A Summer’s Tale

(Conte d’été, Éric Rohmer, France, 1996)


Some Kind of Liar

Of all the great Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, surely the hardest one to talk about is writer-director Éric Rohmer (1920-2010). He and his films are bundles of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies. We still tend to associate Rohmer with that famous, youthful French movement of the 1950s & ‘60s. It can be a little shocking to realise that those Young Turks of the New Wave indeed grew old – and Rohmer was the elder of the group, not far from André Bazin in age.

In Australian arthouse venues, it was sometimes difficult to get the proper measure of his evolution: between A Tale of Springtime (Conte de printemps, 1989) and A Summer’s Tale, for instance, we missed out on A Winter’s Tale (Conte d’hiver, 1992), The Tree, the Mayor and the Media Centre (L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque, 1993) and Rendez-vous in Paris (Les Rendez-vous de Paris, 1995). The delicate but hardly secret relation between his different ongoing projects thus became rather lost to us, at least until the handy DVD box sets came along.

The uncanny superimposition of seasoned maturity and youthful exuberance is fitting for Rohmer – and, in a sense, it has always been so. He was always the Wise Old Soul of the Nouvelle Vague. And, even more pointedly, a classicist. Although he could admire and celebrate the radical, sometimes anarchic experiments of Jean-Luc Godard, Isidore Isou or Michelangelo Antonioni, Rohmer’s own art found sustenance in older models. For him, as for no other director of his Parisian tribe, the well-crafted, delicately tuned nuances of character and theme, the precise evocation of a time (of day or night, as well as season) and place (city, region or province), the intricacies of small-scale, intimate, chamber plots – all this really meant something, already in 1959 for Le Signe du lion. They were arts to learn, master and refine.

There was something extraordinarily patient, subtle and gradually evolving in Rohmer’s work. Some sourpusses (we can always depend on them) find each Rohmer film exactly the same as those preceding and following it (ad infinitum). They are missing the depth that comes from the director’s steady development as an artist, his willingness to constantly distil and ever so subtly extend his chosen themes and moods. As his faithful producer, Margaret Ménégoz, remarked: “I think he is someone who digs, in his own field. I don’t know what his limits are, but he is based in this field”. (1)

One sign of Rohmer’s classical constancy is the way he planned his work on the basis of series. First there were the six Moral Tales which he started in the early 1960s and continued through the ‘70s, then the Comedies and Proverbs of the ‘80s, followed by the Tales of the Four Seasons that occupied the ‘90s, with various digressions and diversions dotted all along the way (such as the fascinating duo of period literary adaptations, Die Marquise von O ... [1976] and Perceval le Gallois [1978], and later the history-dramas of The Lady and the Duke [2001] and Triple Agent [2004] – not forgetting his final myth/fairy tale surprise, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon [2007]).

When it comes to the production of series, Rohmer has, in fact, far greater stamina than George Lucas. Naturally, these are two completely different scales of economy: Rohmer’s films are quite small-scale, modestly budgeted, made in an artisanal mode with tiny crews and on natural locations. That’s another part of his classical modesty, as well as his good production sense (tales of Rohmer “pocketing his budget”, or at least a portion of it, are legendary) – his completely sure sense of how material means and aesthetic ends can fit together.

Yet, for all this, who can deny that there is something still youthfully radical about Rohmer’s films? On the simplest level, young people are predominantly the subject and substance of his films, and he knows perfectly how to tap into their lives, their personal styles, their rhythms and energies. In fact, he even writes his dialogue on the basis of tape-recorded chats with his actors, so that he can capture their particular nuances of modern, young speech – and that level of detail is palpable in his work.

There’s an even deeper, more pervasive way in which Rohmer’s films seem the furthest thing from the work of an old man. His films have an air of daring, of freedom, a certain throwaway casualness. He often shot so quickly, so unfussily, that his films are like sketches or experiments. Le Rayon vert (1986), for instance, was, according to Ménégoz, just a rough try-out for a project, “an experiment in 16mm, more or less unsuccessful, with no written script” (2)– and it is, in the rough form in which he released it, one of the great masterpieces of the 1980s.

