Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Summer's Tale (Conte d'été)




Éric Rohmer meets with his cast on the seaside location of Dinard
 






A SUMMER’S TALE (Conte d'été)                 A               
from Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons
France  (113 mi)  1996  d:  Éric Rohmer

While this is not generally considered among the major works of Rohmer, the third of his Contes des quatre saisons (Tales of the Four Seasons, 1990–98), described as “mid-level Rohmer,” as generally his Contes moraux (Six Moral Tales, 1963–72) receive the highest praise, with An Autumn Tale (Conte D’Automne (1998) considered the best of the Four Seasons, one might argue, however, that the critics got it wrong.  Never released in the United States until now, as for some strange reason they were never able to negotiate acceptable distribution agreements, so despite being released in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1996, few outside of France have actually seen this film.  In fact, according to Box Office/Business from IMDb, only 175,000 customers in France saw the film the year it was released, so certainly the film is due for a reappraisal.  Rohmer was a literature teacher, novelist, magazine editor, and film critic, where he was ten years older than any of the other young film critics in the Cahiers du Cinéma group of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, all writers before subsequently becoming the founding filmmakers of the French New Wave, joining the staff in 1951 when Rohmer had already taught literature at school, published a novel Elizabeth (1946) under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier, and spent three years as a film critic with such prestigious journals as La Revue du Cinéma and Sartre's Les Temps modernes. 

Rohmer shot his first film JOURNAL D’UN SCÉLÉRAT (1950) the same year he founded Gazette du Cinema along with Godard and Rivette before joining André Bazin’s film journal at Cahiers, serving as editor-in-chief from 1956 to 1963, a group whose function was watching and writing about films screened by Henri Langlois and his Paris Cinémathèque.  Perhaps in contrast to the condescension shown to film criticism in America, which was often at odds with a culture that considered cinema a second rate form of entertainment, the French, and Europeans in general, wholeheartedly embraced their artists, putting it on the same level as their own intellectual and artistic pursuits, finding cinema a form of expression to be taken seriously.  Rohmer’s films may show more in common with the preceding generation of Renoir and Bresson (Introduction to Bresson) than the young guns of Cahiers, but by the end of his career, the director left behind the term Rohmer-esque to describe spare, dialogue-driven films about relationships between men and women, often presented as parts of a multi-episodic series, exploring the awkward romantic entanglements, emotional turmoil, and moral dilemmas that develop between characters who are often amusingly caught between two or more objects of desire.  Rohmer’s distinct style can be seen in the work of directors from Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas to Woody Allen and Richard Linklater.

In my mind at least, this is in the realm of best Rohmer film, rivaling even the classic My Night at Maud's (Ma Nuit Chez Maud) (1969) for that elevated territory.  The film makes the best use of locations of any Rohmer film since his first feature, The Sign of Leo (Le signe du lion) (1959), a bleak, black and white near documentary film where the city itself stands for the doomed protagonist’s deteriorating state of mind, where poverty is shown to have a debilitating effect, as the normally welcoming City of Lights turns into a nightmarish world of utter indifference.  In stark contrast, this couldn’t be a brighter, sunnier film, uniquely opening in a wordless ten-minute sequence as we watch the introverted Gaspard (a young Melvil Poupard is literally perfect for the part, as no Rohmer character is better suited as a stand-in for the director) arrive on the ferry boat and wander alone through the streets of Dinard, a picturesque Brittany seaside resort town.  While the setting is divine, overlooking a sandy beach filled with holiday revelers enjoying the ocean air, Gaspard sits in his room playing guitar, eats various street offerings or at local restaurants, but generally avoids contact with others.  He’s quickly recognized on the beach by a waitress that served him the day before, Margot, Amanda Langlet from PAULINE AT THE BEACH (1983), who cheerfully asks him to join her.  While she sees him as a lonesome puppy dog off his leash, shy, and in need of companionship, Gaspard avoids several social invitations, preferring instead to sit home and explore his music. 

