Each summer I turn to Éric Rohmer’s 1996 film A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été), the third in his “Tales of the Four Seasons.” It concerns a young man named Gaspard who has come to Dinard, in Brittany, to wait for his girlfriend Léna to return from a trip in southern Europe. While waiting, he meets Margot, a young ethnographer and waitress. The two strike up a friendship, taking long walks along the sea and talking, sometimes flirtatiously, about their lives. Margot introduces Gaspard to Solène who immediately beguiles him. There is a sailing excursion and some making out on her aunt and uncle’s couch, but Solène knows Gaspard’s situation and refuses to be a substitute for Léna. As Gaspard begins to commit to Solène, Léna appears (long overdue), running into him on the beach. At this juncture, Gaspard is faced with a choice between the three women: Margot (his only real friend), Solène (who loves him but will accept nothing short of full commitment) and Léna (the woman whom he says he loves). Gaspard has promised each of them a trip to Ouessant and must now decide.
The film is one of indecision and stagnation. As the situation becomes more complex, the characters, especially Gaspard, become paralyzed, unable to make any definite choices. Far from being a celebration of summer youth and vitality, the film dwells in disappointment and detachment. Rohmer captures more cloudy days with his camera than sunny ones, seizing on a truth of the season: sunlight and warmth are less common than sticky, grey dread.
A whistle lilts over the opening credits: it is Gaspard’s song, “La fille du corsaire,” which he spends most of the film composing — first for Léna and then for Solène. Gaspard uses music as way to escape, or at least relate to, this season of his life. The song is a kind of mock-sea shanty. Most notably, the bridge repeats a jump from a third to a fifth note (the note of tension, begging to be resolved) an almost comical number of times before careening into a major key chorus. The song is erratic, and not really a sea shanty in any authentic sense. The accordionist who accompanies a lively singing of the song on a sailing excursion Gaspard takes with Solène points out as much. He laughs because the song takes off in a direction that his accordion cannot follow.
Gaspard spends a great deal of time alone in his room recording and composing the song. And in a way, the creation — methodical, constructive movement from a simple melody to a fully formed song with lyrics, chords, and sections — serves to contrast with the undeliberate and seemingly detached way that Gaspard lives his life, saying “I prefer to let luck guide me.”
It is precisely by this sort of luck that Gaspard is able to extricate himself from his predicament. In the penultimate scene, Gaspard is in his room, playing his guitar, when he receives a series of phone calls. The first is from Léna, who is remorseful over their recent, volatile parting and prepared to go to Ouessant with him the following day (the same day Gaspard has agreed to go with Solène). She also makes plans for dinner that night. After hanging up, Gaspard receives another call, this one from Solène. She invites him to a party that evening. After this call, Gaspard paces, looks himself in the mirror and then picks up the phone to dial Margot. But she is busy at the crêperie. He asks the voice on the phone if Margot could call him as soon as she can. Gaspard sucks his teeth and bites his nails as he paces. When the phone rings again, he races toward it. Instead of Margot, there is a man on the line. He informs Gaspard of some recording equipment being sold at a reasonable price. The catch is that Gaspard must leave immediately in order to pick it up the following day. After a moments hesitation, Gaspard rubs his lip, and it dawns on him that this is the solution. He tells the man he will see him the following day. When Margot calls, Gaspard is ecstatic. He asks her to meet him at the pier because he is leaving on the 5 o’clock ferry.
Rohmer’s films are usually of the walking-and-talking variety, and Conte d’été is no exception. Margot and Gaspard spend the first third of the film strolling along beaches, cliffs, and up hills. During their conversations, they try to be honest with each other. Being relative strangers, they have nothing to lose, and so the conversations allow the audience to map the perspectives each character has of themselves. Reflecting Rohmer’s style of thorough planning (he famously planted a rose a year before filming Claire’s Knee, mapping precisely when it would be in bloom, and filming on that day), the language of the conversations is careful, meticulous and revealing. Far from feeling contrived, the dialogue sounds natural coming from the mouths of its performers. Gaspard’s sulkiness and self-seriousness reveal themselves precisely at moments when he is denying them. When he says “I’m hard to pigeonhole” in conversation with Margot, it is then that viewers know that to be true: he is the sort of young man who likes to think himself enigmatic (filming in 1.33:1, Rohmer slyly puts Gaspard in a box anyway). He affects an air of detachment even as he and Margot warm to each other. The façade slips when he leans in to kiss Margot in a display of sensual affection. She allows him a small peck, but then pulls away, declaring the kiss merely a symbol of their friendship. Gaspard claims that he knew as much, and agrees about its implications. The look on his face, the way he chases her down the slope for one last kiss on the neck — these moments inform viewers where Gaspard’s mind is, even as his words work to reconstruct his detachment.
