By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2014)
I’m about to lose any (infinitesimal) amount of street cred that I may have accidentally accrued thus far in my “career” as a movie critic with the following admission. I was originally introduced to the work of Eric Rohmer in a roundabout and pedestrian manner. In Arthur Penn’s brilliant 1975 neo-noir, Night Moves (one of my all-time favorites), there’s a throwaway line by cynical P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman). After his wife says she’s off to catch a Rohmer film, Harry scoffs (mostly to himself), “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Since I was hitherto unaware of this Rohmer fellow, I was intrigued to explore his oeuvre (glad I did).
This is why I had to chuckle when I checked the time stamp and realized that it’s nearly 8 minutes into the Rohmer film A Summer’s Tale before anyone utters a line of dialog; and it’s a man calling a waitress over so he can order a chocolate crepe. As for the “action” that precedes…a young man arrives in sunny Dinard, unpacks his clothes, and heads to the beach. He has a sandwich. He kicks around the boardwalk until dark. He has dinner. He gazes out his window and strums a nondescript melody on his guitar. The next day, he strolls on the boardwalk, then decides to grab a crepe and some coffee. As Harry might say, it’s kind of like watching paint dry.
But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud) will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets the bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending the summer waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. The taciturn Gaspard is initially discombobulated by Margo’s forwardness and chatty effervescence; he cautiously tells her that he’s expecting his “sort of” girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) to join him on holiday any time now (she was a little vague as to when she would arrive).
No pressure, Margo assures him, she has a boyfriend (currently overseas) and just wants to pal around (can men and women ‘just be friends’?) So they pal around; days pass with no sign of Lena. Margo is having serious doubts about this ‘Lena’, so without compunction she sets Gaspar up with her friend Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), who, she tells him, is looking for a “summer romance”. Sparks fly between Solene and Gaspar…right about the time Lena finally arrives.
A Summer’s Tale could very well prove to be this summer’s best (and smartest) romantic comedy, which is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, this film was made in 1996. Released in France that year as Conte d’ete, it is only just now making its official U.S. theatrical debut. And then there is the awkward fact that the film’s writer-director has been dead since 2010 (oh well…nobody’s perfect). This was my first opportunity to see it, and I would rate it among Rohmer’s best work (most strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, wonderful as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with the director, this is as good a place as any to start.
In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. Don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry; even neophytes will glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will sheepishly recognize his or herself at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being, after all, only human.