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Dangling Man: Close-up on Eric Rohmer’s "A Summer’s Tale"

An exploration of Rohmer's great summer time film, currently playing on MUBI in the United States.
  Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBIA Summer's Tale is playing on MUBI in the US through July 20.

Gaspard, the protagonist of Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, is in Dinard, waiting for the arrival of his girlfriend Lena, who, as it turns out, may not actually be his girlfriend and may not actually be coming. He wants to devote his life to making music, but doesn’t want to become a part of the industry he despises, so is considering becoming taking on a job as a maths teacher to make a steady income, despite having little interest in the profession itself. He feels that he’s making little progress in his personal and professional lives, but doesn’t let this bother him too much, as a graphologist has told him that he won’t reach his peak until he turns 30. In other words, Gaspard is a character defined by passivity and apathy, and the film is structured around the many excuses he tells himself in order to rationalize these tendencies. Appropriately, the first 10 minutes track Gaspard wiling time away on his own, noodling on his guitar, wandering the streets aimlessly, and deliberately avoiding eye contact with passers-by. It’s an unusually long stretch of dialogue-free filmmaking for a director usually thought of as being concerned with words over all else, and it attunes us to the lethargic rhythms of Gaspard’s existence. He feeds off the isolation he cultivates for himself, viewing it as a marker of his seriousness as an artist; he thinks he’s deliberately removing himself from a world rife with pettiness and superficiality out of principle, but it’s clear that it’s mostly a form of ego-protection.
Margot, a waitress and graduate student he strikes up a friendship with after a few days, is every bit his academic equal, yet the vast difference in their attitudes towards life is illustrated by their respective passions: Margot is an ethnologist, which means she has to constantly interact with others and gain insight through lived experience; he’s a solo artist, and feels a need to devote a large amount of time to the solitary task of self-reflection. Her personable and unpretentious nature make her a target of Gaspard’s condescension, though, fortunately, nobody else shares Gaspard’s facile belief that outer solemnity must correspond to inner substance. She often takes delight in tearing into Gaspard’s flaws, but is genuinely repelled by his emotional remoteness. As if testing his loyalty for her own intellectual amusement, Margot pushes Gaspard to pursue her acquaintance Solène, whose carnality and apparent straightforwardness instantly attract him. But he begins to distance himself from her when he realizes the naivety of his simplistic initial impression of her.
An exploration of psychological stasis disguised as a coming of age tale, Gaspard becomes entangled with 3 women while remaining at a studied emotional remove from all of them. He fluctuates between thinking he’s too good for and not worthy of each one, and holds off action by convincing himself that he needs time to logically work out who will be best suited for him. His complex theories are deflective, they allow him to hold his experiences, and other people, at arm’s length, while simultaneously telling himself that he’s above it all. By allowing others to make all the concrete decisions, he ensures that he never has to account for them if they fail, even though he regularly reaps the rewards. He regularly expounds on his ideas towards the world, but his words are mostly evasive, he self-consciously moulds his own persona and hence hides his true self behind dense layers of fabrication.
As with many filmmakers generally pegged as “literary”, Rohmer’s images are too often written off as merely functional and subordinate to his dialogue. Admittedly, his visual schemes look minimalist at first glance: the camera is mostly still; the lighting is even; camera movement is reduced to a few simple pans. Yet his films stress the significance of silences, with characters often revealing a lot about themselves in the moments of dead air that hang around the dialogue. Pointedly, Rohmer usually begins and finishes each scene a few beats later than expected and inserts interstitial shots of characters travelling from one setting to another are interspersed throughout, clearly mapping out the geography of the seaside town. His method of composing conversations (usually alternating between wide two-shots framing the actors from the knee or waist upwards and isolated close-ups with the subject’s head positioned dead centre) places a large amount of negative space around each subject, drawing the viewer’s attention to the nuances of their physicality and how they interact with their surroundings. Rohmer lavishes attention on minor habits and gestures: Gaspard’s tendency to either walk slightly ahead or lag slightly behind of Margot, which gives him an excuse to avoid direct eye contact.
And his attempts to dominate the interaction by stopping abruptly when he wishes to say something confrontational.
Attempts which Margot continuously frustrates by slightly moving her body to alter the geography of the conversation on her own terms.
The ending of A Summer Tale is one of the most ambiguous in Rohmer’s filmography. Frustrated by his own indecision, Gaspard is placed in the position of having to choose which of his three potential mates to will accompany him to the island of Ouessant, a decision he keeps delaying. However, a last minute, unlikely intervention of fate ultimately relieves him from the pressure; what appears to be a happy ending in the moment seems more tragic the wore one thinks about it in retrospect, as it enables him to continue remain passive and perceive himself as a victim of circumstances rather than a partial cause.
This is well trod ground for Rohmer. He did it first and best with ’Claire’s Knee’. I hate the movies he does on beaches. They induce in me the facile belief that the outward lack of solemnity corresponds to a lack of substance. I think this movie just floated up into the air, never to be glimpsed again.
This was shot in Dinard and Saint Lunaire, Brittany. I used to go every year on summer holidays, and was there when they shot this. I remember nobody knowing it was a Rohmer film! I also remember Oasis had just gotten huge at the time, so it was great that they had a poster of the band in Gaspard’s room. Very on point :)
A very nicely written piece!
It’s a literary film for sure, but so sensuous that every shot is a heartache. Friendship, love and men and women, the head, the heart, the loins – so much confusion – it’s all so gently represented and feels like life with the extraneous and the ironic stripped away. I can fall asleep in films with too much CG and a zillion special effects, but Rohmer rivets me. Sure he’s done similar things, on lots of beaches, tan legs, French lips, downcast gazes, but these performances are so engaging. It feels like I’ve dreamed his movies. In an age of ill manners, hooking up, where everything has to be funny, ironic, and full of side plots and pop music, Rohmer is still a deep breath of (ocean) air. You watch with your heart.

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