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A Summer’s Tale (1996) | Review

Summer Shanty: Rohmer’s Breezy Contemplation a Welcome Resurrection

A Summer's Tale PosterNever before released in the US, Eric Rohmer’s 1996 title, A Summer’s Tale, which is part of his Tales of the Four Seasons cycle, finally arrives for a seasonally appropriate theatrical run. A chatty, observational exercise, it’s a humorously playful film with the director’s usual examination of lovelorn humans and their amusing interactions. As such, it’s a very welcome resuscitation, albeit nearly twenty years after the fact, from a cherished filmmaker who passed away in 2010.

Starring a mop-headed Melvil Poupaud as a young adult, this is a delectable performance from the actor, a perfomer since a preadolescent who has become a prolific presence in and outside of French cinema, headlining titles from Francois Ozon, Xavier Dolan, and Zoe Cassavetes. Intelligent, contemplative conversation and amusing interactions transpire effortlessly and with continual interest, as per usual in Rohmer’s fashion. The sun soaked landscapes and youthful dalliances reach a magical crescendo of timelessness as much as it nurses nostalgia for those moments that, at first glance, seem entirely meaningless, but in retrospect prove to be incalculably formative.

A rather shy and somewhat insolent math graduate, Gaspar (Poupaud) arrives for a last summer vacation before beginning his first professional job as a certified adult. Arriving in a coastal village in the Brittany region with only his guitar as company, it’s not long before he’s accosted at the beach by Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress from a nearby restaurant that noticed the lonely young man. They strike up a conversation and soon are thick as thieves. We discover that Gaspar isn’t technically single, as he explains a rather complicated sounding relationship with Lena, a young woman set to join him shortly, currently on holiday in Spain with her sister. Margot makes it clear she’s not romantically interested in Gaspar and they discuss how it is that he doesn’t have any females just as friends and why he doesn’t function very well in a group setting. She takes him to a club and he spies a beautiful, long haired brunette. Later, he learns her name is Solene (Gwenaelle Simon) when she comes to chase after him after dumping the other two boys she’d been carousing with. They make promises to travel to a nearby island together, Ouessant, though Gaspar is reluctant to make a commitment. Upon relating this new romance to Margot, she becomes a bit unnerved. Suddenly, the nonchalant Lena (Aurelia Nolin) does appear, complicating Gaspar’s emotional bond with Margot and the rather aggressive Solene.

As Margot points out in one of her many exchanges with Gaspar, we’re unclear about Gaspar and his intentions. Initially, he appears to be just a brooding young man with an insistent little sea shanty he writes for one young woman but gives to another. Is he really as unlucky in love as he claims to be? Or is he really more of a rascal than he lets on? Notions of love, compatibility, and, most importantly, the value of friendship over frivolous flings make up the bulk of these varied conversations between Gaspar and his three females.

This was the third union of Rohmer with cinematographer Diane Baratier, and A Summer’s Tale plays like a beautiful postcard, the vibrant beach sides of Dinard a tranquilizing vacation destination. Actress Amanda Langlet would also appear in a number of Rohmer films, and, notable she’s the titular character from his 1983 film, Pauline at the Beach. But it’s Poupaud who is the real treat here as the lovesick loner. For all his proclamations about who would be the best girl for him, the winning factor seems to be propinquity every time.

As far as human interaction via intelligent and compelling conversation goes, it’s hard to best Rohmer, whose simple, sometimes banal situations reveal unpredictable depths. It might be nearly two decades late in making its way to the US, but A Summer’s Tale is certainly one of the most worthwhile titles to venture out for.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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