Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Winter's Tale

A Winter's Tale is the second installment in Eric Rohmer's "Tales of the Four Seasons," and it is a small pleasure of a film from a director who excels at delivering smart, carefully constructed, meditative confections like this. It is, as its title indicates, mostly set within the space of a few weeks in December, but it is not a chilly film by any means. Indeed, the film opens in a very different atmosphere, with a few minutes spent on a summertime beach, one of the most erotic, sensual sequences in all of Rohmer's cinema. These opening minutes have a disjunctive, crisply edited style that evokes a series of vacation snapshots, brief moments captured that together add up to an impression of absolute bliss. A young man and woman, who we later learn are Félicie (Charlotte Véry) and Charles (Frédéric van der Driessche) but who remain unnamed in this mostly wordless opening, have a summer affair of intense passion. Rohmer's evocative images of this romance, spent on the beach, in bed, bicycling among the hills, are as sumptuous and romantic as any he's ever made. It's all too easy to forget that Rohmer, well-known as a director of talky, philosophical films about relationships, can be incredibly earthy and sensuous when he wants to be, and these searing images establish in a few quick, economical strokes just how intense, adoring, and serious this romance is. It is obviously a lasting love in the making. Then the summer ends, and the couple reluctantly parts, promising to stay in touch as she dictates her address to him.

And then it is five years later, in the winter. Félicie has had a daughter, the fruit of her summer with Charles, but due to a mix-up over her address the couple has been out of touch ever since they parted, unable to locate each other. Charles is absent from the rest of the film, his only presence a single photo from the beach that Félicie shows to their daughter as an icon of her missing father. But those opening minutes linger on; they are unforgettable, and Rohmer knows it. He trusts his storytelling implicitly enough to understand that these fleeting, speechless minutes are more than enough to carry the rest of the film. They are the bedrock upon which Félicie's character and the plot itself are built. As for Félicie, with Charles absent, she alternates between two men who essentially represent polar extremes, with Charles falling in the middle, the sweet spot between them. Maxence (Michael Voletti) is very physical and domineering, with strong feelings for Félicie; he is a bear of a man, husky and cheerful, who can swallow his petite lover in tremendous hugs. On the other end of the spectrum, Loic (Hervé Furic) is a bookish librarian, incredibly intelligent and articulate but very reserved, not very physically aggressive or affectionate, better suited to be a friend than a lover — Félicie tells him, without meaning to hurt him, that in a past life they might have been brother and sister.

In her way, she loves both of these men, who are mostly good to her and who undoubtedly have very strong feelings for her. But the reasons for her vacillations are obvious, as the perfection of her time with Charles, and the intensity of her still-burning passion for him, dwarfs her relationships with any other men. Throughout the film, she goes back and forth from Max to Loic, at various times committing to one or the other, settling into a comfortable situation only to decide that comfort is not enough, that she wants true, overwhelming love or nothing at all. It is a familiar template for Rohmer characters, who often live by obscurely defined moral codes and a stubborn insistence on perfection, qualities that can make them seem capricious and frustrating, both to their in-film associates and occasionally to the film audience as well. Félicie is no exception, a typically maddening Rohmer heroine who can at times exhaust the audience's patience with her. But Rohmer invariably respects her, and he has the patience to let her do what she wants or feels she needs to do, to follow her as she changes her mind and attempts to live up to her "intimate" convictions.

Rohmer has often drawn a connection between his characters' insistence on romantic perfection and his own deeply held but idiosyncratic Christianity. Nowhere is this more true than in this film, where Félicie's idealistic belief that someday Charles will return to her is explicitly compared to the Christian faith in the afterlife. At one point, Félicie and Loic, who is a devout Catholic, go to see a production of Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale, in which after a separation of 16 years a king is reunited with his long-dead wife by a mysterious magical ritual. Félicie, for obvious reasons, becomes emotional at this scene that so movingly parallels her own desires, and the play is one of the film's most unexpectedly emotional moments. As the statue of the king's dead wife comes to life amidst flowery speeches, Rohmer cuts away to a shot of Félicie in the audience, her eyes damp with tears, fiercely clutching at Loic's hand.

After the play, Loic asks about a plot point that is deliberately left somewhat ambiguous by Shakespeare: whether the statue really is reanimated by magic, or if the queen had simply been in hiding for all those years, and the magic a sham to initiate her return. Félicie quickly brushes the question aside as irrelevant, telling him that it was faith that brought the woman back to life. The king, like Félicie herself, was willing to sacrifice his life and present happiness to the hope of a miracle, and as a result his desire comes true. This is both an answer to the play's unresolvable mystery and to the question of why Félicie will not settle down with either Loic or Max, and at this moment Loic says that she is, without realizing it, essentially articulating Pascal's wager. This scene directly connects back to the famous conversation in My Night at Maud's in which Jean-Louis Trintignant discusses the nature of faith, and especially Pascal's belief that trading an unfettered life for the possibility of an immortal soul is a wise wager to make. Félicie is making the same wager, trading away the certainty of mild happiness with either Max or Loic for the very slim possibility of an ecstatic happiness with Charles at some point in the future.

This moment is so potent, not only for its connections to past Rohmer films and his own personal faith, but because Rohmer has taken such pains to establish the stakes. The opening images of the film hang over everything that comes afterward, a vision of summertime pleasure lingering in the chilly air of December. It's obvious where things are going, towards Félicie's secular miracle — is it true magic or simply sleight of hand? — but the film itself is a joyous miracle despite its air of inevitability. It is a complex and fascinating masterpiece.

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