Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Summers are best spent outside doing nothing but basking in the warm weather alongside pleasant company until the shade and the slight tranquil breeze start to feel like paradise. In an age where the cruel irony between the demand for hyperproductivity and compulsory wellness is religion, an ongoing global pandemic has nearly eliminated the already scarce opportunities for such idleness and relaxation. As a result, the vast majority of people yearn for an escape of any kind. What didn’t disappear in these unusual times are, of course, the existential questions that incessantly plague each and every person. Everyone’s trying to figure something out, and what can seem like a purely hedonistic longing for a change of scenery is simply part of that unending search for peace of mind.
The Green Ray (1986)
dir. Éric Rohmer
In Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (or Summer), the fifth of his six Comedies and Proverbs movies, the first thing we see after the credits is an intertitle, in handwriting, setting the date: “Monday, July 2nd.” Soon, it becomes clear that the imminent summer vacation intimidates Delphine, a frustrated secretary who’s still dealing with a breakup and just had her original vacation plans spoiled. Paris has begun to empty for the season. We watch Delphine drift from location to location, first to a friend’s house for a weekend, which she departs earlier than expected, then alone to the French Alps, where she decides to leave the very same day, and finally to the beach region of Biarritz. She also drifts from conversation to conversation, frequently having to explain herself to others, that is, when she’s not quietly observing, crying, or both.
Naturally, the dislocation is the point. That lonely feeling of not knowing who to be, failing to do what people expect you to, and privately - and almost shamefully - hoping for a mystical sign from the universe to latch on to that rewards you for all the pain. The wonder here, though, as well as in many projects that have been influenced by Rohmer’s work, is the disarming, nonchalant way the narrative flows. It’s as if the characters on screen breathe, talk, and act without script. In this case, credit can be attributed to the dialogue being largely improvised (hence terrific lead actress Marie Rivière also getting a screenwriting credit), with just enough structure and delicate framing to achieve a more realistic depiction of catharsis.
While technically "nothing happens," the seemingly inconsequential experiences pile up. The protagonist catches up with an old friend who is now a mother, befriends an extroverted blonde foreigner who tries to help her loosen up and has an interesting exchange with a small girl. All of these moments spark self-conscious reflections about her choices, little revelations that could never significantly transform someone by themselves, especially in such a short period of time. Yet, they steadily provoke the introspection needed to prepare her for the strikingly meaningful moments ahead. In the end, Delphine gets her sign, but both she and the audience share the understanding that it’s more about finding hope in life rather than life simply getting better.
A Summer’s Tale (1996)
dir. Éric Rohmer
Released ten years later as part of his Tales of the Four Seasons series, A Summer’s Tale reveals a slightly different facet of Rohmer. Set in the seaside resort of Dinard, the film follows Gaspard, a young math graduate with artistic ambitions, as he waits for his supposed girlfriend Lena to arrive. In the meantime, Gaspard tries to enjoy the town and write some music when he meets Margot, an ethnologist working over the summer as a waitress. She is also supposedly in a relationship. They meet up for long walks on the beach, entertaining all different types of conversations. Even though the premise falls closer in line to that of a quintessential will-they-won’t-they romantic comedy, the director’s sober approach continues to defy expectations.
As in The Green Ray, the movie almost exclusively employs objective sound, without a musical score, steers clear of close-ups, and avoids distracting edits, complementing the continued stream-of-consciousness-type dialogue between Gaspard and Margot which make up a good portion of the film. In the two projects, but especially here, the setting is the sole embellishment. The setting could be defined as the humid season, as well as the socioeconomic conditions that allow the two so much time free to contemplate the infinite intricacies of love and relationships and how their circumstances dictate how we measure ourselves against others. Setting, additionally, with respect to the marine locations, whose picturesque scenery grows tangible by the minute as the gentle rhythm washes over, appearing to sway the friends toward each other.
