Conte d’été / A Summer’s Tale (1996)

24 08 2013

I’m starting to think that one’s favorite Rohmer film might be entirely based on one’s connection to the lead character. It sounds like I’m selling him short, but this film, while just as amazing The Green Ray in a lot of ways, didn’t really hit quite as hard. It’s still a masterpiece, and is equally as perceptive as a study in human interaction. What Rohmer does seems so simple and “light” but the film concludes in a way that is quietly devastating. This is one of those films where essentially nothing happens, but the process of that nothing is far more dense than a standard narrative. It is absolutely amazing.

1

Gaspard has almost a month of vacation time to waste before he starts his new job. He’s completed his postgraduate studies and is on the brink of adulthood, but his future isn’t a big deal. A friend gives him a place in Dinard, where he decides to stay for the potential of meeting up with Lena. The two are not dating, but have had some romantic past. Gaspard quietly spends his days by the beach before meeting Margot. Margot and Gaspard spend entire days together, walking along the beach and of course, talking. She introduces him to Solene and without even trying, Gaspard finds himself involved with three women and Lena hasn’t even arrived yet.

2

It’s interesting how every summary of this film that I read beforehand made it sound particularly dull. I knew it wouldn’t be, but the idea of a young man having to “choose” between multiple women seems particularly stupid. It’s to Rohmer’s credit that the film never plays out like some sort of smooth guy falling for three women at one time. It only takes ten minutes of this film to realize that the protagonist, Gaspard, is not a Don Juan. If anything, it seems like his devotion to Lena is supported by the reality that he can’t find anyone else. Maybe one can’t get involved with so many potential romantic partners without playing it a little loose, but Gaspard is loose. He’s loose because the summer documented in the film, might be his last without the pressures of a professional life.

3

Much like The Green Ray, one could easily point to the situation here as being ultimately trivial. After all, these all four of the major characters seem to be completely fine financially, and Gaspard himself doesn’t even need to worry about working in the day time. He and Margot spend almost all of the two weeks that the film covers walking along the beach and talking. Margot is a waitress, but that’s a part-time gig. She has a PhD in ethnology and her first “date” with Gaspard is an interview with an old sailor. She is not passive like Gaspard, but her life does seem comfortable on the surface. I don’t think a story like this one can work without the upper-middle class 20somethings milleu, though. No group would have such freedom nor would their interactions feel so crucial. Margot mentions that she was to marry her last ex, hinting at the reality that her next romantic relationship might be the romantic relationship.

4

The relationship between Gaspard and Margot is probably the most interesting in the entire film, perhaps because it is the one that gets the most time. Gaspard doesn’t spend much time with Solene and when Lena arrives, she’s already irritated by him on the second day. In the case of the latter, Rohmer is suggesting a turmoil between Lena and Gaspard that we never see and that her jarringly impulsive behavior is compelling to Gaspard. All of this is worth noting because Solene and Lena are the two with the greatest physical potential for Gaspard. He does “the most” with them, where the relationship with Margot might never be more than a particularly close friendship. In the actual process of watching the film, though, everything feels organic. The moments with Solene and Lena don’t feel like sideplots, but instead natural happenings from Gaspard’s own passive and drifting attitude.

5

The film concludes without Gaspard ever “choosing” any girl, which seems like an open-ended conclusion to spark a thoughtful chat at a bar following a viewing. Maybe some people would prefer Solene, and others fascinated by Lena. This would be stupid, because the crux of the film is, as mentioned before, Gaspard and Margot. Rohmer cleverly hides their passion in their playful friendship and how alarmingly open they are with each other. In reality, this is why the two being together seems the most ideal. Gaspard mentions early in the film that he’s never had a female friend before Margot, and this comment is revealing because he ultimately can’t see her as just a friend. More importantly, though, it’s their friendship that makes him so talkative and so willing to reveal information about himself. For as long as we know Gaspard, he’s always had romantic feelings for Lena and he immediately thinks of Solene similarly because Margot suggests her as girlfriend before the two even meet. Around both women, Gaspard feels the need to try because putting on a performance is subconsciously how some people try to impress others. This is never needed when Gaspard talks to Margot.

