A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, France 1996)

Margo and Gaspard

Éric Rohmer’s earlier film in his ‘Four Seasons’ collection, A Tale of Springtime (1990) offered us three young women and one man (with two absent boyfriends). A Summer’s Tale again offers us three young women, but the difference this time is that the central driver of the narrative is Gaspard, a young man on holiday on the Brittany coast around Dinard and Saint-Malo. Gaspard is using the flat of a friend and waiting for the possible arrival of his girlfriend Léna who is currently travelling in Spain with her sister. If she appears in time, Gaspard hopes to take her to the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English) but it doesn’t seem a very firm plan. In the meantime Gaspard will encounter two other young women, Margot, working temporarily in her aunt’s créperie, and Solène who lives a few miles away and visits her aunt and uncle who have a boat. The indecisive Gaspard is reluctant to admit to being interested in either Margot or Solène or to commit fully to the currently absent Léna.

French culture seems to take Summer more seriously than the English. At least that’s my perception. Paris famously empties for the Summer and heads towards the coast. There are more holiday spots along the extensive French coastline and fewer large resorts I think. Memories of beach holidays loom large and many French films have taken the beach holiday as the perfect setting. I’ve read that Rohmer himself had a holiday in Dinard as a young man and the suggestion is that he was particularly invested in this film. That might also be a reason for the decision to shoot the film in the old Academy ratio, which was unusual in French cinema by the 1990s. Rohmer, born in 1920 was in his 70s when he made the ‘Four Seasons’ films. I don’t think this is apparent in his decisions about scripting, casting and direction in the three tales I’ve seen so far. The four central characters all seem to me to be well-drawn and the dialogue is, as usual, intelligent and witty.

Gaspard and Solène sing his shanty about ‘The Pirate’s Daughter’

Just as in A Tale of Springtime, there is a slight narrative line in the film which links all four characters together in a subtle way. Gaspard has finished his MA and is hoping to build a career as a music composer. Perhaps ‘career’ is the wrong term – he doesn’t seem that interested in making money. He has with him an acoustic guitar and a small cassette recorder and attempts to write songs, having promised to write a song for Léna. One day Margot persuades him to join her in visiting an old sailor (she’s an ethnologist interested in the history of the area). The old man sings the couple a local sea shanty and Gaspard is inspired to create his own original sea shanty about a pirate’s daughter. He’s still perfecting it when he meets Solène who learns the words and, in effect, ‘owns’ it. When Gaspard finally meets Léna and they discuss the trip to Ouessant, she tells him that she found a novel set on the island. Gaspard claims to know the novel well. The author André Savignon did indeed spend time in Saint-Malo and wrote two or more novels set on Ouessant and another entitled Nid de corsaires (Nest of pirates). Léna then sings part of the shanty ‘Santiano’ (a very popular modern French shanty using the tune of a Mexican song about General Santa Anna) and then reminds Gaspard that he was going to write a song for her. What is he going to do now? Gaspard’s songwriting ambitions might, however, offer him a way out of his quandary.

Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is handsome and talented and, as Margot observes, is very attractive to women. The actor, who has had a long and successful career, is just the right age (23) in 1996 and had been acting since he was 10. He portrays Gaspard as both a ditherer and as someone who doesn’t seem aware of the hurt he causes because he is so self-centred. He’s the perfect candidate for some Rohmerian education. The three young women are each assertive and more than capable of ‘playing’ Gaspard. Because this is a beach narrative each of the three is seen in a bikini, a shirt tied for a bare midriff, short skirts etc. (Gaspard is also often bare-chested). In its own way this is a very sexy film despite only a few moments featuring kisses and caresses. The three women are each very different, creating different problems for Gaspard in his attempts to have meaningful conversations with them.

Gaspard with Léna

Margot is played by Amanda Langlet who as a young teenager was the Pauline of Rohmer’s 1983 film Pauline at the Beach, set on the Normandy coast, North-East of Dinard. Margot is the oldest of the three women, the most experienced and perhaps she is the character who embodies Rohmer’s central ideas. She treats Gaspard much as an older sister might and, if it wasn’t for her, he might never have ventured far out of his room. Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) is the most direct of the three. She knows what she wants and plans how to get it. Léna (Aurelia Nolin) seems the most concerned about status and ‘fitting in’. In some ways it is not a surprise that she was Gaspard’s girlfriend while he was a student – and that he might find a relationship with her more difficult after experiencing the different attractions of Margot and Solène.

It’s often said that filmmakers begin to lose something of their creativity as they move into later life – or that the works of their last years are interesting but flawed. I don’t see that being a criticism that might apply to Rohmer on the evidence of the three Four Seasons tales I’ve seen so far. A Summer’s Tale is another delight, beautifully photographed by Diane Baratier. The music by Sebastien Erms and Philippe Eidel and the whole discourse around sea shanties worked very well for me. If you want an engaging and intelligent film about Summer romances, I recommend this film highly. It’s not surprising that Rohmer remains an influence on many aspiring filmmakers.

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