Review: A Summer’s Tale
A Tale of Autumn
In a representative scene from an Eric Rohmer film, a handsome high school philosophy teacher and a much younger woman—his former student and ex-lover—are sitting on the sculpted rock wall of a garden having a candid conversation about romantic love. He has one arm around her shoulder and both eyes fixed on her with unconcealed desire, a situation to which she, a radiantly beautiful frizzy-haired brunette with a sweater tied casually around her chest, doesn’t seem to object. He is complaining about his romantic lot, as Rohmer’s men often tend to when they are, by most standards, romantically successful. He can’t find a woman to settle down with, he tells her, and his frequent flings with his students often lead to regrets and complications. “You love that,” she answers. “You thrive on ambiguity.” “Not all the time,” he replies. “Maybe for what I call the shreds of life, the parts that are half-dreamt and half-lived. But for the solid part—and I don’t necessarily think that one is deeper than the other—I hate it.”
That scene takes place about ten minutes into A Tale of Autumn, the last of the “Tales of the Four Seasons” that Rohmer made between 1990 and 1998, but it might have come from any entry in the quartet. These are the first of Rohmer’s late romances: deceptively airy fables whose narratives depend almost entirely on chance occurrences, and whose characters relate to their surroundings with an odd mixture of lucid intensity and dreamy detachment. Like Rohmer’s six early “moral tales,” they all involve upper-to-middle class French men and women working through matters of the heart in costal and country settings. Both series are centrally concerned with questions of freedom, fidelity, faith and control; both are shot in roughly the same simple, elegant visual language, bathed in soft, dappled natural light; both make recurring (sometimes interchangeable) use of the same handful of narrative set-ups, many of which involve conditions—absent partners, overlapping vacations, weather troubles—ideally suited to spontaneous romantic encounters; and both are constructed so that those encounters are at once catalyzed and endlessly delayed by talk.
By the time he made the seasonal tales, however, Rohmer was in his seventies. For all his willingness to re-use the same methods and devices, he was a markedly different filmmaker; or rather, his tales had started to engage with moral or ethical questions in a different way. Rohmer’s earlier films were never simply illustrations of moral lessons—it is, one suspects, this sort of thing that he hoped to ironically suggest when he gave the moral tales their collective name—and yet they do, in a sense, take moral positions, if only by aligning the viewer decisively with the sympathies of certain characters as opposed to others. The men in My Night at Maud’s, La Collectioneuse, and Love in the Afternoon are always being educated or taught lessons by the women, whether they know it or not—and it is these lessons, rather than the halfhearted justifications the men make to themselves, that determine the movie’s moral orientation.
A Tale of Springtime
The seasonal tales show Rohmer’s moral thinking at a still more nuanced and sophisticated stage. Here, it’s rarely easy to commit oneself fully to the moral position of any one character to the exclusion of the others. Instead, the film becomes a space in which philosophical questions can be explored and tested out, a closed arena in which characters have the chance to trace out the implications of their positions under carefully controlled circumstances. The outcomes of these experiments are never pre-ordained; part of the thrill of watching the seasonal tales is wondering how, and to what extent, each character will find their positions vindicated in the end.
What makes these philosophical experiments feel so excitingly open in their outcomes and their trajectories is that they are being performed—or rather, improvised on the fly—by people who don’t always know what they’re doing. The seasonal tales are populated by a mixture of dreamers and realists, eggheads and sensualists, innocents and canny manipulators, but all the characters in the series are vulnerable in different degrees to the seductions and cajoleries of nature, commerce, money, pleasure, rest, work, sex, and—especially—one another. In contrast to the moral tales, three of the four films have female protagonists. The heroine of A Tale of Winter is faced with the same choice as many of Rohmer’s men—three eligible romantic partners, two imperfect and nearby, one idealized and far away—but responds to the challenge with a degree of willpower and decisiveness that few of the director’s male protagonists can ever muster up. In A Tale of Springtime, a young philosophy teacher with another absent boyfriend moves temporarily in with an even younger female conservatory student—and takes control magnificently when the girl tries to set her new roommate up with her father. A Tale of Autumn, which concerns the attempts of a happily married middle-aged woman to net a man for her winemaker friend, is the closest the series comes to the tone of Shakespearean comedy: its cruel deceptions; its precarious balance of levity and weight; its deep anxiety over the contingency of happiness and love.
A Summer’s Tale initially seems like the odd installment out. Like its protagonist—the only male hero in the series—it lolls along lazily and indecisively, indulging in lengthy life-story conversations and stealing moments of pleasure from, among other things, the ebb and flow of a sea shanty, the weather of Brittany, and the faces and bodies of its three female leads. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is an aspiring young musician who winds up—it’s not entirely clear how—bumming around post-graduation in a friend’s home on France’s Northwestern coast at the peak of the summer vacation. He comes off initially as surly and antisocial; the company he likes best is, it seems, that of his acoustic guitar. He is waiting for his on-and-off girlfriend Léna (Aurélia Nolin) to arrive, but his heart—despite his own protestations, to himself and others—isn’t in it. He seems more intrigued by two girls he meets during the wait: Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), whose powerful sexual presence and rigid sense of propriety both intimidates and attracts him, and Margot (Amanda Langlet), an ethnologist with whom he strikes up a fast friendship.
