Eric Rohmer’s portrait of a young creative spirit in summertime places Gaspard (Melvil Poupard) in Dinard, a breezy seaside town in Brittany. Gaspard (a mathematics graduate) is alone with his angst, his guitar, and two objectives: to write a sea shanty and to meet up with his ‘girlfriend’ Lena (Aurélia Nolin).
The third film in Eric Rohmer’s ‘Tales of Four Seasons’ quartet was released in 1996. Gaspard exists in an era where romance was mysterious (undefined by SMS) and patience prevailed. Rohmer presents Lena as an off-scene mermaid, who may (or may not) turn up to meet Gaspard.
During the waiting, Gaspard is unworried. He has the time to meet two new women and work on his sea shanty. What’s more, he admits to Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress and Ethnologist whom he met in a café, that he ‘doesn’t much love her (Lena).’
Well, he does, and he doesn’t: Gaspard is the kind of man who enjoys the pain, and his music comes first. He spends hours in his friend’s room, strumming the strings of his guitar, shaping his shanty, and expecting the phone to ring. Time is also spent neatly stacking cassette tapes (the small percussive clatter of plastic is evocative of an era passed).
Poupard’s Gaspard is appealing: he has a pale vulnerability and his disarming introspection is the kind that wouldn’t notice if someone pinged a rubber band at his cheek.
Margot is a natural extension of Langlet’s role as fifteen year-old Pauline in Rohmer’s 1983 Pauline à la Plage. Again, she is the only character who is rational and calm. Clearly attracted to Gaspard, she stands solid in her gentleness, and lightly teases his theorising. Margot suggests his self-criticism is a vanity, and when they do eventually kiss, she beams, ‘It’s purely symbolic, and it’s staying that way.’
Gaspard finds in Margot a gentle rationalist, and in Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), a feisty self-confidence. Solene clocks Gaspard looking moody in a nightclub, and when she bumps into him the following morning on the beach she invites him to go sailing in St. Malo.
On the ocean, Solene sings Gaspard’s finished shanty:
‘I am a pirate’s daughter, they call me the buccaneer lass, I love the wind, I love the swell, I slice through the sea as through a throng …’
This is the most elegiac scene in the film, a beautiful evocation of summer freedom and unhurried ambition. So much so that in this moment we believe their boat could be going anywhere in the world.
Solene is strengthened by singing the shanty and makes direct and confident demands on Gaspard. He, however, is tossing in troubled waters, unable to make a decision. He longs, confused, for Lena.
When Lena does show up, things don’t go according to plan. Lena reject’s Gaspard’s clumsy attempt at intimacy. She’s independent and doesn’t want to accommodate: ‘I don’t want to give anyone anything. Not the slightest portion of my freedom.’
Rohmer places the three women in Gaspard’s life, as seagulls settling on the beach of his own self-understanding, rather than quests for romance.
Margot, Solene and Lena are the three sides of Gaspard. As three women, they conflict: the rationalist, the passionate and the discontent. However, as a tri-part mirror, held up to reflect Gaspard’s own struggling creative spirit, he is presented complete as a man figuring out his identity.
The women are the gulls and the waves in his summer holiday: they give him freedom, the time to think, and the time to make mistakes.
Director: Eric Rohmer (1996)