It’s hard to distinguish a good Eric Rohmer film from a decent one. Garrulous but with sentences that hint at wit, his characters treat expectations like trial balloons: they make declarations of principles which demand acceptance but sulk when they’re taken seriously. The good Rohmer films, which include My Night at Maud’s, Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach, The Green Ray, and A Winter’s Tale, trace how the chatter intersects with the tick-tick inevitability of his plos. Climaxes realize or contradict these declarations of principle, and often the suspense comes in watching as Rohmer catches, one by one, every ball as the conclusion approaches. A Summer’s Tale is one of the good ones. For Rohmer exposition in A Summer’s Tale is like building a sea wall and in the final stretch allowing the tides of inevitability to erode it.
Unseen in this country except on home video (I checked it out of the library in 2000), A Summer’s Tale is the penultimate entry in his Tales of Four Seasons. It’s also the most frustrating and charming in equal measure. Rohmer likes creating men and women about whom it’s difficult for an audience to get their measure. The first six minutes collude with Gaspard: a sequence in which the camera follows him as he arrives by ferry at a resort town near Saint Malo, checks into his hotel, unpacks his tapes and books, and sets up his guitar. With his unruly locks, darting eyes, gaunt sun-blemished cheeks, and almost malnourished figure, Gaspard projects an asceticism so severe that he makes Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Jansenist in My Night at Maud‘s look like the Marquis De Sade. Future French star Melvil Poupaud plays him as a young man without a trace of self-consciousness. On meeting Margot (Amanda Langlet), the cheerful waitress at a crepe shop he raises diffidence to a high art. Yet he isn’t unlikeable — an impossible trick, even when this so-called musician says things like, “Two of the big trends at the moment are Celtic rock and sailor rock.” But he’s a math major. She’s an ethnologist (these revelations aren’t developed but they’re cute).
Rohmer plays with the usual thing. Gaspard rebuffs Margot’s tentative pass; it’s like she’s testing him. His girlfriend Lena is coming soon, he says. Satisfied, she suggests he try someone else while he waits — her friend Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), say. Long-haired and coquettish, the opposite of Margot, she also gets him more het up, enough, at any rate, for Gaspard to risk copping a feel and making out, despite his caressing her like he’s rubbing garlic on a roast. On a boating trip he even consents to her uncle’s accordion arrangement of a sea shanty he’s struggling with called “The Corsair’s Daughter.” But he calls off a fateful trip to Ouessant — Lena has arrived. Whom does he choose?
Judging by the relaxed amble of A Summer’s Tale, it doesn’t matter to Rohmer. Ambles matter. Lots of ambling: on beaches, through slimy tide pools and forest trails, to the crepe store. Gaspard’s thoughts take their cue from his shuffling gait. “Since no one loves me, I don’t love anyone,” he declares in the first third. This trio of available, intelligent women like him. Will he like them? Poupaud starts as an actor who projects contempt for the camera but within five seconds establishes a furtive rapport; by the end of the movie he establishes himself as one of the most original of modern screen lovers, passive only when forced to make decisions he hasn’t himself accepted as good ideas (in Ozon’s A Time to Leave ten years later he’s sneering and insolent and just as effective). Amanda Langlet, the Pauline from Rohmer’s 1983 film, lacks the assurance of a trained actress — her voice is wobbly — but she’s so guileless about believing in this guy that her belief transferred to me.
As for the question, “Whom does Gaspard choose?” Rohmer finds an ingenious answer. Like all ingenious answers, it’s simple and inevitable. Like A Summer’s Tale. A movie taking thematic cues from sea spray and sand in hair is a rarity.