Maths graduate and aspiring musician Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) spends his summer holiday in the Brittany coastal town of Dinard, waiting in vain to meet up with his on-off girlfriend. Between wandering the beach forlornly and composing tunes on his guitar, Gaspard strikes up a friendship with Margot (Amanda Langlet), an amiable student working a part-time job as a waitress at a local cafe. She becomes his confidante in a relationship that teeters on the edge of romance yet remains steadfastly platonic. Gaspard also attracts the eye of Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), an alluring young woman who seems like an ideal match. He reluctantly agrees to go on holiday with her but is still fixated with his dream girl, Lena (Aurelia Nolin). Just when things seem like they could not get any more complicated for Gaspard, Lena finally arrives in town.
Oh no, you're in love with three different women. Oh no, they're all gorgeous. As dilemmas go this might not seem like one to evoke all that much sympathy but in the skilled hands of veteran French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer A Summer's Tale proves a beguilingly nuanced study of the complexities of the human heart. Much as Rohmer did in the Sixties and Seventies with his Six Moral Tales – including the classics My Night at Maud's (1969) and Claire's Knee (1970) – and in the Eighties with the Comedies and Proverbs, notably the widely-praised Pauline at the Beach (1983), the Nineties saw him embark on a series of thematically-linked films exploring various romantic, moral and philosophical dilemmas. In this instance the Tales of the Four Seasons with A Summer's Tale sandwiched between A Tale of Springtime (1990), A Tale of Winter (1992) and Autumn Tale (1998). The young-guy-strings-along-three-different-girls plot has been a staple of movies and sit-coms for decades. Yet here Rohmer adapts this trite conceit into a subtle rumination on how people change before our eyes, our perception affected by context or circumstance and how the love that endures these changes is true.
Perhaps because the cast are younger and more ebullient than previous protagonists Rohmer takes a more indulgent view of their romantic foibles. In lesser hands Gaspard could come across as merely feckless yet as a result of Rohmer's sensitive direction coupled with the sweet-natured performance delivered by Melvil Poupaud we come to perceive him as genuinely conflicted and vulnerable. His fatal indecisiveness, faint cynicism and self-pity prove forgivable flaws, perhaps all too symptomatic of young men his age. The twenty-something malaise is a theme often derided by the older generation yet here Rohmer draws a parallel between Gaspard's indecisiveness when it comes to romance and his ongoing dilemma over which road to pursue in life, either mathematics or music. A Summer's Tale also touches on the idea of music providing a tangible and inspirational connection to our cultural heritage with a charming sub-plot wherein research into old sea chanties proves a shared voyage of discovery for Gaspard and Margot.
Although Rohmer sympathizes with Gaspard's romantic conflict he winningly ensures each of the young women in his life emerge as much more than clichéd rom-com love interests. Margot and Solene are especially beguiling, complex, vivacious and forthright characters with their own intriguing personal histories. Each proves more than capable of calling Gaspard out on his inability to make up his mind. Equally although Lena comes across as flighty and passive-aggressive she emerges as multifaceted as the other women in his life, arguably justified to a degree in her treatment of men. Nevertheless seeing Gaspard emotionally eviscerated by his dream girl provokes considerable sympathy even though, as Margot winningly points out towards the end, he really only has himself to blame. Fittingly for a story set in the summertime the film exudes the warmth of human kindness finding room in its big heart to forgive the mistakes made by young people the world over in pursuit of love.
One of the directors of the French New Wave, Eric Rohmer, like his contemporaries, started his film career as a critic at the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and after a few shorts made his first feature with Le signe du lion. My Night at Maud's was his first international hit, long after the other New Wave directors had made their initial impact, and set out his style as that of the "talk piece" where his characters, often young and middle class, conversed at great length in a way that exposed various truths about life as Rohmer saw them. His works were often grouped into cycles, and included Claire's Knee, Pauline at the Beach, Le Rayon Vert and his last, made when he was in his late eighties, The Romance of Astree and Celadon.