With August coming to a close, moviegoers can revisit two weeks in July – that’s July 1996 – with the slow, sweet story of “A Summer’s Tale.”
A talky film by French director Eric Rohmer, the subtitled resort romance can be the last of your summer beach readings. Because, even with the gorgeous Brittany coast setting, Rohmer’s characters say much more than they do.
At the center of the piece is Gaspard (Melvil Poupand), a lanky, aimless musician who thinks he wants to find love but is rather clueless on how to go about it. Even so, his mop of black curls and earnest manner attract three young women for his confused consideration.
This is no sexy romp full of bouncing bikinis and spilled champagne. Rohmer (who died in 2010 at age 89) instead captures the angst of last 20th century relationships, before cellphones and texting kept everyone in constant contact, when communication was handled face to face.
That’s where Gaspard runs into trouble.
He has come alone to Brittany in hopes of meeting up with Lena, a sometime girlfriend who said she would be passing through. When Lena doesn’t show, at least not when she was expected, Margot (Amanda Langlet) steps up to befriend Gaspard, feeling a little sorry for him and being a little lonely herself.
Margot, full of plans for the future, philosophical about past mistakes and excited about getting her entomology degree, brings a sparkle to the conversation and gives us a chance to hear Gaspard’s story.
She takes him along when she interviews an old sailor about his life, and his songs of the sea inspire the movie’s most memorable moments. Alone in his room, waiting for Lena to call on his landline dial telephone, Gaspard writes his own version of a sea shanty. When he hooks up with Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), a brash young woman who has an uncle with a boat, he plays his shanty for her, and their subsequent collaboration has an innocent intimacy almost unheard of in the average romance.
The song continues on the boat ride, and over dinner with her family. It is the place where Gaspard finds his comfort level.
And then Lena (Aurelia Nolin) arrives.
The second half of the film follows the uncomfortable mess the once-lonesome young man has made for himself. Margot, though only “a friend,” is clearly the best woman of the bunch. Solene, teasing and beautiful, turns demanding and possessive. And Lena, so casual about her own attachment, intuits that her strings on Gaspard are coming loose and tries to reel him back in.
Suddenly, the young man who thought all he had to do was line up the girls and pick his favorite realizes that any choice will have all sorts of consequences.
Gaspard’s time on the Brittany coast passes slowly until it is quickly gone. Rohmer keeps the scenery in the background, the camera with his characters and the pace leisurely, all the while demanding undivided attention as his youthful slice of summer passes by.
There is nothing cinematic or grand about “A Summer’s Tale,” no lavish costumes, comic double-takes or contrived complications. Still, after seeing it, you can’t help having your own opinions about how Gaspard’s summer should have played out, and, as with every summer, wishing you had a chance to do it over again.
The film is in French with English subtitles. While Rohmer’s intent comes through (he also wrote the script), we do lose a few things in translation, some because of the language, and some because of the 18-year gap between the film’s making and its U.S. release.
It’s a minor inconvenience. Let Gaspard say he is “living like an ectoplasm,” and that he has to go home because he is waiting for a phone call. Reliving a retro summer can make the late August sun shine a little longer.