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  • Writer's pictureJake Sanders

Seasonal Affect: Éric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

This piece was published to coincide with our August 24th screening of A Summer's Tale

It's tempting to reduce the films of French director Éric Rohmer to their surface-level pleasures. His favoured milieux, sun-dappled coastal and pastoral locales populated by attractive characters have made them prime fodder for screenshot-happy young cinephiles. Yet, while being endlessly watchable (“moreish” would be a fitting adjective), his films probe universal concepts like love, ageing, and self-worth with profundity and sensitivity. A Summer’s Tale, the third film in his Four Seasons series, is no exception. Rohmer (born in 1920) directed the four films in the cycle between 1994 and 1998, by which point he was by all accounts an old man. Far from feeling dusty, there’s an abiding vibrancy to the work, which perhaps accounts for their continued appreciation among younger audiences. The funniest and most vivid of the four tales, A Summer’s Tale is a timeless and insightful exploration of how romance informs our relationship with ourselves.

The film follows Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), an aspiring musician on holiday in the seaside town of Dinard. Moping around while waiting for his sort-of girlfriend Léna (Aurelia Nolin), Gaspard strikes up a friendship with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress conducting research on local Bretons in her free time. One of Margot’s friends, the beautiful Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), takes an interest in Gaspard, assuaging his low self-esteem, but causing further complications in his increasingly complicated love life.

As with a great many of Rohmer’s films, it takes place over the course of a summer holiday and focuses on intelligent, attractive people having lengthy conversations about life and love. Unlike the other entries in the Four Seasons cycle, the protagonist is male, although the focus is very much on his relationship with women. Rohmer claimed to have been inspired by his own experiences as a younger man in writing A Summer’s Tale, a telling confession considering Gaspard’s characterisation. Gloomy, self-pitying and frankly a bit wet, Gaspard is not always an easy character to root for and stands in stark contrast to the vivacious Margot.

Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, whose work is strongly indebted to Rohmer, regularly features this dynamic, in similarly self-reflective ways. In Hong’s films, the male characters are often creatives and academics (like Gaspard, a musician who has just finished his master's degree in maths) who are hamstrung by glaring inadequacies like insecurity, lechery, or alcoholism. They are positioned opposite flawed, but charming female characters, who inspire simpering obsession from the comparatively pathetic male figures.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017, directed by Hong Sang-soo & A Summer's Tale

Gaspard’s defining flaw is a lack of self-confidence, or perhaps just a generally diminished sense of self. Rather than, in contemporary therapy parlance, “working on himself”, he instead moves between women, seeking their attention and validation to reassure himself of his own value. His relationship with Lena is evidently going nowhere, and the revelation that her trip to Spain has in fact been with a group of boys unnerves him greatly. Margot is in a long-distance relationship, but there’s a sense she wants Gaspard to recognise her true value, and abandon his doomed situation with Léna. Rather than being patient and allowing their relationship to develop, he assumes their romantic prospects are out of the question, and gets distracted by the beautiful Solene, a friend of Margot’s.

Solene is interested in Gaspard’s musical pursuits, and a trip on her uncle’s boat in which they sing a shanty he has written (tellingly inspired by an encounter with one of Margot’s subjects) is a triumphant moment for Gaspard, wherein his talents are celebrated and he feels at ease in a group setting. In an early scene Gaspard explains that he prefers his friendships to be one-on-one, and a sequence at a nightclub wherein Gaspard is excluded from a sea of dancing bodies (including Margot and Solene), painfully captures his feelings of awkwardness and shame in such environments. It's easy to see what attracts him to Solene, whose independence and powerful sexual charge are immediately dazzling. Gaspard piques her interest as a kind of tortured artist. But he’s no angst-ridden musical genius, he’s just angst-ridden.

Every time Gaspard puts on his sunglasses, it looks like he's on his way to Warped Tour. Septuagenarian Rohmer with his finger on the pulse.

Gaspard tries, unsuccessfully, to juggle all three women. While his behaviour is far from commendable, Rohmer is non-judgemental. Gaspard is not a monster, he is simply, like most men in their early twenties, a roiling sea of insecurity and self-doubt, intoxicated by female attention. Ultimately, Gaspard realises just how badly he’s handled the whole affair, and sets sail, leaving all three women behind.

The summer holiday is a kind of unreal zone where the rhythms and rules that dictate ordinary life are suspended. Liberated from quotidian responsibilities, people are free to explore earthly pleasures, while also granted time to reflect on themselves. While innately solipsistic, these windows of self-analysis can catalyse personal growth. Rohmer is a master of capturing the languid pleasures of the seaside jaunt, while also keenly tuning into its meditative potential.

Through title cards announcing the dates of specific scenes, Rohmer reminds the viewer of the impending return to reality, adding a sense of urgency to Gaspard’s situation. The women surrounding Gaspard keep insisting that he make a choice, one he lacks the fortitude to commit to. But his indecisiveness has consequences, and Gaspard leaves by himself, but not before sharing a moment of honesty, and an impassioned kiss with Margot. The holiday may be over, but life goes on.


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