Movie review

Breezy, seductive story unfolds in 'A Summer's Tale'

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“Men are so false,” says one of the three beautiful females invested in the beautiful male protagonist. “They only ditch a girl once the next one is lined up.”

Yeah, well ... Painful experience teaches us that it works both ways — in life and in Eric Rohmer’s deliciously seductive “A Summer’s Tale,” opening today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

French New Wave master Rohmer, co-founder of the Cahiers du Cinema with Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, died four years ago at age 90. He is best loved (by me) for “Claire’s Knee” (1971), a whimsical morality tale about a man obsessed with a girl — more precisely, the knee of a girl — he doesn’t even really like.

'A Summer's Tale' movie trailer

A shy maths graduate takes a holiday in Dinard before starting his first job. He hopes his sort-of girlfriend will join him, but soon strikes up a friendship with another girl working in town.

“A Summer’s Tale,” made in 1996, was never widely distributed in the U.S. This is essentially its first American release and our first real chance to see it. Here, as in “Claire’s Knee” and everywhere else in his six-decade career, Mr. Rohmer thinks and directs like one of the self-absorbed 20-somethings who populate his stories.

The hero of this one arrives with his guitar and Byronic curls at a seaside village on the Brittany coast for a summer holiday before starting his first job as a math teacher. Shy, cautious and diffident, he’s looking to meet his sort-of girlfriend Lena, who promised to join him there. But she’s late — by days that turn into weeks.

In the interim, he is befriended by waitress Margot (Amanda Langlet) at the Creperie du Clair de Lune, and they spend much time together discussing his feelings toward Lena. Margot is just waitressing for some summer cash. She’s a trained ethnologist by education. The boy (Melvil Poupaud) is a mathematician by trade but a musician at heart. He hates groups. She loves and studies them. They are wholly disinterested in each other’s vocations until an unlikely intersection: the old “sea shanty” sailor songs of Bretagne. He is composing one for Lena.

'A Summer’s Tale'

Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Gwenaelle Simon, Amanda Langlet.

Rating: PG-13 in nature for mature love themes and subtitles.

There’s not a word of dialogue until the film’s seven-minute mark. We don’t even learn our hero’s name until an hour into it. (It’s Gaspard.) But once the talking starts, it doesn’t stop. He seems to want a girlfriend more theoretically than actually. In their friends-without-benefits relationship, Margot takes him to a nightclub, where he falls in lust with Solene (Gwenaelle Simon).

Suddenly Lena shows up, thus prompting a very tricky juggling act for Gaspard. “I can’t love a girl who doesn’t love me,” he says. “Since nobody loves me, I don’t love anybody either.”

Mr. Rohmer’s lovely summer-romance film is more — and less — than a menage-a-quatre love quadrangle. Eighteen years after the making, it remains fresh as a Brittany coast breeze, erotic rather than “sexy.” Well, OK, it’s both. But you’ve got to love the underwear, the beach volleyball, the natural if sexist sensuality (sans nudity or copulation), kinda like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Solene, for example, prides herself on “never sleeping with a guy the first time” — or, apparently, thereafter.

Gaspard, for his part, never quite knows what to do with his hands, or when to do it, but Mr. Poupaud is excellent in both the successful and unsuccessful attempts. Ms. Langlet as Margot is as good here as she was in Mr. Rohmer’s “Pauline at the Beach” (1983).

Mr. Rohmer’s terrific script, about monumentally self-absorbed but articulate young people, takes them and us in unexpected directions with languorous dialectic discourse. His great gift is to slowly intensify a fairly common romantic conflict situation to an uncommon conclusion. “A Summer’s Tale” is halfway between an idyll and an essay — an evocative love comedy-drama in the tradition of “My Night at Maud’s” (1969).

My great learned pal Leonard Maltin once characterized “Claire’s Knee” as full of “delicious relationships but too talky for some viewers,” and the same can be said of “A Summer’s Tale.” But those other viewers will relish the talk.

“You’re better at a distance than up close — like a good painting,” fickle Lena tells Gaspard, who is not exactly flattered. As for herself, she says: “Some days I’d love to be stupid and ugly. I only meet guys who wanna paw me ... I want one I can talk to.”

That’s Gaspard’s strong suit, along with his swimsuit. Margot tells him, “You’re like a tramp who wakes up a millionaire — you’ve gone from zero girls to three.”

Which one will he end up with? Go find out for yourself. Whichever one you pick in the course of the film, I guarantee you’ll be wrong.

In French with English subtitles.





Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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