Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Autumn Tale

The final chapter of Eric Rohmer's "Four Seasons" cycle is Autumn Tale. Like the other films in the series, it takes its title as more than a mere invitation to set its story in a particular season; its evocation of autumn is concerned with the moods, emotions and resonances associated with the fall. Rohmer, who in his maturity often worked with very youthful casts (as he had, for the most part, in the cycle's previous three films), seems very conscious of the fact that autumn is not just a time of year but also a time in a person's life. Thus, this film shifts the focus of the narrative away from the younger protagonists of the other "Four Seasons" films, centering the story around a pair of middle-aged friends, Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Magali (Béatrice Romand). This casting is surely very self-conscious, since both Rivière and Romand have not only worked with Rohmer quite frequently before, but had both been, roughly a decade earlier, the stars of two films from his "Comedies and Proverbs" cycle. In those films, Rivière (in The Green Ray) and Romand (in A Good Marriage) had both played stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic women looking for love but willing to accept it only on their own terms. They are different women here, different characters, but there is nevertheless no escaping the resonance of seeing them reappear, a decade or fifteen years older, matured into middle age, with very different concerns and attitudes from the women they'd played in Rohmer's earlier films.

Isabelle is married and settled, content in her life and about to see her daughter (Aurélia Alcaïs) get married. Magali, on the other hand, is discontented; she is a widow, and now that her children have grown up and are moving out on their own, she feels loneliness setting up. She is a true Rohmer heroine, though, stubborn and self-reliant, and she refuses to lower herself or appear desperate in order to find a man. Instead, she pours herself into the work at the vineyard she owns, maintaining her fierce pride for the quality of the wine she produces. She is also comforted by the presence of the young and vibrant Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of her son Léo (Stéphane Darmon). Rosine isn't serious about Léo — she's just getting over an affair with her teacher Étienne (Didier Sandre) — but she is fascinated by Magali, and loves spending time with her at the older woman's vineyard. Rosine concocts a plan to get over her professor and simultaneously find someone for Magali, so she plots to bring the two of them together. At the same time, Isabelle is planning something very similar; she places an ad in a newspaper, and when the divorced businessman Gérald (Alain Libolt) answers it, she initially poses as Magali in order to judge this man's acceptability for her friend.

Obviously, the romantic entanglements in this film are complex: triangles and quadrangles worthy of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, including the younger generation as well as the older. Rohmer juggles it all with a lightness and irreverence that keeps the plot's twists and turns from descending into melodrama. No one bursts into tears or makes sudden rash pronouncements; everything is played with smiles and subtleties as theses characters glide around each other, flirting and matchmaking and playing games with love. It's a breezy, playful film, treating middle-aged romance with the kind of breathless charm and sentimentality usually reserved for depictions of young lovers. When Gérald and Magali first meet, their conversation is touchingly awkward and halting, interrupted by slight pauses and nervous giggling. The chemistry is obvious, though, inscribed in their body language and immediate intimacy, the way they subtly shift their bodies towards one another as they talk, shuffling nervously and coming together as though dancing.

No one is better than Rohmer at capturing the intricate and layered subtleties of these kinds of meetings, these kinds of relationships, either developing or disintegrating or hovering between states. The tentative romance between Magali and Gérald is only one thread running through a film whose structure is criss-crossed with delicate strands connecting its characters. There's even the flirtation between Gérald and Isabelle, since the former initially thinks that it's Isabelle, and not Magali, whose ad he has answered: a connection forms between them and is then aborted when Isabelle finally reveals the truth, though Rohmer continues to examine the aftermath of this revelation with characteristic candor.

There is a devastating moment where Isabelle, having already started Gérald on the path towards hooking up with her friend, continues to semi-innocently flirt with him, to toy with him a little, and it's devastating because it feels so real, so naked and emotionally vulnerable. It's obvious, in every movement of Isabelle's body, in every nuanced expression nervously playing across her face, that she's feeling a brief tinge of middle-aged insecurity, a desire to feel wanted, to feel some passion. It's not that she's dissatisfied with her own marriage, only that she wants a little more of the youthful excitement she felt when arranging clandestine dates with Gérald. Rohmer doesn't judge, and he doesn't allow this moment — only a moment, transitory but no less powerfully felt — to overwhelm either the narrative or the characters. He's only interested in getting at the complex feelings awakened by this airy matchmaking comedy.

More than anything, Rohmer recognizes the danger inherent in love, the complicated mixture of trust and openness and spontaneity that love requires to really blossom. And he understands how fragile it is, how easily stifled by factors beyond either party's control. Rohmer's touch is light, and his style is nearly invisible, subtly framing his characters within luminous outdoor landscapes where their romantic dramas can play out. His characters are always conscious of their surroundings, and Magali's love of the countryside is a constant presence here, as is the pair of industrial smokestacks that can be seen from various angles around the countryside and often appear in the background of shots, an intrusion of the modern age into this idyllic region. As the characters speak about the scenery, Rohmer's images quietly capture the essence of these places, the natural beauty that these people cherish so much. The film opens with a montage of silent, mostly unpopulated street scenes interspersed with the titles, setting the mood through an evocation of place. Rohmer is deeply sensitive to small touches like this, and this fine, charming film, populated with wonderful performances and enduring characters, is a fun and affecting final movement to complete his seasonal quartet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your observation of Isabelle's unacknowledged mid-life anxiety in the film is quite acute, particularly as a repressed portrayal of her more openly desirous protagonist in The Green Ray. It only testifies to the way in which Rohmer's delicate, naturalistic mise en scene allows us to see subtleties of character that would be glossed over in other filmmakers' hands.

- J. Nyhuis