Gaspard is a quiet, solitary youth vacationing in Dinard, Brittany in July for two weeks. He spends his time alone, writing and playing music, until he meets Margot, a local waitress. He is on holiday until August when he starts a new job in Nantes; she is waiting for her boyfriend in the Peace Corps, having gone through one boyfriend when she was travelling in Vietnam and Malaysia. They become friends, and Gaspard opens up to her about his romantic predicament with the unpredictable and snooty Léna. While in Dinard, Gaspard becomes entangled with sultry singer Solène just as Léna arrives on the scene.
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Written and directed by Eric Rohmer as the third part of his “Four Seasons,” A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été in French) captures the laziness and ease of a youthful summer while at the same time testing out notions of solitude versus loneliness, availability versus principles, and friendship versus courtship. It also makes the Breton coast into a character in its own right. It moves slowly, but the characters make it worth your while.
The film is structured into different chapters by marking each day that goes by. Beginning in the middle of July it proceeds to early August, and the first day (18 July) is shown entirely without dialogue. It follows Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) in his intriguing and solitary journey from the ferry to Dinard on the Breton coast, where he shacks up alone in a friend’s house and practices on his well-worn guitar. The next few days are quiet ones, as he visits the beach, people-watches, and in general keeps to himself. Finally at the Moonlight Crepe House (Crêperie de la Lune), waitress Margot (Amanda Langlet) gets him to speak. Later when they meet on the beach she initiates conversation and after initial reluctance, they meet every day for walks. “Are you waiting for someone?” she asks, receiving a noncommittal answer.
Margot is not just a waitress. She studied ethnology and then travelled in Vietnam and Malaysia. She had a three-year love affair that fizzled out, but brought her back to Brittany, where she wrote ethnological accounts and became interested in the folklore. She started working at her aunt’s restaurant and waits for her current archaeologist boyfriend to return from Polynesia, “like a sailor’s wife.” Likewise, Gaspard is not just a moping boy of mystery. He is about to start a math-related job in Nantes but his passion lies in composing and playing. Margot encourages him to come with her to meet an old Newfoundland sailor to hear his sea shanties, and Gaspard finally agrees. He picks up a melody while there and starts composing.
After Margot, Gaspard, and some friends go dancing in a club one night, Margot worms the truth out of Gaspard: he is waiting in Dinard to meet the elusive Léna, who he would like to be his girlfriend but isn’t quite. With her on-again, off-again attitude, Gaspard is sure she isn’t in love with him, but he finds her to be his “ideal woman.” Margot notes that a girl at the club who she knows, Solène, was interested in him, and Gaspard retreats into shyness. “I feel everyone’s alive around but me.” Margot flirts but insists “it’s purely symbolic.”
When Gaspard and Solène run into each other, she invites him to St Malo and her uncle’s boat, even though she confesses she’s just dumped two boys. On her uncle’s boat, Gaspard debuts his sea shanty, which Solène sings. When Gaspard tries to make a move on her that night, she insists she has principles. After this they begin to date, though Gaspard is baffled when Margot rages at him for his behavior. Double-dealing with Solène and waiting for Léna while running back to Margot for friendship causes her to declare, “I’m a substitute for a substitute!” They part on bad terms. Who should next turn up next on the beach but Léna.
Gaspard spends an idyllic day with his pseudo-girlfriend without mentioning Solène or Margot, and it looks like the relationship will finally be formalized. She wants him to take her on a trip to a nearby island, but he has already promised to take Solène there. Who will he choose? Solène, Léna—or Margot? “How can I tell her [how I feel] if I don’t know myself?” A surprise phone call in the end decides for him.
Though it would first appear that A Summer’s Tale is slow-moving, it actually touches on many things without lingering there long enough for the viewer to even be aware of the possibility of interpretation. Both Gaspard’s and Margot’s backgrounds take them from mere types to full-blooded characters. Margot’s whimsical humor and ethnological background differentiate her from the other two women—she is confident, winning, effortlessly sexy and yet there is always the hint of something different about her, illustrated by the costume designer by the fact she wears Vietnamese tops. Solène is more than she seems, as well, and mercurial Léna is as fragile as a doll and as changeable as the moon.
Gaspard’s character is unconventional and fascinating, despite his being, as Margot puts it, a “basically decent guy who is sometimes sly.” He avoids groups, and the first few scenes of him roaming Dinard in painful solitude contrast with his later notions of aloneness. His “uncool” interest in sea shanties prove that, as he later says, “my music comes first.” Like a real person, he is difficult to interpret, pin down, predict. That may be the point of the film—even in something as prosaic as a teenage love triangle (square?) human beings are impossibly complex.
Brittany, too, is a character in the film. Unlike many films, which would use such stunning and dramatic scenery to embellish and dramatize, A Summer’s Tale treats it with familiarity, as if the viewer is as at home in the settings as are the characters in the film. It’s truly effective, capturing both the natural beauty of the coastline and the character of the many Breton locations in their human domain. A comparative few scenes are recorded indoors, and the long sequence on Solène’s uncle’s boat is naturalistic rather than stage-y.
A few things date this film—if cell phones had been in wide use Léna’s inability to get in touch with Gaspard would have been difficult to explain—but overall it has a timelessness, as if it could have happened to any teenagers at any time.
A Summers Tale