All That’s Old is New Again, by Josh Long
Despite its initial premiere at the Cannes film festival in 1996, Erich Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale never received theatrical release in the US. Now, almost twenty years later, Rohmer fans can rejoice that a restored print is coming to theatres. A Summer’s Tale is the third installment in the filmmaker’s Tales of the Four Seasons series, made between 1990 and 1998. All four films of the series are love stories focusing on the mess humans inevitably make out of loving each other. As expected, Rohmer approaches each film with his characteristic wit and simple charm.
A Summer’s Tale opens as mild-mannered student Gaspard arrives at the seaside town of Disard, awaiting the arrival of his flighty (girl)friend Lena. When he begins a friendly chat with waitress Margot, we learn that Lena has asked him to meet her here without any clue as to where or when. Left with no one else to talk to, Gaspard begins to see Margot on a daily basis. She is understandably dubious that Lena is ever going to show, but Gaspard is afraid to face that possibility. He finally gives in when Margot sets him up with one of her friends, Solene. Just as he makes weekend plans with Solene, Lena enters the picture. Gaspard, a type who complains that women are never interested in him, suddenly finds himself between two of them. At the same time, he begins to wonder if his easy friendship with Margot might be rooted in something deeper.
Despite the fact that he was 76 upon making this film, Rohmer shows that he is still as in touch with young lovers as he was with his Six Moral Tales. What’s amazing is that he takes a plot that has become a silly sitcom trope – two girls invited to the same date – and makes something interesting out of it. Understandably, because there is so much more to Rohmer’s version. Sitcoms do it to put their protagonists in wacky situations, at best to teach them a lesson about indecision and/or greed. A Summer’s Tale deals with trust and power struggles in relationships, and the young person’s tendency to find their identity in their lovers. The film questions whether Gaspard is even able to tell when someone truly loves him. Simultaneously it shows the folly of impulsive love, while sympathizing with how exciting and entrancing it can be.
As is common in Rohmer’s work, the film is character-driven and dialogue heavy. The criticism could be made that his characters all speak (as they always have) in an overly heightened fashion, pontificating on the meaning of life and love and passion. Then again, this film may be more playfully sardonic about these characterizations, looking back with hindsight’s benefit at the zealous self-importance of youth. Perhaps Rohmer is even having a laugh at himself, in a way.
Either way, the characters have a layered, lived-in quality to them, endearing them to us all the more. Gaspard is a young man torn between his impetuous side and his pragmatism. He studies math at university, but fancies himself a musician and songwriter. He courts Lena, but when she asks him to stay at the seaside longer, he refuses, because he has to get back to his new job. This duality is mirrored in his pursuit of passionate Solene and flighty but beautiful Lena, all the while nurturing the deepest personal relationship with girl-next-door Margot. Margot (played by Amanda Langlet – Rohmer fans will recognize her as the titular Pauline at the Beach) is drawn to Gaspard immediately, but always keeps him at arm’s length. Even though she challenges him to make decisions and take action to get what he wants, she is at heart as indecisive as he is. It may be their similarly broken personalities that draw them together. And although Solene and Lena are smaller parts of the story, they serve as more than foils. Beyond what they represent to Gaspard, they force us to identify with the hurt he causes both of them.
A Summer’s Tale is about faulty humans (as we all are) understanding that they will only ever be capable of faulty love. Yet it is never depressing or mean-spirited (as it might be in, say, a Godard film). Rohmer’s light and airy approach smiles at his flawed characters, rather than damning them. They are fools, but lovable fools, and it’s easy to find ourselves in them. And as we watch their falls and foibles, we can come alongside the filmmaker to shrug and say “c’est la vie – c’est l’amour.”