‘A Summer’s Tale’: A belated release

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Eric Rohmer’s film, “A Summer’s Tale” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, back in 1996. It was the third in his Tale of Four Seasons series and the only one of them, which did not have a theatrical run in the United States outside of New York City. Now, some eighteen years later and four years after the death of the acclaimed filmmaker, it is belatedly receiving a theatrical release stateside.

We are fully seven minutes into “A Summer’s Tale,” before the first word of dialogue is spoken. The protagonist is Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a brooding, self-absorbed recent university graduate. His degree is in mathematics, but his principal interest is in composing and performing music. The film focuses on three weeks in his life as he vacations in the beautiful Brittany seaside of France. Afterwards, he will start his first job.

Gaspard is awaiting the anticipated arrival of Lena (Aurelia Nolin) a young woman with whom he has a poorly defined relationship. He anticipates having an amorous time with his fantasy girl. Are his expectations quixotic? Lena has failed to show up as expected. Adding to Gaspard’s frustration, Lena has left confusing messages and failed to provide him with any way to contact her.

Gaspard visits a local crêperie. There, he is served by Margot (Amanda Langlet, who had previously starred in Rohmer’s “Pauline at the Beach”), a cheerful waitress. When Gaspard later encounters Margot on the beach, he doesn’t even recognize her. Although Margot is friendly, Gaspard remains aloof. The chemistry between the two is uncertain. Moreover, Margot alludes to a boyfriend, who is on an extended trip to South America. The two become chummy in the context of a circumscribed platonic relationship. Their relationship consists largely of meandering walks and conversation. Margot is a graduate student in ethnography. Instead of researching the people of some exotic locale, she has opted to immerse herself in the study of the people living right there in Brittany.

Since Lena has failed to arrive. Margot encourages Gaspard to cultivate a relationship with her friend, Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon). She’s an attractive young woman, who enjoys singing sea shanties while accompanied by Gaspard on the guitar. It is evident that Solene is drawn to Gaspard. However, Solene insists that she has her principles. She will not sleep with Gaspard–at least not right away. Gaspard and Solene plan to go away on a trip together. Although Margot pushed Gaspard to pursue Solene, when he does, she seems to become irrationally jealous.

When Lena finally appears, complications ensue. She wants to go on a trip with Gaspard at the same time that he has already committed to traveling with Solene. So, Gaspard is trying to juggle relationships with three different women, none of whom are providing him with emotional or sexual satisfaction.

Born as Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, Rohmer was steeped in the arts. He held an advanced degree in history and taught literature. He had little affinity for film until he was befriended by the advocates of post-World War II French New Wave;  Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. They ignited a passion for film in Rohmer.

He did not want his family to learn of his involvement with the genre of film. So, he adopted various cognomens, eventually settling on Eric Rohmer. With Chabrol, he wrote “Hitchcock, the First Forty-Four Films” the first book-length study of the director. It helped establish the then nascent auteur theory of filmmaking.

While many of Rohmer’s younger journalistic colleagues, were making the transition to actual filmmaking, he continued to edit the prestigious, intellectually rigorous, explicitly Marxist “Cahiers du cinema” from 1957 to 1963. Despite his late emergence as a filmmaker, Rohmer began accruing accolades in 1969. Then already forty-nine, his “My Night at Maud’s” garnered two Academy Award nominations and a panoply of international accolades. He won the San Sebastian International Film Festival with “Claire’s Knee” in 1971 and the Venice Film Festival in 1971 for “The Green Ray.”

It is noteworthy that Rohmer became a filmmaker late in life, peaked early, but nevertheless continued to crank out films for decades thereafter, long after other practitioners of New Wave had long since ceased. For his body of work, Rohmer won the Career Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in 2001.

Rohmer’s films were hailed by many critics and doyennes of art house cinema. However, they definitely weren’t for everyone. His work polarized critics, audiences, and fellow filmmakers. Even at the height of Rohmer’s career, some reviled his work as being uneventful and boring. Indeed, in Arthur Penn’s 1975 film, “Night Moves,” Gene Hackman’s hard-nosed detective character, Harry Moseby, issued the scathing pronouncement, “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”

With its languid pacing and lack of any discernible action, “A Summer’s Tale,” is quintessential Rohmer. It is less about what happens than what doesn’t happens. For some, this quiet study of four less than scintillating individuals and their inter-relationships will suffice. Others will find it a crashing bore.

**1/2 No MPAA rating 114 minutes In French with English subtitles

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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