• Big World Pictures
  • Margot and Gaspard
(A Summer's Tale opened at the Varsity Theatre on Fri, July 18.)

Now he keeps his hair short, but there was a time when Melvil Poupaud had a halo of dark curls, much like Louis Garrel, who is 10 years his junior. In comparison, present-day Poupaud is practically an elder statesmen of Francophone cinema, since he's made so many films and worked with so many prestigious directors, like François Ozon, but it doesn't get more prestigious than Éric Rohmer (1920-2010), a leading light of the French New Wave, along with the still-shockingly spry Jean-Luc Godard, who seems likely to outlive us all.

There's nothing overtly feminine about Poupaud, but he's exhibited a certain androgynous quality from the start, which may be partly why Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan cast him in 2012's Laurence Anyways as a character transitioning from male to female. In A Summer's Tale, Poupaud's sweet face and willowy frame contribute to the impression that he's a reed tossed about by external forces—by wind, by women, by fate. And that's exactly what happens.

Gaspard's would-be theme song—he actually says, "I don't love anyone."

Mysteriously denied a proper US release in 1996, the third film in Rohmer's "Four Seasons" tetralogy (1989-1998), reveals its age from the start when Poupaud's protagonist, Gaspard, travels to Bretagne—"Brittany" in English—on holiday, locates his room, and unpacks a pile of cassettes (as a cassette collector in the 1990s, I found that rather endearing). The high-waisted pants worn by some of the ladies are another giveaway, but aside from those minor details: this is a timeless story. And it isn't necessary to see the other films in the series to appreciate it, which also applies to Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" (1963-1972).

Over the next few days, Gaspard, a recent college graduate with an engineering job on the horizon, picks out a few notes on his guitar, wanders around town, and visits a crêperie, where he meets Margot, a pretty waitress (Amanda Langlet, from Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach). She expresses interest in him, but he has his heart set on someone else, and doesn't pay her much attention. The next time they run into each other, though, she takes a more assertive approach, and they end up spending the afternoon together. She isn't exactly single either, but her boyfriend is off doing aid work in the South Pacific. Unlike Gaspard, who hails from Rennes, she came to Brittany to get her PhD in ethnology and never left.

Rohmer marks each day of Gaspard's two-week holiday by way of on-screen text ("Monday, 17 July"), and he denotes transitions by way of the fade-to-black, a technique favored by Jim Jarmusch, which should lend the proceedings an episodic feel, but it never does; there's an elegant flow from one day to the next.

Gaspard and Solene
  • Big World Pictures
  • Gaspard and Solene

Gaspard continues to hang out with Margot, even though they don't have much in common—other than a love of long walks, which predict the European rambles of Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. She's social, he isn't; she likes to go out dancing; he'd rather sit around and strum his guitar. "I'm not like you," he tells her. "I'm not curious about everyone I meet." But they have chemistry, even if neither one of them cares to admit it.

Then he meets the more sexually expressive Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), who shares his love of music. She likes the sea shanty he wrote; he likes her voice, and a romance starts to take shape when Léna (Aurélia Nolin), the lust of his life, arrives with her yuppy friends. He believes he's out of her league, and she agrees, except he just can't resist her blonde charms. He's such a passive character, though, that it's hard to predict what he'll do—if anything—to sort the situation out. At first, the women call the shots. Then, when fate forces his hand, he finally makes a move (it isn't the one I expected). And with that, summer is over.

It's the earliest performance I've seen from Poupaud so, for me, it sets the template for the work to come. First of all, he seems comfortable on screen, like he belongs there. Then, there's the way that he doesn't try to make Gaspard likable. And between the passivity and the woe-is-me schtick, the guy can be exasperating—he is, after all, a good looking young man torn between three good looking young women, so when he tells Margot he feels "invisible," it's hard not to wonder if he might also be delusional, but Poupaud makes him sympathetic.

Charming as it is, A Summer's Tale might not be the best place to start with Rohmer, who was in his mid-70s when he made it—I'd recommend 1969's My Night at Maud's with Jean-Louis Trintignant (highlight of the "Six Moral Tales"). As Poupaud told Jose Solis of PopMatters earlier this year, "I think it would be better if they know about Rohmer's work before they see the film." As for the industrious actor, who has accumulated a staggering 67 screen credits since 1983 (including 12 films with the late Chilean iconoclast Raúl Ruiz): it's a great place to start.

A Summer's Tale continues at The Varsity Theatre through Thurs, July 24.