Rohmer’s films are light and lovely (in his comedies and tales, at least, death rarely makes an appearance) and, because of that, they are impertinent – cheeky and challenging precisely in their untimeliness, like Friedrich Nietzsche’s “untimely meditations”. Rohmer well understands the paradox whereby to be simple and uncluttered, to be classical at certain historical-cultural moments, can suddenly, surprisingly, make one seem like the most radical artist of all. In his critical writing, Rohmer has always been obsessed with this topic: the paradoxical status of cinema as a 20th century art form, classical and modern all at once.

He’s candid about this in relation to how he sees his own films as well. In 1983, he protested about the way contemporary cinema had gotten rid of plot and the psychological consistency of character: “I love to portray thinking people, people gifted with a psyche. I still believe that film founded on intrigue and characters is always modern – if not more modern than apsychological, dedramatised film. It’s the latter which in the ‘80s seems to be on its last legs”. (3)

Why should it be the case that Rohmer’s films are hard to talk about? The well-worn cliché is perfectly true: his films are deceptively simple. And there’s another, older cliché that we haven’t heard for a while, since the days of the old Hollywood masters, and this one is also true: Rohmer’s style is (more or less) invisible, a classical style, one that hides itself and disguises its mastery. Nothing seems simpler than the images and scenes of his films, in which people walk or sit, and just talk. It’s marvellous talk, but it may not seem to some viewers like marvelous cinema – at least not in that strenuous, hyper-visual, bombastic mode that people like to call ‘pure cinema’ nowadays (hence the tired old journalistic joke – originated by Arthur Penn’s Night Moves [1975] – that Rohmer’s films are like “watching paint dry”).

But pure cinema is many things, and has many essences. And Rohmer gives us, time and again, one of these essences. His way of filming conversation – his fine-grain skill in framing, staging and cutting, his sensitivity to direct-sound atmospheres, and above all his direction of actors – is a joy to behold and study.

Rohmer’s narrative style, the particular kinds of stories and intrigues he likes to tell – these, too, seem classical and simple. They are strictly linear, with no flashbacks. They have the air of being external and objective: no point-of-view shots, no subjective dreams, hallucinations or fantasies. But again the simplicity is deceptive. Rohmer’s stories are, at every level, full of fundamental mysteries and ambiguities. The lies, delusions and projections of characters abound – and sometimes, the fiction seems to inhabit them without entirely announcing the fact. Key events sometimes occur between scenes, or just off-screen; our only access to them comes through competing accounts, each with their own partial perspective and wily agenda.

The greatest mystery of all is usually the filmmaker’s own point of view towards what he is showing, particularly towards the central character in each film: is Rohmer approving or disapproving, is he being indulgent or ironic? (4)

If this is classicism, it is at the highest artistic point of subtlety and complexity. Inside the classical form of a Rohmer film, there’s a secretly baroque shape or substance. And also a modern or modernist type of relativity, an amusing and urbane game of deconstruction: we come to doubt everyone and everything we see, hear and read on screen, and most of all we doubt our own assumptions and perceptions as viewers. That’s the argument of the finest book to date on Rohmer, by the French critic-screenwriter-director Pascal Bonitzer. (5)

A Summer’s Tale must surely be the most sexually sophisticated film to ever earn a “suitable for children” rating in most territories. As ever, Rohmer devotes himself to what Bonitzer suggests is his key subject: the “perversity and ambiguity of feelings”. (6) A young man, Gaspard (the wonderful Melvil Poupaud, who grew up in front of the camera in many Raúl Ruiz films), has gone on a summer holiday. He expects to get together with his girlfriend Lena (Aurélia Nolin).

But, before Lena arrives, Gaspard almost reluctantly becomes acquainted with two other women. First there’s Margot (Amanda Langlet), who is an ambiguous and heartrending best-friend figure – because you’re always wondering whether there could be something more between them, and you’re trying to guess how much desire or yearning is at play there, especially in her.

And then there’s the brazenly forthright Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), a woman who knows what she wants. One of the great things about this film is that, although we see a great range of behaviours in the women of this film – everything from sulkiness, game-playing and hysteria to brutal honesty, pained disappointment and crushing heartache – we never want to judge them badly. They are full and real, like the teenage girl played by Élodie Bouchez in André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux sauvages, 1994) – and such depth is rare.

However, when it comes to Rohmer’s gaze on the male hero, there is definitely room for judgment. Gaspard is an extraordinary portrait of a modern man. I say this with the image in my mind of so many awful, politically correct, simplistic critiques of masculinity in movies of the ‘90s – for example, Australian films like Idiot Box (1997) and Blackrock (1997). I watch a certain kind of analysis of manhood on screen these days – depictions of swaggering, blocked, violent, macho or ocker guys – and I feel nothing, not a twinge of anything that is relevant to me; and I believe that is the reaction of many male viewers.