A Summer's Tale
Rohmer is brilliant at capturing the peculiar nature of platonic straight-guy-straight-girl friendships, with their occasional crosscurrents of unspoken desire and their potential, however unrealized, to transform into courtships or love affairs. In Gaspard and Margot’s case, the fault lines lie in his evident attraction to her, the gap between her social ease and his hermitlike social discomfort, their mutual need for acknowledgment and her desire to be trusted with more than he is willing to give her. The pair’s interactions nearly always take the form of rambling, mobile conversations, but the tensions between them—and their methods of resolving those tensions—emerge most clearly in the way they glance back at each other simultaneously after waving goodbye for the day, the way she casually, good-naturedly rebuffs him after he first kisses her, or the way, near the end of the film, they sit together in the woods stroking each other’s arms and shoulders at once absentmindedly and imploringly, having succeeded in channeling their sexual tension into a deeper, more comfortable kind of intimacy. “It’s easier to be yourself with a friend than with a lover,” she tells him then. “You don’t have to pretend.” Her behavior throughout the scene, all glinting eyes and self-assured poise, manages to be both a confirmation of this point and a virtuosic, carefully modulated social performance.
Solène, like Margot, selects Gaspard as a potential companion and pursues him in spite—or possibly because of—his failure to commit. For him, she is the more carnal counterpart to the flinty, fickle Léna: more comfortable with her own sexuality, surer of her desires and more direct in their expression. (Likewise, with her windswept dark hair, pouting lips and full figure, she makes a striking physical contrast with Léna’s more straight-laced brand of slim, blonde beauty.) In one of the movie’s most prolonged romantic teases, she invites Gaspard to spend an afternoon and evening at sea by her easygoing uncle’s place, then, when she seems about to go to bed with him, tells him that she never sleeps with men she’s just met. The emergence of her “principles” unsettles him, in part by uniting her with the two women he associates with the limits and codes of, respectively, friendship (Margot) and chivalry (Léna). Eventually, he over-commits himself to each of the three. Like the heroes of the moral tales, he is brought to the brink of making a decisive choice; unlike most of them, he is “saved” by being given a sudden, unexpected out.
The waterside summer setting, the chronically passive man, the conspiratorial friend, the lusty, forward brunette, the chilly, distant blonde: so far, so Claire’s Knee. But unlike that film, A Summer’s Tale rarely concerns itself with judging its hero or exposing his self-delusions. Instead, the primary issue at stake here is the same problem that runs through all the seasonal tales: the characters’ struggle to preserve their autonomy, or at least their idea of their autonomy, despite the fact that their lives appear to be governed by circumstances outside of their control. Rohmer has always structured his narratives around chance occurrences and accidental run-ins, but it’s in the seasonal tales that this principle becomes a real and present problem for the movies’ characters. Jeanne happens to meet Natacha at a party early in A Tale of Springtime, happens to find herself alone with the girl’s father much later after a series of improbable coincidences force two other major characters out of the picture, and redeems herself after falling out with Natacha by means of a miraculous chance discovery. Chance, in effect, makes a problem for her and then solves it, just as it does—even more dramatically—to Félicie in A Tale of Winter, and, in the end, to Gaspard in A Summer’s Tale. (By contrast, Isabelle and Rosine in A Tale of Autumn make scrupulous efforts to place the other film’s characters into circumstances over which the two of them have total control. Whether or not they succeed is one of the movie’s many open questions.)
A Summer's Tale
The first two seasonal tales seem to end happily. The twist that comes in the last minutes of A Summer’s Tale is slightly more ambiguous; its status as a happy ending depends on how much you are willing to dignify Gaspard’s inability to choose between the three women competing for his affections. But the fact that all three films end on miraculous, unprompted reversals should, I think, be a cause for some concern, in the same way that the readiness of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to change their affections at the turn of a dime should be a cause for concern. Gaspard is happy enough to have sheer chance do his work for him, but it’s not at all clear that he ought to be satisfied with the results. The way the camera watches Margot walk away in the movie’s final moments has a similar effect to the way it lingers on Jeanne’s apartment—with its associations of both domestic happiness and imprisonment—at the end of A Tale of Springtime, or the way it sticks with a group of previously unglimpsed schoolkids, all of them oblivious to the miracle that we have just witnessed, in the closing bars of A Tale of Winter, as if to say: can chance be trusted to work things out for the better, let alone the best? And if not, what is there for us to do about it?
The deeper ambiguity of the seasonal tales, however, is that this riddle somehow finds its expression in a series of films that—in the sensuousness of their textures, the worldly, practical slant of their language and the causal, offhand grace of their movements—seem in many respects to share the horreur de l’ambiguïté expressed by that philosophy teacher early in A Tale of Autumn. The toughest, softest, sexiest and most concrete film of the four, A Summer’s Tale could be said to operate in the series as the “solid part” in contrast to A Tale of Winter’s blurring of the boundaries between life and dream. If its lacks its predecessor’s subtlety and depth, it compensates with its own abundance of more immediate pleasures. It’s perhaps the series’ final ambiguity that, in the final assessment, one part is no deeper than the other.