Almost 18 years after its French release, this movie arrives on these shores with perfect timing. Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, the last in a four-film tribute to the seasons, offers great dessert after a summer buffet of films beginning with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, who, among American directors, resembles this New Wave auteur best. I’m not the first to notice this: Linklater loves to feature overwrought young people out walking and engaged in serial talk-athons — they’re sometimes profound, often dripping with youthful angst. Rohmer’s sun-drenched roundelay might be a sequel to Boyhood transposed to France.
As in most of Rohmer’s best films, nothing much happens here. The young guitar-wielding Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, gangly and awkward and handsome) arrives by ferry at the beach town of Dinard in Brittany. He tells people he’s waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, but what we see is a lot of self-conscious lingering on the margins of a so-called life. He makes friends with Margot (Amanda Langlet), who has a boyfriend; meets Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), who will only have him all or nothing; and, meanwhile, is sucker-played by the girl of his dreams. Soon he must choose, and soon the holiday will end. But the real action of the film lies in all the paths not taken. As Gaspard drifts, he confesses to Margot that he believes in life ruled by coincidence. Whether the audience believes him is another question.
Constructed in chapter-days much like a diary, the film seems neither flashy nor profound, yet the whole experience of it becomes haunting. Not enough artists know how to make the personal and specific turn into universal storytelling. A Summer’s Tale provides a slice of life without obvious artifice or arresting conclusion, but anybody who has ever drifted in the unresolved haze of youth will relate. It’s supposed to be the happiest time of our lives, a sunny distillation of freedom. What Rohmer knew and what Gaspard learns is that that dreams are always in the past, left behind in a little beach town forever.