A treat from MUBI, this entry into Eric Rohmer’s last collection of ‘tales’ was a wonderful way to end Christmas Day. Rohmer’s films often have the same ingredients, usually involving sets of relationships within which a central character tries to find the right partner. In this case it is Félicie, a young woman whom we see trying to decide between two potential partners. But we know that she really wants a third who somehow she’s lost.
The opening credit sequence introduces Félicie on holiday by the sea. A summer holiday romance is in full flow and a montage shows us Félicie with a rather beautiful young man, swimming, sunbathing, cycling and making love. The couple are naked much of the time but it is light-hearted and innocent rather than raunchy. Félicie gives him an address in Paris and heads home. Five years later we find her waking up in the house of Loic, a serious young man. Félicie dashes off to work at a hairdressing salon to discover that her boss Maxence, a slightly older man, has decided to move to another salon in the franchise. He invites Félice to accompany him to Nevers, a small town 150 miles south of Paris. Here is a classic dilemma for Félice. Two men are vying for her favours. The other vital ingredient is her little daughter Elise.
I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I realised after a while that the narrative had some ingredients shared with an earlier Rohmer classic, Ma nuit chez Maud (France 1969). Like that film, Conte d’hiver is set over the Christmas holiday period. The earlier film has a male central character who faces a choice between two women. He’s a Catholic and his reasoning about how he approaches his choice includes consideration of ‘Pascal’s wager’ about the existence of God. Félicie is not a devout Catholic but she’s pragmatic enough to pray for a solution to her dilemma. The ‘night with Maud’ is spent in the provincial city of Clermont-Ferrand. Félicie spends a little time in the cathedral at Nevers and she also has discussions with Loic that involve Pascal’s wager.
The other notable aspect of the narrative is a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at the. Félicie is taken by Loic and she is emotional watching the play. If you know the play, you will recognise why. Literature was Rohmer’s first love and he saw a BBC TV production of the play before he wrote the screenplay. If this had been a Truffaut or Godard film in the 1960s or 1970s, the couple would have been at the cinema.
Rohmer’s films have been criticised for being too slow and too talky. This film is filled with long sequences of talking as Félicie tries to sort out what’s best for her. It’s a relatively long film and apart from the opening montage and the visit to the play (and to the zoo and various children’s entertainments) there is not much in the way of ‘action’. Nevertheless, I was engaged completely throughout the film. A lot depends on the central performance by Charlotte Véry. She plays Félicie as an attractive, intelligent and charming young woman who is both indecisive but also assertive once she has made a decision. This particular ‘tale’ is very much from a female perspective as Félicie has her daughter and her mother and her two sisters as her family. I read one comment on MUBI which I found astonishing. “This man should not be allowed to write female characters.” I can’t speak on behalf of women, but I think that Rohmer spent plenty of time observing the world and his characters all seem recognisable to me. I can understand why some audiences don’t like his films. They feel so simple but are crafted so carefully with the ‘transparency’ of camerawork and mise en scène – there is nothing to distract from the interaction of characters. Some times I have to be in the mood to get into the groove but when I do I really appreciate his art. This is a perfect Christmas film for me.