The art and seductive power of conversation lies at the heart of the work of Éric Rohmer, the French New Wave filmmaker who passed away in 2010. Best known for his “Six Moral Tales” series, which included modern investigations of fidelity and ethics in titles like My Night at Maud’s and Love in the Afternoon, Rohmer’s work uses conversation as a platform from which to explore the elasticity of human personality, morality, and rational decision-making. These are not merely films that have a great deal of dialogue – rather, Rohmer crafted interactions between characters that gradually and shrewdly peel away toward the core (or shape-shifting goo) of their identity.
The same can be said for A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer’s 1996 film that is only now seeing an official US theatrical release. The third entry in Rohmer’s season-themed late-career series of films (which also includes A Tale of Springtime (1990), A Winter’s Tale (1992) and A Tale of Autumn (1996)), A Summer’s Tale is a masterclass in Rohmer’s one-of-a-kind approach to the spoken word onscreen. The film at first seems like an innocuous series of introspective conversations between attractive people, but eventually unravels into a more complex portrait about the different kinds of people we pretend to be depending upon the immediate audience at hand.
A Christmas Tale’s Melvil Poupaud (here visibly younger, hairier and aggressively ’90s) plays Gaspard, a musician who has taken a summer holiday at a beach resort in Breton. After a few days of wandering alone, he meets Margot (Amanda Langlet), an aspiring ethnographer whom he quickly befriends. After hours of stimulating conversation and some light flirting, Gaspard reveals that he had been waiting for his girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who was supposed to meet him at the resort days ago but has yet to show up. When Margot playfully refuses his advances, Gaspard begins seeing Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), whose connection to him is more primal than intellectual. Then Lena finally shows up and, as you can probably gander by now, things quickly get complicated.
Two aspects make this nearly twenty-year old film about young people by a director who was in his mid-’70s at the time of filming enduringly fresh. First, none of the young love on display is infused with nostalgia or light frivolity. Hardly an enviable screwball scenario, Gaspard’s decisions bear the weight of true consequences and profound moral dilemmas without any overwrought telegraphing of the stakes at play. And no outcome seems inevitable. The subtle suspense of this film (and Rohmer’s best work) lies in its sense of immediacy and circumstance ever at hand. Events and decisions flow with the aura of unpredictability characteristic of everyday life. Despite the reams of solemn conversation on display, A Summer’s Tale carries none of the artificiality of other cinematic love triangles.
Secondly, the film develops an incredibly complex portrait of Gaspard, whose personality and attitude changes remarkably and subtly throughout A Summer’s Tale thanks to a finely tuned performance by Poupaud. Rohmer’s work always seems to risk the possibility of simply chronicling characters that oh-so-eloquently say precisely what they feel at any given moment. But Gaspard’s initial generalized confessions to Margot quickly betray the notion that he is constantly, and impulsively, acting in the moment, stating whatever resonates most truthfully to him at any given opportunity. This isn’t to say that Gaspard is a charlatan or a player (though he sometimes verges on the latter), but that the presence of a given co-orator helps shape his conversation and, thus, his presentation of self.
It’s a complex character study that reveals how little we can know of someone through conversation, as conversation often changes the way we both perceive and portray our sense of who we are. Perhaps Lena states it best when she declares to Gapsard in a moment of frustration, “I seldom met a boy whose conversation is anything but a bid to puff himself up, to strut like a rooster.”
But A Summer’s Tale’s notable strengths also produce its most evident weaknesses – namely, the three supporting leads. Langlet, Simon and Nolin turn in strong performances, all resisting any possibilities of stereotyping by imbuing their characters with depth and contradictions all their own. Yet they are still ultimately tokens – evident narrative devices utilized toward the complication of Gapsard’s character arcs. They are reservoirs of wisdom who challenge Gaspard at every turn, but they exist in the narrative solely for his development. For a film that realizes its central character with such astounding depth and contradiction, it would have been beneficial to see the women in his life suggest their autonomy outside of providing him that depth and contradiction. Where Gaspard’s subjectivity is elusive, theirs is negated altogether.
Nevertheless, A Summer’s Tale’s belated release provides a necessary reminder of Rohmer’s unmatched craftsmanship and dedication toward understanding people through the words they choose to share with one another.
The Upside: A subtle, well-acted film that patiently uses the art of conversation to explore the everyday contradictions people face and create
The Downside: The near-absence of female autonomy sometimes veers A Summer’s Tale into the male fantasy suggested by its love-triangle structure
On the Side: The title of this review is only partly a joke. Patrice Chereau’s 1994 film Queen Margot also saw its first-ever US theatrical release this year, so it’s a genuine battle for the title.
Also On the Side: To memorialize Rohmer subsequent his passing four years ago, we watched all 6 Moral Tales in one day.