Éric Rohmer was a summer kind of guy. Three of his best movies are set during those torrid, carefree months — “Pauline at the Beach” (1983) and “Summer” (1986), both from his film cycle “Comedies and Proverbs,” and the third in his “Four Seasons” quartet, “A Summer’s Tale” (1996). Inexplicably never before released in the United States, “Summer’s Tale” will be screened in a restored HD print on Sunday as part of the annual French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts.
It must be said that it is the least resolved of the “Four Seasons” films. But in a good way, because that’s kind of how the summer operates — a stretch of relative freedom and aimless hedonism that ultimately ripens, if you’re lucky, into the vintage enjoyed by the mature characters in “An Autumn Tale” (1998), the last in the non-chronological series.
It is the season of youthful folly, and the foursome in Rohmer’s film makes the most of it. The first five minutes unfold without dialogue, but these scenes eloquently express the growing anxiety and alienation of Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a math tutor and aspiring musician who has arrived at the Brittany resort town of Dinard for a rendezvous with his unrequited love, Lena (Aurelia Nolin).
She doesn’t show up. He wanders the beach looking for her, plays guitar in his room, and imbibes at cafes, with each passing day marked on screen with the date like the page of a diary that is not filled in. He’s about to burst, not just because his date has apparently stood him up, but because he has no one to talk to. And in an Éric Rohmer film, dialogue is as essential as air.
Nonetheless, Gaspard at first turns down the friendly overtures of Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress at a cafe, and does not recognize her when he bumps into her again as he engages in his ritual of prowling the beach. Maybe Margot’s bikini, or just seeing her in a different light, confuses him. He has trouble adjusting to the fact that she is not just “a little waitress,” but is smart and funny and has a PhD in ethnography.
Langlet had previously played the 15-year-old title heroine of “Pauline at the Beach,” wherein she has to fend off the advances of a libidinous 40-something ethnographer. Here, she has taken up the profession herself (not surprising, given that Rohmer’s filmmaking was a kind of aestheticized version of the science) and explains how she gave up studying cultures abroad because she didn’t even understand the inhabitants of her hometown. So she has put her expertise to work observing the local specimens, focusing on old fishermen and their sea chanteys. Gaspard, who has written a few chanteys of his own, should have been on the alert that he might be her new case study. But she offers him something he desperately needs: a person to talk to.
And talk they do, with the normally aloof and asocial Gaspard unburdening his troubles on Margot, and both analyzing his needs, failings, and desires with a Proustian intensity of introspection and minute dissection. And like Proust’s pathetically besotted character Swann, Gaspard struggles to acknowledge that he has fallen in love with a woman who is not his type. So Margot points him in the direction of Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), which works out fine until Gaspard unexpectedly bumps into Lena. Now he has two girlfriends to juggle instead of none. Make that three, because it seems Margot has involved herself too much in her experiment and, like Jane Austen’s matchmaking Emma, is not as smart, or observant, as she thinks she is.
Thus emerges a familiar rom-com formula: a guy juggling multiple women so ineptly that he ends up making the same date with all of them. Kind of like “The Other Woman,” except instead of scenes depicting the messy aftermath of a drink laced with laxatives, the action consists of the banal routines of a seaside vacation. There are walks on the beach, discos, dining, and a boat ride, often with a sundrenched, pastel-hued backdrop of sea, sand, white walls, airy rooms, automobiles, and endless conversation. And every once in a while a disturbing coincidence or a quirk of synchronicity occurs that hints at a deeper meaning or purpose behind the pleasing surface.
Can anyone figure out what that might be? Gaspard admits he doesn’t know what he wants, and his passive fecklessness confirms it. Solene and Lena don’t know, either, and don’t seem to care; their moods and caprices are ephemeral and inconsequential. Margot remains the real enigma. Is she a detached manipulator filling her time until her boyfriend returns from overseas? Or has she used her skills to find, at last, the person she really wants, except now she lacks the conviction to acknowledge it?
These are questions Rohmer has posed and left unanswered time and again. Once in a while — in 1986’s “Summer,” for example — the veil lifts and a miracle of sorts happens; Rohmer was, after all, a devout Catholic. But most of his films reconfigure the same ambiguities in startling, fresh arrangements. Like Giorgio Morandi’s paintings of bottles — the same subjects, the same flat palette, but with each variation utterly different. All of Rohmer’s films are beguiling, witty, and a delight to the eye, but they leave their mysteries unsolved.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.