Eric Rohmer’s characters always seem like they have free will. They don’t adhere to the typical requirements of a screenplay — there’s no rush to advance a narrative, since that’s not how life works — and they are content to go on unimportant tangents that define everyday conversation. That’s not to say Rohmer’s work is unfocused: while his complex characters are admittedly thrown into situations devoid of danger, they use genuine intellect and depth of feeling to grapple with them. Originally released in 1996 but never in the United States, A Summer’s Tale is a reminder of his formidable talent, a film brimming with a low-key realism that feels timeless thanks to a new HD restoration.
A handsome young man (Melvil Poupaud) arrives by boat on the coast of Brittany, a summertime tourist destination in France that faces the Atlantic. With his mop of messy hair and a guitar case, the young man looks quite serious, like the sort of person who uses pretense to hide his inexperience. His name is Gaspard, and he doesn’t say much at first: he enters a house, orders a beer at a seaside café, then strums some guitar before bed (Rohmer counts off the start of each new day with an abrupt title card). The man finally speaks after a waitress (Amanda Langlet) asks if he wants more coffee. She sees him at the beach the next day and makes an introduction: her name is Margot, and she strikes up a friendship with Gaspard. He explains he’s waiting for his girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who he’s not sure if he loves, and later he meets Solone (Gwenaëlle Simon) after she eyes him at a dance party.
Gaspard goes on dates and long walks with these three beautiful women, and a sort of game starts to take place, one that’s somewhere between flirting and a power struggle. They talk about their feelings and unwillingness to act on them: Margot insists she can only be friends with Gaspard, for example, because she’s waiting for her archaeologist boyfriend to get back to France, while Solone says she refuses to have sex with Gaspard out of general principle. The meandering plot matches the lazy fun of summer; there’s no rush to A Summer’s Tale, because Rohmer has an ear for dialogue. Conversations sound so plausible that the film feels like a documentary, without a screenplay written down beforehand (all the performances are appropriately understated and earnest). Rohmer’s camera reflects his writing: the shots are long and eager, without many close-ups or cuts, as if Rohmer is inviting us to eavesdrop. There are multiple quarrels on the beach, each with Gaspard running toward and away from these women, but Rohmer manages to avoid self-parody, capturing instead the intoxicating frivolity of youth.
Summer starts drawing to a close, and a plot soon develops. Gaspard has separate conversations with Margot, Solone, and Lena about a trip to Ouessant, a nearby island. It’s not that he’s playing games, exactly: Ouessant will affirm the relationship with a travel companion, no matter which of the three he chooses, and the tension is whether he can make the right decision. The world’s smallest violin might be playing for Gaspard, but that doesn’t make the choice any less difficult. Rohmer intensifies the indecision with moments of erotic suspense: he understands that the buildup toward a kiss is more intense/memorable than the act itself, and there are several times in A Summer’s Tale where I found myself thinking, “Just plant one already!” Unlike many romantic films where the camera veers toward specific parts of the body, Rohmer shows the deliberate fumbling of hooking up in all its awkward glory. Given his deep understanding of youth, it is downright astonishing that Rohmer filmed A Summer’s Tale when he was 76 years old.
The audience does not learn Gaspard’s name until Solone introduces him to her uncle, which happens around the halfway point. The uncle just caught them making out, which raises some intriguing questions: Does Rohmer think his characters deserve a name only after they act on their desires? Is he rewarding our patience with a flourish of exposition? It could be both, but it could also be that Rohmer simply eschews standard storytelling rules and introduces basic details like a first name only when it would seem natural. Just like Rohmer’s six moral tales and the work of Mike Leigh, A Summer’s Tale defies typical description because the filmmaker uses the limits of his medium to his advantage, understanding the psychology of his characters the way a novelist might. It’s easy to be dismissive of a film with low stakes and a handsome cast, yet this restoration is a perfect opportunity to create new fans. Compared to Rohmer, all other romantic films seems like they’re on autopilot.