All Hands on Deck (2020)
dir. Guillaume Brac
Staying in France, but now to present day in the compagne. In Guillaume Brac‘s All Hands on Deck, Félix decides to go from Paris to the small town of Die, where he’s supposed to meet his “girlfriend” (they have only met once and he did not tell her he was coming to visit). He convinces his friend Chérif, who has been longing to escape his monotonous job at the local supermarket, to go along with him. Soon after arriving in Die, Chérif runs into Héléna, a young married mother. He develops a habit of striking up empathetic conversations and helping with her baby. There’s a reason why Rohmer is mentioned in almost every review of Brac’s movies: it’s by design, as Guillaume mentions him as a direct influence in almost every interview about his films.
Far greater than plot similarities, what immediately drives the parallel between the two Frenchmen is the mellow authenticity that Brac achieves with his characterization, the ultimate tribute to Rohmer’s cinema. Nearly all scenes are shot outdoors in beautiful natural light with wide angles and deep focus. The soundscape is filled with the relaxing melody of water flowing, trees moving, birds chirping and kids playing in the distance; pure bliss. And yet the characters are usually the furthest distance from peace. Other filmmakers might not have handled the superficial clash so well, but here the extremely lifelike conflicts effortlessly intertwine with the breezy quality of the place and the picture. A shouting match between former lovers carrying undertones of gender, race, and class, instigated by its catalyst factor of youth and immaturity, fluidly transitions into a believable, sensible conciliation without much of a hiccup. Fittingly, there isn’t an ostensible bang of a finale, but an absolutely delightful karaoke sequence leaves nothing to be desired.
The August Virgin (2019)
dir. Jonás Trueba
Crossing the border now to Spain for Jonás Trueba’s The August Virgin, the first thing we see after the credits is an intertitle, in handwriting, setting the date: “Wednesday, August 1st”. As temperatures rise to torrid highs, those who are able to depart the Spanish capítal of Madrid head on vacation. But Eva, a dispirited woman about to turn 33, decides to stay as an act of faith for her life to improve. Following the framework of the August dates, the movie leisurely observes Eva as she makes the most out of the city at her own pace, leisurely strolling downtown, checking out a museum, or reading a book on the grass. She runs into familiar faces and also meets new ones, engaging in chats over drinks and soaking in the communal buzz of the traditional festivities that take place at this time of year.
During one of these conversations, the topic of summer comes up, to which she replies that it’s her favorite season. She reasons that it’s easier to be yourself when everyone expects less of you. Although not explicitly mentioned, there’s a sense of palpable and desperate loneliness behind her eyes, even during the most joyful scenes. Itsaso Arana who plays Eva, and who also co-wrote the script alongside Trueba, imbues her character with the type of restrained, non-melodramatic emotionality that comes off as devastatingly transparent. It’s as if every effort to pull the emotions back bounces and brings them forward in a manner that the audience can easily project themselves in, without ever losing its specificity.
In another get-together, the camera cuts to people in a circle sharing their experiences of living in different places. They discuss how after some time it gets harder to tell whether the desire and decision to move was already who they were or if the time spent elsewhere was what truly changed them. As they speak and relate to one another, Eva is completely quiet, pondering about the fruitful aspects of life that she has yet to experience. Then she finally speaks up, articulating the central existential conflict that was previously left unsaid: “I suppose it's hard to become your true self if… you haven't become emancipated from your parents or from the place where…”.
The distinctively laid-back Rohmerian cadence is the heart beating within the quiet drama here, with Trueba shooting Madrid with the gentle, observational subjectivity of Eva. She keeps a diary and occasionally reads her thoughts in a hushed voice-over (the only prominent variation from the French auteur’s preferred style), with sufficient distance from others so that her piercing solitude can be conveyed. For a film in which seemingly "nothing happens," much like The Green Ray, the inconsequential experiences pile up. The protagonist catches up with an old friend who is now a mother, befriends an extroverted foreigner who helps her loosen up, and has an interesting exchange with a small girl, all of which spark her sudden self-conscious reflections about her choices.
Eva, like the many who came before her, secretly seeks a sign as well: anything that can make the road ahead less daunting. Eventually, she gets her wish, which comes in a different form from The Green Ray’s Delphine’s. It’s not glaring from an oblivious gaze, but the summertime “wasted,” aimlessly experiencing life, renders it unmistakable. We can only hope we’ll get to glimpse our sign, too.