A Summer's Tale Review

Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, most recently seen on British screens in the lead role of François Ozon’s Time to Leave) is a shy Maths graduate who claims that nothing significant happens to him. At first, on holiday in the French coastal resort of Dinard, he is alone but living in hope that his classmate Lena (Aurélia Nolin) will join him there. Shortly after arriving, he meets Margot (Amanda Langlet, no stranger to Rohmer, having played the title role in Pauline at the Beach), who works in the local creperie. They strike up an instant rapport, but to Gaspard they are no more than just good friends, as his real love is for Lena. Then he meets the beautiful Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) at a party. The attraction is there and reciprocated, and Solène will not be second best. All of a sudden, Gaspard is in the entirely new territory of having to juggle the attentions of three women…

The third film in Eric Rohmer’s Tale of the Four Seasons (Conte d’été in the original, not to be confused with Summer, which was the US release title of The Green Ray) brings us to the season for that favourite Rohmerian scenario, the holiday. Away from home and its responsibilities, his characters have a certain freedom to act without their usual constraints. Think of La collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee in the Moral Tales, Pauline at the Beach (which also stars Amanda Langlet) and The Green Ray, and see how much mileage Rohmer has taken from this situation. The first two of the Four Seasons (A Tale of Springtime and A Winter’s Tale), like the Comedies and Proverbs series, centred on young women. A Summer’s Tale varies the pattern – and harks back to the Moral Tales – by having a male protagonist. With men, Rohmer’s irony is much more overt, almost to the point of being judgemental: he’s clearly much more fond of his female leads, although certainly not without irony as well. Gaspard’s degree subject is very appropriate: he’s far more at home in the abstract realm of Maths (and of music composition) than he is with the conflicting emotional demands of Margot, Solène and Lena. He’s out of his depth, and it shows.

Rohmer films this with his customary simplicity that disguises considerable craft. Even incidental details of production design are preplanned and tell us something about the characters – note the Oasis poster on Gaspard’s wall, a now-period touch that’s spot-on for the time this film was made and set. Diane Baratier’s camerawork makes full use of the sunny days and locations in and around Dinard. Rohmer’s light touch is assured: this is the longest of the Tales of the Four Seasons, but it passes by effortlessly. As ever, the cast is first rate, and Rohmer’s trademark dialogue as witty and insightful as always. Note that he can do without dialogue if he needs to: Gaspard’s loneliness is aptly summed up by a short series of scenes at the beginning: he arrives in town, checks into his room, walks along the beach, sits in a café, walks along the promenade at night, then back in his room plays his guitar – without a single word spoken.

If you’re unsympathetic to Rohmer, you’ll find A Summer’s Tale slow and talky, but if you are one of the converted you’ll like most of them, and A Summer’s Tale is no exception. Even at the age of seventy-six, as he was then, Rohmer clearly understood and liked young people, but even he must have felt it was time to move on: his next film, Autumn Tale, he dealt with middle-aged protagonists, albeit played by two actresses he’d worked with many times before. A Summer’s Tale is a delight.

Originally released as a single disc, A Summer’s Tale was reissued on 9 October 2006 as part of an Artificial box set, Tales of the Four Seasons. Affiliate links to your left, refer to the single-disc version, which is still available. I will be writing an overview of the box set once I’ve reviewed the final disc (A Tale of Springtime). As with the other discs in the box, A Summer’s Tale is encoded for Region 2 only.

The film was shown in British cinemas in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (well, it was when I saw it), but the DVD is presented in 4:3. Rohmer’s films are never tightly composed, and either ratio looks fine. As far as I’m aware, A Summer’s Tale was shot in 35mm – it certainly looks it – but there’s a grain to the image which I’m sure is down to the filmstock used and the low budget. It’s never intrusive – films like The Green Ray are far grainier – and the colours are strong and blacks solid. It’s a very good transfer.

Even as late as 1996, Rohmer was making his films with mono soundtracks. (Autumn Tale was his first with a Dolby soundtrack, though it’s always sounded monophonic to me.) The soundtrack on this DVD does its job very well: for a dialogue-driven film like any of Rohmer’s, multi-channel sound would not be necessary and there’s certainly no call for a remix. English subtitles are optional, though as dialogue is so vital you would have to be particularly fluent in French to do without them.

The extras are as standard on Artificial Eye’s Four Seasons DVDs. The main one is a director interview, one of those useful featurettes that marry an audio interview (this time with Michel Ciment from 1996) with illustrative extracts from the film at hand and others, and which covers a lot of ground in a short length (10:42). This item is split into sections, discussing first Rohmer’s use of the weather. Expecting the sky to be overcast for one scene on the beach, he made use of the fact that it was hot and sunny and crowded with people. Another scene made use of a sudden drizzle. Ciment and Rohmer go on to discuss Rohmer’s use of long travelling shots, for the walking conversations between Gaspard and Margot, enables by the use of a trolley with wide tyres which would not slip on the wet sand. Rohmer compares this to his use of a camera operator in a wheelchair in Rendez-vous à Paris (shown in a rather artefact-ridden clip). Also discussed are Rohmer’s sound-recording techniques - micro-transmitters instead of a boom mike, a device borrowed from documentaries, and the practicalities of this when the actors are wearing just a pair of swimming trunks or a bikini. Finally, Rohmer discusses the song “The Pirate’s Daughter” which features heavily in the film.

The extras are concluded by a rather washed-out trailer (1:36) and a biography and filmography of Rohmer that goes up to his most recent feature as I write this, Triple Agent. (He’s since completed a short, Le canapé rouge in 2005, and has a new feature, Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, forthcoming in 2007.)

Non-fans of Rohmer won’t be converted by A Summer’s Tale. The difficulty with recommending this release to Rohmer fans is that they may well have it already, or intend to obtain it sometime soon – and so they should.

8 out of 10
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