Early in the film, Gaspard accompanies Margot to an interview with an old sailor. She asks him about working in Newfoundland and about the songs sailors would sing. The old sailor differentiates between two types of shanties: one for storytelling and one that sets the rhythm of the work. He sings a shanty about a captain, nick-named “Lug-Leg,” who moans about his limp. The song warns Lug-Leg that if he does not stop whining and join the crew in their work he will “soon . . . be on [his] own.” The tale of Lug-Leg foreshadows Gaspard’s ending: floating away on a ferry, made alone by his own indecision. Gaspard seems willing to do the work it takes to make music, his art, but far from setting the rhythm to the work of life — the works of love and friendship — it proves a means of distraction, of copping out when circumstances call for decision-making (for chipping in with the crew). Gaspard allows time to expand and contract around his life without taking an active role. He assumes that things will work out and, in doing so, he proves himself lacking as both lover and friend. His excuse being that life simply worked out this way… nothing to be done about it.
When Gaspard begins to move toward Solène, hedging his bets, Margot confronts him. She risks their (increasingly mutual) infatuation by calling out his cowardliness. Gaspard defends himself by saying he did not intentionally invite the two women, but that it just happened that way. Margot’s eyebrows lift, then her eyes narrow, both at the sun and at Gaspard’s audacity (here, and all throughout the film, it is clear that Amanda Langlet’s filmography is tragically sparse). She reminds him that he invited three women. Caught, Gaspard resorts to the only play left to him, claiming that was just a joke. But Margot pins him to the wall with her eyes: “friendship is a joke, but flings are serious?” Knowing she has won, she allows Gaspard to wiggle out of the uncomfortable encounter. She apologizes, and they remain friends.
The relationships Gaspard has with Margot, Solène and Lena are ones that run the spectrum of friendship, infatuation and love. Defining these relationships is the work that Gaspard refuses to do. He flirts with Margot, kisses her even, but pretends to consider her only a friend. With Solène, he waffles constantly, desiring her physical attentions, but refusing any kind of commitment. He pines for Léna, ignoring the likelihood that she has moved on as an excuse not to commit to Margot or Solène. Rohmer’s compositions move, as the film is shot casually in an almost documentary style, but prove more static than dynamic. The horizon line is often in distant view, drawing lines between characters as they walk and converse in shots that can go on for minutes without breaking (though one hardly notices as Rohmer is not prone to exhibitionism). These still, yet moving, compositions reflect the paradox of time and the season. Dates tick by on title cards, but Gaspard remains firmly stuck — unmoving.
Because Gaspard refuses to define his relationships, others must do it for him. On the last full day that Margot and Gaspard spend together, they hike up into the woods. The blue and grey horizon line is obscured by the twisted browns and greens of the forest. Margot wears a brilliant magenta dress, but Gaspard is adorned all in black. As he sulks and groans about his insecurities with both Léna and Solène, Margot lively moves from challenging him to indulging him as a co-conspirator. They sit on the grass apart and Gaspard makes his confession: “I am only myself with you.” Margot parses his contradictions and affectations, but affirms that she too is herself around him, saying “it is easier to be yourself with a friend than a lover. You don’t have to pretend.” This precipitates a movement toward each other. Margot leans on Gaspard. They cast eyes up and down, meeting then turning away.
During this last meeting, resting against Gaspard, Margot fantasizes about a time (“later, when everything has fallen through”) when they could be together in Ouessant (“in winter, the best season”). As the words leave her mouth, their eyes meet again and they kiss. This time it is more than a symbol, for Margot laughs, knowing she has played her part now in the farce which Gaspard has gotten himself into. “Three girls at once. Isn’t that a bit much?”
The film identifies the dark heart of summer, the humid stagnation and sense of dread that is the season’s essence. It expresses the paralyzing fear that, in a period when so much can be accomplished, so much can also be undone. Contrary to the season’s associations with freedom, for the characters in the film, movement and growth are mirages. For Gaspard and Margot, it is too late. At the pier, as Gaspard is leaving, he makes another vague promise of Ouessant to Margot. She lets him down easy: her boyfriend is returning from across the globe and so Gaspard must leave alone. Even at the end, Gaspard insists to Margot that he is not indecisive, that his choice is music. But Margot, like all true friends, sees through Gaspard. Like Solène, she knows that “friendship is serious… even more so than love.” She knows that he will not give what she has already given. She knows that Gaspard will not do the work, or set the rhythm. She knows that summer is not quite over. And so, she watches him float off, into August.
Ian Maxton (@attheimax) is a freelance writer and poet living in the Midwest. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and an obsession with film. Along with Vague Visages, you can find his work at Deja.Revue and Confluence Literary Journal.