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:

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Pauline at the Beach (1983)

The Green Ray (1986)


July 5, 2016

Welcome to the third week of my Summer of Rohmer, in which I fill the void of my own vacation-less summer by vicariously joining the beach holidays of Eric Rohmer’s neurotic, attractive, and hyper-articulate characters. I started the series by visiting a Saint-Tropez cottage in La Collectionneusefollowed with a scenic French Alps home in Claire’s Knee, while today I scurried off to a Normandy beach house in Pauline at the Beach. We have leapt from Rohmer’s cycle of “Moral Tales” to his “Comedies and Proverbs”, as well as his shift to female protagonists (which began with his previous film A Good Marriage (1982)).

Pauline at the Beach (1983) is set during the waning weeks of summer, with Marion (Arielle Dombasle) bringing her 15-year-old niece Pauline (Amanda Langlet) to spend a few parent-less weeks before they both have to return to work and school. There is a pressure to find friends and have a fling before the holiday runs out. The waifish blonde Marion is immediately pursued by two men, the dewy-eyed romantic Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and the older, pragmatic womanizer Henri (Feodor Atkine). Rohmer frames the film around Pauline’s observations. She is a quiet, almost background presence throughout, silently weighing Marion’s actions as she falls for Henri and keeps Pierre on her string. Rohmer leads off his Comedies and Proverbs films with a quote, and here it is one from Chretien de Troyes: “He who speaks too much does himself harm.” Marion, Pierre, and Henri talk incessantly about the nature of love, but show no knowledge of how to embody it. Instead they remain irrevocably wrapped up inside themselves. I produced the DVD and Blu-ray of Pauline at the Beach for Kino Lorber (complete with an Eric Rohmer interview and a  fine booklet essay by Michelle Orange), so consider that a full disclosure of my biases.

The French summer holiday is unfathomably long to this American, who snags week-long respites if he can afford it. In Pauline at the Beach, Pauline has been vacationing for months, and wants to use the Normandy trip as a final unwinding before a return to responsibility. This is Marion’s only holiday, having spent the rest of the summer preparing her next fashion line. So there is already an inset anxiety – the fun is about to end. Pauline had spent the previous two months with her parents, and is free for the first time. Marion has started peeking at swatches for her fashion design job, which looms at the end of their stay. So the seductions and crushes seem to happen on fast forward – Marion immediately falls into bed with the mercenary Henri, and Pierre declares his undying love to her (they had a brief  fling a few summers back). All the while Pauline stays silent, unwilling to take part in their philosophical parlor games, in which they intellectualize their respective thoughts on love, a Plato’s Symposium if held by untrammeled narcissists.

They all have different manners of self-regard. Henri believes himself to be a “nomad” who “can’t stand a woman who makes me think of her as furniture.” This is a flattering way for him to justify his serial womanizing, enabling their freedom instead of justifying his pursuit of pleasure. Marion, recently divorced, is not interested in freedom. She wants love to manifest physically (“I’ve never burned with love except in dreams”), and transport her beyond herself. It is a storybook vision. Pierre says that “passion that flames too quickly burns out too fast.” He is trying to position himself for Marion’s sake, as he knows she has never “burned” for him. He is playing a longer game, “for a deep and lasting love”, one that unfolds over time. His is the most grounded version, but he is too jealous and petty for him to realize his noble goals. He is always focusing on his own pain, his own feeling of being slighted, to have time to cultivate his higher emotions. Pauline only chimes in with, “I don’t agree with any of you, except maybe Pierre…You must know people to love them.”

Rohmer might have tweaked her phrase to say that he had to know people before they could act in his movies. He had first worked with Arielle Dombasle and Pascal Greggory in his 1979 stage production of Kleist’s Catherine de Heilbronn, which suffered withering reviews. The actors, however, were thrilled with the experience, and were eager to work in Rohmer’s collaborative, intensely rehearsed style once again. The story’s origins went back to some of his plays in the ’1950s, but it didn’t begin to take true shape until the late ’70s for a group of scenes he titled Loup, y es-tu? (Wolf, Are you There?). The totality came together on a train ride filled with loud soldiers. Rohmer is quoted in Eric Rohmer: A Biography:  “under those conditions, I couldn’t read, it was impossible to read, but at the same time, ultimately, it’s easier to write. So I concentrated; I had a notebook and I began writing very fast without listening to what was being said around me and I really had the idea of the continuity of the film.” He kept tinkering with it up until the start of shooting on A Good Marriage. 

In terms of casting the biggest question mark was Pauline. He found a photo of Amanda Langlet in the French Production Society’s file of child actors, and after a brief telephone call with her cast her on the spot. Fifteen years old, Rohmer treated her like any other member of the cast, consulting “her regarding the psychological details of her character”, recording her thoughts on a tape recorder. According biographers Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, who listened to the tapes, “it is hard to distinguish directed improvisation from desultory conversation”, as Langlet blurred into the character of Pauline. Through all of this collaborative work Langlet gives a wonderfully subdued performance, a watcher and thinker not yet ready to take center stage in her own life.

Once again Nestor Almendros was the director of cinematography, though he had begun to get tired of Rohmer’s thrifty ways. Head camera operator Virgine Thevenet told de Baecque and Herpe: “In the United States, Nestor had become a star. Back in France, it drove him nuts to find Eric still quibbling about paying for his coffee.” The reigning visual influence on this film was Matisse, specifically his painting Romanian Blouse. The red, white, and blue color scheme would be adopted, and counter to their usual insistence on not altering locations, they would repaint hallways to keep the motif intact. Rohmer hung a reproduction in Langlet’s room, and Rohmer was delighted to find that she shrugged her shoulders in a manner similar to the painting in a restaurant scene with Greggory.

Pauline at the Beach was poorly received by French critics, with Le Figaro calling it “a strong contender for the prize for the most ridiculous film of 1983″, reserving the most damning insults for the “illiterate” dialogue and Arielle Dombasle’s performance. Perhaps the schematic nature of the dialogue plays better in translation, but Dombasle is a delight, a frothy, lightly comic performance around which the men circle and Pauline observes with bemused interest. The film was a still a financial success at home and abroad, and stands as one of Rohmer’s purely pleasurable works, from the location (the sad loveliness of an emptied out beach town) to the outfits (I don’t have the language for fashion, but my wife exclaimed any time Arielle Dombasle appeared in a new ensemble), to the romantic nettle woven by  their pretty words. Marion, Henri, and Pierre cannot live up to those words, but Pauline, with her reflective, penetrating stare, offers the possibility of authenticity, and an enduring love.