Few directors could say as much with as little as Eric Rohmer. Consider the first emotional climax of A Summer’s Tale (1996): with just two actors, a crew of six, and a hillside trail overlooking a beach, Rohmer creates a sequence of sly humor, slow-burning eroticism, and timeless behavioral insight. Gaspard (Melvil Poupard), a postgraduate student on vacation, has spent about a week in the resort town of Dinard, waiting to be joined by the woman he’s been casually dating. He’s unsure whether to take the relationship further and wants to see her again before making a decision; unfortunately she keeps delaying her arrival. To pass the time, Gaspard takes a series of strolls with Margot (Amanda Langlet), another student, who’s working at her aunt’s restaurant while her boyfriend studies halfway around the world. Their conversations begin innocently but become more intimate each day; Rohmer presents their walks one after another, charting their relationship as one long crescendo of mutual fascination.
Neither character acknowledges their growing chemistry (Rohmer’s characters can be as coy about their feelings as Jane Austen’s), though Margot seems more willing to have fun, teasing Gaspard about his romantic frustration and even making some modest attempts at physical intimacy. Rohmer ratchets up the sexual tension little by little; eventually the two are walking so close together that Rohmer can present both their faces in the same tight close-up. “Kiss her already!” one wants to shout, but the overarching joke of A Summer’s Tale is that Gaspard can’t obey his instincts. Despite his suspicion that his other relationship might be over, he refuses even to consider pursuing anyone else until he has proof of her romantic intentions. (Naturally, he’s getting his PhD in mathematics.)
And what are Margot’s intentions? At one moment she talks about how much she misses her boyfriend; at another she says how nice it would be to have a summer fling. Is she dropping hints or merely flirting to kill the boredom of a unfulfilling vacation? Rohmer, sticking close to Gaspard’s perspective, never lets on. The mystery only makes Margot more alluring, as does the sun-kissed natural imagery, and Rohmer’s unadorned but precise compositions suggest a continuity between the two. “What interests me is to show young people as they really [are],” Rohmer said in a 2008 interview, “but also as they might be if they were 50 years old or a hundred years old, and the events of the film were taking place in ancient Greece, for things haven’t changed all that much.” The classical beauty of A Summer’s Tale communicates this sentiment vividly and with quiet wonder.