Rohmer uses a day-by-day chapter heading like diary entries, showing the significance of time passing, as they grow fond of each other while developing trust, where they appear to be able to tell each other their innermost secrets, where Margot’s in love with a man who’s off in the South Seas working for the Peace Corps, while Gaspard’s sweetheart Lena may or may not be his girlfriend, as he’s not sure how much she likes him, but he came to Dinard hoping to run into her, but she hasn’t written or left her address, leaving him in a state of limbo.  Days pass as they go on long scenic hikes by the sea, also visiting nearby Saint Malo and Saint Lunaire, sensuously photographed by cinematographer Diane Baratier, where she’s as gregarious and open as he is guarded and reserved, showing more maturity and self-assured poise, reminding  him “It’s easier to be yourself with a friend than with a lover.  You don’t have to pretend.”  Her overall presence seems to anchor the film emotionally and provide needed stability, despite having a few changes of heart herself, but she objects to being used as the second or third option, the safe fallback position, the last choice after the others have been exhausted, where she’s viewed as the leftovers.  What sets this apart from other Rohmer films is the ease in which these actors play their parts, especially Poupard and Langlet, as the performances have never seemed so comfortable, without an ounce of the pretentiousness that seems to plague so many other characters throughout his work, as their awkwardness and fickle changeability completely suits the indecisiveness of youth.     

Stylistically this resembles the long tracking shots of extended conversations that develop while walking, thriving on the spontaneity of the moment in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).  This is one of the more spontaneous Rohmer films as well, where humor is much more prevalent.  With Margot having a sunny disposition and a PhD in ethnography, they develop a comfortable kind of platonic intimacy, where she reminds him “I’m comfortable with everyone.  It’s my training,” while Gaspard grows moody and deeper into self-loathing, becoming downright morose, pouting “Since no one loves me, I don’t love anyone,” claiming he hates groups, but enjoys people’s company one at a time.  This film borders on the brooding, existential territory of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur) (1971), showing how isolated and self-absorbed kids can be during the innocence of youth, where they’re still discovering who they are and what they believe in, not sure yet how they fit into society, yet ready impulsively to make that leap.  Margot invites him to come along when she meets an old Newfoundlander sailor (Aimé Lefèvre), a guy familiar with the Celtic history of Brittany who’s spent his life at sea, singing them a sea shanty where music, as it does in the Bresson film, seems to have an intoxicating effect, not only bringing these two characters closer but inspiring Gaspard to go home and write a similar song. 

At the urging of Margot, who senses Gaspard’s growing restlessness, she introduces him to a local friend Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a girl Gaspard previously avoided claiming she was not “his type,” whose beauty and confidence in herself both intimidates and enthralls him, changing gears in midstream, offering her all of his attention, going all-in so to speak, riding the wave of spontaneity.  He teaches her the love song he just wrote that expresses the fierce individualism of a pirate’s daughter embracing the spirit of an all-encompassing love as she sails the seas, giving her the song he actually wrote for Lena (who still hasn’t shown up yet), joining her family for an afternoon boat ride where they all sing together in unison accompanied by an accordion player, where this may be the centerpiece of the film, where art achieves an almost perfect harmony.  But just as the kissing begins and at the moment for them to consummate their newfound love, she introduces certain relationship principles, among which includes never sleeping with a guy on the first date.  Instead they make plans (as he did with Margot) to visit the scenic isle of Ouessant, which takes on an almost mythical quality in this film, thought of as a land where dreams come true.  In the course of a week, Gaspard promises to go to there with all three women, as out of the blue Lena (Aurélia Nolin) shows up, full of excuses, evasive when it comes to the idea of commitments, or even meeting at a designated time, just leaving him in the lurch, without a word, yet expecting his full and undivided attention afterwards. 

Lena is easily the most childish of the three, a blond who is also the most pampered and overprotected, where one day she loves you, the next day she avoids you, driving Gaspard a little crazy, who’s already completely indecisive about what to do.  While he’s most faithful to Margot, but sex is out of the question, or so he believes, yet he can’t say no to Solène, who literally forces him to choose her when she wants him, but falls upon her “principles” apparently to avoid sex.  Lena lives in a fantasy world where Gaspard can’t find a place, much as he’d love to, where she insists that he act in a certain way towards her, always at her beck and call, and if he can’t do that then he can only lead to disappointment.  Men as a social group are dumped on by these women, and rightly so, as Gaspar can’t commit to any of them, so he plays the field, hoping for the best outcome.  Rohmer, in his seventies when he made this film, brings together these fits of youthful indecision with remarkable clarity and humor, showing love to be a walking contradiction where the closer you get to it, the farther it is away, like a fickle mirage.  Expressing warmth toward all his characters, Rohmer has cleverly delivered one of his most delightfully charming films, where it doesn’t have that sense of melancholy that lingers over many of his other films, but instead features a rapturous view of youthful exuberance, disguised as it is in secrets and ulterior motives that are constantly evolving, yet like the musical theme, retains a sunny optimism for life that is positively enchanting. 

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