Gaspard at the Beach

Eric Rohmer, Paris, 8/26/86

Eric Rohmer, Paris, 8/26/86

Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), skinny, sullen, and solo, recently graduated with a degree in mathematics (but whose real interest is music), arrives at the seaside in Brittany with a duffle bag and his guitar, to stay in the room of a friend who’s vacationing elsewhere.  He hopes that during his brief hiatus between school and his new job he’ll meet up with his sort of girlfriend, Léna, who’s been traveling in Spain with her sister and sister’s boyfriend, and who plans to visit local cousins before returning home.

Eric Rohmer’s wonderful “A Summer’s Tale” (1996), the third film in his “Tales of the Four Seasons” cycle (and the only one not to have had a theatrical release here), watches Gaspard, full of the contradictions to which youth is entitled, as he’s alternately shy, arrogant, insecure, confident, sincere, cynical, convinced he’s romantically undesirable, convinced he can juggle the attentions of three appealing young women.

Soon after his arrival he meets Margot (Amanda Langlet–the titular character in “Pauline at the Beach”), a young ethnology Ph.D. (interested in the descendants in Brittany of sailors from Labrador and their chanties), who’s waitressing at her aunt’s restaurant, Le Creperie de Claire de Lune.  A friendship develops and they walk on the cliffs above the sea and talk endlessly.  Margot introduces Gaspard to Soléne (Gwenaëlle Simon) and aware that Margot, waiting for her anthropologist boyfriend to return to France, is unavailable, and dismayed as the days stretch out without his girlfriend’s appearance, he begins a summer fling.  And then spoiled, self-assured Léna (Aurélia Nolin) arrives.

Except for a bit of plotting that wouldn’t make sense in 2014 with the ubiquity of cellphones (Gaspard is stood up by Léna as he waits in a cafe; he lingers by the phone in his room expecting Soléne’s call) and a small detail (Gaspard has only one picture of Léna to show Margot, rather than an a bulging Instagram account), Rohmer’s witty comedy feels fresh, of the moment, as it explores the perfect combination of being 20-something and summertime.  And it’s not the plot that’s most important.  What’s riveting is a Rohmer hallmark, the often confused yet beautiful conversations–about life, love, work, friendship–between young people, trying to sort things out and come into their own.

I photographed Eric Rohmer in his office at Les Films des Losange in Paris at the end of the summer of 1986.  Although he was often shot on his sets, he rarely sat for a portrait and was unconvinced about our session but had been persuaded by Michael Barker (then of Orion Classics–the company’s first film had been “Pauline at the Beach,” and a release of “Boyfriends and Girlfriends” was upcoming).  But I was so excited to be photographing the great auteur that I, feigning a total ignorance of French, gently ignored his comments that he was never photographed and that he hoped I would be quick.

An article in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times that ran before “Boyfriends and Girlfriends” opened, included my portrait and an interview with the film’s star, Emannuelle Chaulet.  She described her first meeting with Rohmer in his office over tea to discuss the part. The teapot she noted (as well as the sugar and creamer) is behind him in my photo, on the mantlepiece.

“A Summer’s Tale” will open on Friday, June 20 in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles on Friday, July 18.  There will be a  special sneak preview at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York on Wednesday, June 18 at 7:30 pm.

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