July 19, 2016
My summer of Rohmer enters its fifth week by docking at the rocky Breton seaside town of Dinard, the location of A Summer’s Tale (1996). Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.
A Summer’s Tale is the third of Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” series, following A Tale of Springtime (1990) and A Tale of Winter (1992). Rohmer readily admitted its autobiographical qualities to Cahiers du Cinema at the time of its release: “Of all the films I’ve made, I think this is the most personal vehicle. Everything that is in this film is true. They are either things that I experienced in my youth or things that I noticed.” It was shot in Dinard, which was close to Parame, where he had married his wife Therese in 1957. For his stand-in he chose Melvil Poupaud, a rail-thin, gawkily handsome 24-year-old who had been making films for Raul Ruiz since he was a child (i.e. the delirious City of Pirates, 1983). Poupaud was to play Gaspard, a boy stuck between his school (engineering) and his love (music). He scoots of to Dinard on a slender thread of affection for a girl named Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who made vague promises to get there during the summer. Before her arrival, Gaspard strikes up a friendship with Margot (Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach), an anthropology student who is working at the local creperie. Her boyfriend is halfway around the world, so she takes an interest in this melancholy narcissist. Assuming Lena has ditched him, Gaspard reluctantly bows to the attentions of Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), a flirtatious collector of men looking for a summer fling.
The majority of the film is taken up by the conversations between Margot and Gaspard, walking down the beach, around the rocky paths, and through the nearby forests. He claims to be a romantic, impulsively running to Dinard on the off chance he runs into Lena there. But then when Solene presents herself, these ideals disappear, and he begins to see the light in Solene’s eyes…. Margot is intrigued by his passion and disappointed by his predictability. She is clearly attracted to Gaspard, but continually pulls back from any romantic entanglement. She recognizes that he is something of a barnacle, happy to latch on to any passing vessel. The nautical metaphor is apt, because throughout the film Gaspard composes a catchy little sea shanty about a “corsair’s daughter” traveling the world. Rohmer wrote the lilting melody, which is threaded throughout the film and changes its meaning in context. We first hear it whistled over the credits, and on Gaspard’s guitar as he is working out the arrangement in his room. He is inspired to complete it after Margot takes him to hear stories from a local sailor about their folk songs. This is a boy serious about his art, wanting to channel his passions into song. Later we learn that he is composing it for Lena, but when he is alone with Solene he plays it for her as part of his tentative seduction routine. The song is as changeable as he is, and is thus drained of meaning.
According to Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe’s Eric Rohmer: A Biography, Poupaud borrowed some of Rohmer’s mannerisms for his performance, “rubbing his hands or biting his lips as a sign of indecisiveness”. Poupaud was not a fan of Rohmer’s previous films, finding them to be “a bit boring”, but he was fascinated by the man. “As soon as I met him I realized he’d put a lot of himself into this character. Everything I say, everything he has to say, all the long monologues about the way he doesn’t feel like he’s part of a community, and all these ideas I really think they came from Rohmer himself. The first time we met he didn’t talk very much, he was very shy, very intense, his blue eyes—he would look at you like a beast almost, he was very wild.”
They would shoot on the street in public, and hope no one would look into the camera. To keep people from noticing there was a crew shooting, they hid high-frequency microphones in the actor’s clothes (dispensing with a boom) and “Rohmer, made unrecognizable by his dark glasses and kerchief on his head, moved away from the filming team and waited for the crowd’s curiosity to dissipate. Then he inconspicuously lifted his kerchief, which meant, in his coded language, “Action!”. It was a guerilla kind of filmmaking that was also highly planned. Poupaud recalled that “Eric had calculated the schedule of the tides, the statistics for the sun, he had scouted sites a year in advance…” This kind of precisely organized chaos is what makes a Rohmer film. Actors befriend and talk for hours with Rohmer before shooting, but once on the set he never speaks about the characters and prefers to capture scenes in one take. Poupaud describes this approach as “everything was already in place, everything was already framed, he was just waiting for reality to come into the field.”
Rohmer is preparing the ground for reality, hoping to capture the memories of his hesitations and uncertainties as a young man, revived in the form of Poupaud. The film would not work however, without the mischievous, enigmatic performance of Amanda Langlet, who had last worked with Rohmer nearly thirteen years earlier in Pauline at the Beach (1983), and now 29 years old. Just like on Pauline, she is a wise observer, taking in the delusions of her friends and family. Her face is constantly reacting to Poupaud’s philosophical meanderings, and with a twinkling of an eye, or a downturn of the lip, can extinguish their brief flirtation. A Summer’s Tale ends with bittersweet non-closure as Gaspard sails away from his emotions and girlfriends, leaving Margot on the deck as the only adult ashore.
The previous entries in my Summer of Rohmer: