Discovering that there’s a 1996 movie by Eric Rohmer, the French genius behind classics like “My Night at Maud’s” and “Claire’s Knee,” that’s only now making it into U.S. theaters is like finding a $20 bill in an old pair of pants.
Actually, it’s more like a $50 bill, since the movie in question is “A Summer’s Tale,” a sprightly entry in his “Tales of the Four Seasons,” about a moody mathematician who claims to be inept with women but still winds up with a trio of jeunes filles orbiting around him by the end of his seaside vacation.
Make that a $50 bill and an old photo of a good friend: Melvil Poupaud, the film’s leading man, has gone on to star in films for François Ozon, Zoe Cassavetes, Arnaud Desplechin, and Xavier Dolan, among others, and it’s a treat to see this stalwart of French cinema in his fuzzy-haired, mid-20s glory.
In “A Summer’s Tale” (the new HD restoration opens June 20 in New York City and July 18 in Los Angeles), Poupaud stars as Gaspard, a young graduate who’s spending a few weeks at the beach before starting a new job. He’s hoping that his “sort-of” girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) will show up, but she’s been deliberately vague about her plans. Gaspard meets waitress Margot (Amanda Langlet, who played the title role in Rohmer’s summer fling “Pauline at the Beach”), but it turns out she’s got a Ph.D. in ethnology and is just making a little money during tourist season.
Margot and Gaspard clearly have chemistry, and they even kiss, but she swears fidelity to her boyfriend, currently working for the Peace Corps on the other side of the planet. Instead, the two go on long walks where Gaspard expounds on his romantic philosophy (“I have to be loved to be in love; since no one loves me, I don’t love anyone.”) and generally moons about regarding his bad luck with women.
The wise Margot rolls her eyes at this, since Gaspard is winning her over while also managing to humble-seduce the alluring Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), even singing the latter a sea shanty about a pirate queen that he’d actually been writing for Lena. Lena, of course, eventually shows up, living up to her mercurial reputation but also indicating that Gaspard isn’t the most honest and forthcoming person himself.
Rohmer has a rep for being a writer-director who allows his characters to talk, talk, talk, revealing their hopes and their insecurities and their foibles and their hypocrisies. It’s an earned description, but since Rohmer is one of the cinema’s greatest authors of dialogue, it’s hardly a bad thing; it’s also not entirely true, since the first 10 minutes or so of “A Summer’s Tale” is virtually wordless, with Gaspard arriving and wandering around a resort town where he knows no one until Margot engages him on the beach.
Poupaud’s been acting in film since the age of 10, but there’s nothing of the former-child-star in his performance. He and Langlet have an easy, natural rapport, and he crafts a character who proclaims self-doubt and misery at every turn while proving irresistible to the women he keeps saying he can never win. Our opinions about Gaspard certainly change over the course of the film, but we remain invested in him.
Cinematographer Diane Baratier, a frequent Rohmer collaborator, never shoots the seaside like she’s making a travelogue, but she nonetheless captures those clear days and gorgeous sunsets that make people return to the coast year after year. Even the interiors have that sun-through-faded-curtains intimacy of a well-used vacation house.
Smart, sexy, and sunny, “A Summer’s Tale” remains as delightful as it was when I saw it at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival. Whether it’s the closest you’ll get to the beach this year, or you have to tear yourself away from the dunes to enjoy it, it’s an essential part of any movie-lover’s summer.