gaspard waiting for Lena at a cafe table (we know he’s waiting for her, because of a conversation in the previous scene) and a brief glance at his watch tells us that she’s late, then he gets up and leaves, telling us that he’s concluded that she’s not going to show up. Because of what we know about the uncertain status of their relationship, this little scene in which basically nothing happens speaks volumes. I also really liked the way Rohmer used title cards announcing what day it is to both give us a sense of time flowing between scenes and also to generate humor or tension based on things we’ve been told earlier are going to happen or were expected to happen by a certain date. How can a calendar date be so damned funny? Rohmer finds sly ways to make them so.

This is by no means a standard romantic comedy, and the humor is more droll and dry than laugh out loud funny. It’s a little uncomfortable in the way it pokes fun at our romantic pretensions and self-delusions. It ends on a completely ambiguous note, with a kind of smiling shrug. So it goes.

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