French new-wave writer-director Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) was known for making talky movies, so perhaps he was having a little fun with his reputation at the beginning of “A Summer’s Tale.” Recent college graduate Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) arrives at a Brittany beach town and has no significant conversations for two days.
This laconic introduction is also a playful contrast to what will happen to the unruly-haired Gaspard, a math major who’s more interested in playing the guitar. While awaiting the arrival of almost-girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin), he has no one to talk to. But soon he’ll be juggling the conversations — and expectations — of three women.
“A Summer’s Tale” was made in 1996 as part of Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons.” It’s arguably the best of the four films but was the only one not released commercially in the United States. The story has held up well, as its basic elements are timeless. The characters are believably young and mercurial, in the mood for love one day and in the opposite mode the next.
One aspect of the story, however, seems almost medieval: There are no cellphones. On vacation in Spain, Lena can’t contact Gaspard. Sometimes the young man makes plans based on sending or receiving — really! — a letter.
Gaspard is befriended by Margot, who has an ethnology Ph.D. but is working as a waitress in her aunt’s creperie. (Margot is played winningly by a grown-up Amanda Langlet, who was the teenage title character in “Pauline at the Beach,” one of Rohmer’s biggest U.S. successes.) Margot and Gaspard share, if nothing else, a reluctance to commit to the fields they studied in college.
Outgoing Margot leads introverted Gaspard on long walks along the picturesque shore and learns about the elusive Lena, whose failure to arrive becomes bewildering as the days pass. Margot has a boyfriend on the other side of the world, so the two are free to be just friends. Her manner is curiously flirtatious, though. Perhaps it’s to prove she’s not interested in Gaspard that she suggests he pursue someone else: her self-confident friend Solene (Gwenaelle Simon).
Then the near-forgotten Lena appears. And Gaspard realizes he’s promised to undertake the same island trip with three different potential lovers.
Like most of Rohmer’s movies, “A Summer’s Tale” is comic, humane and much more complicated than it seems at first. The fresh-faced actors, realistic dialogue and naturalistic performances suggest a casual approach, but as the story progresses, the filmmaker’s control is increasingly evident.
Rohmer navigates his hero to the edge of panic, only to offer him an escape that’s gently droll. This is a summer tale, after all, and a romance that seemed consuming in August can vanish on a September breeze.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ★ ½
G. At the Avalon Theatre. In French with subtitles. 114 minutes.