I predict, however, that the character-portrait of Gaspard is one which most thoughtful, urbane guys will find genuinely unnerving. Seeing this chap on screen is like seeing some dark secret shared among men finally leaked out for the whole world to see.

Gaspard spends the whole plot equivocating between his three women. Throughout most of it he is, on the surface and even in his heart, a charming, sweet sort of chap, not at all a villain. But he is also – and this is what Rohmer shows with an unerring gaze – evasive, cowardly and defensive. He appears to be living out the lines in Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire”: “I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar, too”.

Another thing that is classical, sturdy, even old-fashioned in Rohmer’s work, is his use of a specific, symbolic counterpoint. Often it’s a small spectacle or attraction that reflects in some way upon the narrative. This spectacle might be a story that someone tells, like the tale of the full moon offered by a stranger in a café in Full Moon in Paris (Les Nuits de la pleine lune, 1984). It could be a little scene that is bumped into or overheard, like the Jules Verne experts in Le Rayon vert who explain the principle of the green ray of sunlight that appears for a single instant on the horizon. Or it may be a motif or device running right throughout: like the theatre extracts in A Winter’s Tale, the street musicians singing in Rendez-vous in Paris, or the ruminations of the novelist observing the main action in Claire’s Knee (Le Genou de Claire, 1970).

We are accustomed to thinking of such counterpoint devices in fiction and film as primarily ironic in their function. And Rohmer is no stranger to irony – in fact, he is a past master of it. But such instances have a plaintive, even corny use in Rohmer’s cinema. They are where the director’s romantic side, his beating heart, registers. Yet, for all that, romanticism is often inseparable from a certain desperation in Rohmer’s cinema, an intimation of a dark abyss, particularly in his more sombre films. A Summer’s Tale is not as dark as Full Moon in Paris (his most overtly tragic film apart from the historical tales of political intrigue) – but it does accrue, by the end, a haunting, caustic, rather devastating emotional quality.

In A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer once again incorporates a musical idea as counterpoint. He casts Gaspard as an aspiring musician, and we follow in painstaking detail the birth and subsequent course of a song (“La fille du corsaire”) that he writes. It’s in the style of a lilting folk tune, and through it, in different ways, in different situations, he relates to the three different women he encounters. (Rohmer carefully, and again ironically, compares Gaspard’s somewhat amateurish song-in-progress with Hugues Aufray’s “Santiano”, heard over the final credits, which offers the heroic-romantic inversion of Gaspard’s games.) The structure is reminiscent of a more explicitly dramatised scene in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), in which Keith Carradine sings the vagabondish love song “I’m Easy” to three different women sitting in the same café audience – each one of these women believing that the song is meant just for them.

In Gaspard’s song, there are references that seem to allude to the characters in his real-life story – and there’s a chilling and marvelous moment when he almost comes undone, when it seems that one of the women has twigged to his errant game.

Gaspard’s musical effort is a typical ode to the mythic figure of the male wanderer. And he is, in his motionless way, just such a wanderer – an emotional vagabond. There’s something suspiciously shifty and deceptive in the way he uses this tune to lightly seduce and string along his women – although if one were able to ask Gaspard directly about it or accuse him of anything so specific, he would be able to withdraw defensively and straight-facedly respond: “Well, it’s just a song, and I’m simply singing it”.

And that’s one key to men’s secret business, nailed right there.

MORE Rohmer: Autumn Tale


1. Sheila Steeples & Allen Katona, “Beyond the New Wave: Four Perspectives on French Cinema”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 49 No. 4 (Summer 1996), p. 7. back

2. Ibid. back

3. Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 18. back

4. See Norman King, “Eye for Irony: Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud (1969)”, in Susan Hayward & Ginette Vincendeau (eds), French Film: Texts and Contexts (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 231-240. back

5. Pascal Bonitzer, Eric Rohmer (Paris: Editions de l’Etoile/Cahiers du cinéma, 1991). back

6. Bonitzer, “L’amour admirable”, Trafic, no. 2 (Spring 1992), p. 24. back

© Adrian Martin April 1997 / March 2000 / February 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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