6

I never thought I’d be praising Rohmer for his cinematic brilliance, but he does wonderful things here, things which may gone unnoticed as the majority of the film is tracking shots of people talking. To begin, the film opens with no dialogue. The camera instead follows Gaspard around as he drifts alongside the beach, spends time in his friend’s apartment, and does essentially nothing. It’s only when Gaspard runs into Margot on the beach that the characters become talkative in the typical Rohmer fashion. Interestingly, these scene features a fascinating sequence in which Gaspard, fresh from a dip in the water walks around the beach. The perspective flips from his to Margot’s and we see as she observes Gaspard looking around. When the scene unfolds, one would assume that he’s looking for Margot but it becomes evident that he’s probably looking for Lena. The sequence almost plays out like a horror film, with Margot as the predator observing Gaspard who is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s being watched. Interestingly, this sequence and the two’s conversations early on suggest that Margot is more interested than Gaspard than he is in her, but like the camera’s perspective in the scene described above, this gets flipped when Gaspard is the first to make a move.

7

While there is a lot to be found in all of the conversations in this film, it could easily be argued that it all feels a little too inconsequential. Even the audience member that gets absorbed by the conversation, might feel like the film hasn’t given much of an emotional payoff. If one is to see the friendship/(non-)love of Margot and Gaspard as the central one in the film, the conclusion is actually heartbreaking. She’s the last girl he sees before the film ends and he leaves Dinard and their last bit of dialogue while superficially cute and nice suggests heartbreak. They never show it on their faces, but the reality is that their love might have been the most justified of any depicted in the film. However, because people are tied to a place and situation (their life, basically) there is the reality that a love will never have the opportunity to fail. Margot kisses Gaspard lovingly and they say goodbye. The moment doesn’t feel that tragic, but as the film fades to black and one is faced with the idea that two fascinating and lovely people won’t get a chance to explore their relationship further.

9

Rohmer’s accomplishment here could evident just from the basis of me trying to break down the intricacies of a fictional relationship. There’s more to his films, sure, but the quality of watching his works come from the idea that while talking is crucial, other observable behavior is just as fascinating. Again, I’ll always hesitate to compare anyone to Ozu, but I’ve seen two Rohmer films that provide a similar experience. A Summer Tale and The Green Ray are films that need to be rewatched, because one can discover new things with every viewing. Here, Margot and Gaspard (as well as Lena and Solene) are fascinating not just because they seem deep in the process of watching the film, but because what they do can be studied forever. Early in the film, Margot interviews a sailor and it feels like she could be the director of an ethnographic documentary. The same could be said of Rohmer when he frames a conversation.

10

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2 responses

26 06 2015
Bob

I saw this when originally released in 1996 and was more or less the same age as protagonists in film. At time found it compelling and watched a rented VHS tape several times over a weekend – visually the walking and talking are in pure cinematic tandem – and take the screen time necessary to establish the two main characters. The interactions with other two girls was not so clear to me at that time – and now I know why. As this is an older male’s (Rohmer’s) reflection on the clumsiness and misfiring’s of young adulthood. It is sublimely rendered to point that, at the age I saw it, the flow and nature of the relationships felt quite natural and yet a little baffling as was. Exactly as they are feeling about circa your early twenties.

Cinematically Rohmer strips a lot right back – there is little intrusive music and the character’s are generally presented simply and classically dressed in a non distracting manner that keeps fashion and obvious timelines out of the equation. This is very appealing approach as means focus is pared down to dialogue and behaviour study.

In the end Margot has the sense and dignity to hold back and assess the situation based on Gaspard’s behaviour. He makes a mess of it all naturally, as expected at his age and level of confidence. She has the smarts to hold him at bay, with talk of a (professional) distant boyfriend who may or may not be totally real.

The relationship with Lena is more interesting than I recall from first time around – as clearly she attempts to motivate others by active need, a narcissist at core, needing the nearest available validation supply. Now this is the kind of thing a young inexperienced male has absolutely no idea how to negotiate, and often lacks esteem and knowledge of, to walk away from. Solene on the other hand, is what she is, an upfront but focused young woman, not too many distractions in her world view and essentially conventional in future outlook. Thus hopelessly ill matched to adrift and occasionally pompous daydreaming of Gaspard.

The final scene is very moving. Neither of them is aware that there is a time limit on this sort of happenstance. They were well suited but inexperienced.
The other great thing is the music – the final scene reprises the sea shanty.

Interestingly the class status of the protagonists was not an issue for me, as the French study of manners is often a middle class affair, though not necessarily, and their status may explain the motivations of characters, but is not the primary study of the films – which are often humanist in nature less Marxist.

Easily in my top five films of 1990’s – have decided to purchase the DVD.

26 06 2015
Bob

Also – thanks for the screen grabs, great choices.

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