Conte d’été (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) arrives at a seaside resort with the hope that his sort-of girlfriend, Lena (Aurelia Nolin), will show up and they can spend some time together. Days go by and Gaspard explores the area, visiting the shore, cafes, and restaurants without really interacting with anyone. We learn simply through a series of short scenes that he is comfortable with solitude. Such is the magic of “Conte d’été,” also known as “A Summer’s Tale.” It shows rather than tells and so we are invited to look closer at a scene.
Writer-director Eric Rohmer executes the picture with gentle power. On the surface, the acting and the script come off naturalistic but underneath is a machinery that builds toward unexpected encounters and outcomes. Some may reduce the film as a “summer fling” story. It is more than that. It is about chances and choices. A recurring theme involves opportunity being evanescent. The ending feels right because the main character is finally able to make a choice and he has a good reason to make that choice.
Gaspard meets two women during his vacation. First is Margot (Amanda Langet), a waitress with a doctorate in ethnology. Gaspard and Margot are interesting together because their relationship is constantly evolving. Their conversations are never about one thing. They are allowed to touch, clash, relate, and lament. Initially, there is a spark of romance. And yet the more they speak with one another, we consider that perhaps they might be better off as friends. We hope that they can be both. But the movie is about making one choice.
Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon) is, arguably, the most beautiful physically. The camera loves Simon’s face and the lines of her body. We recognize right away why Gaspard would be attracted to her. Like with Margot, at first it feels like a potential romance is on the horizon. But the more they get to know each other, we get the feeling that they might be better off as music collaborators. Gaspard is passionate about songwriting while Solene has a talent for singing. They are a perfect fit under these circumstances.
The third woman introduced is almost like an afterthought. Lena is easily the least likable of the trio and I think it is meant to be that way. I wished, however, that the script had given her qualities that the two lack because when Gaspard says that he feels she is the right choice for him, a big question mark appeared on my face. I scoured for a hint of sarcasm but there is none. The material should have given us a good reason why she is saved for last. Perhaps an instantly recognizable quality about her that convinces us why Gaspard insists on waiting for her.
Poupaud commands a presence. His presence is not dominant as one might expect from a leading man. It is mysterious. He plays his character in such a way that we can imagine a younger Gaspard not having very many friends, who likes to read rather than go out, one who values his privacy. Adult Gaspard wants to let people in but at the same time he has readily set up defenses just in case he gets hurt. We wish for him to make the right choice. The challenge is dissecting which choice is right for himself versus what seems right to us, as observers and viewers who hope to see a certain outcome.