The last of Éric Rohmer’s ‘collections’ of films is the ‘Four Seasons’. Three of the four ‘tales’ in the collection are now streaming on MUBI. A Winter’s Tale (France 1992) was discussed on this blog back in December. That film had a fair amount of incident and a conventional plot. A Tale of Springtime is perhaps more recognisably ‘Rohmerian’ with relatively little ‘action’ and much more talk, but that doesn’t make it in any way less engaging.
The idea of a Four Seasons collection is that each narrative will in some way relate to a specific season, both in terms of setting but also theme. The setting here is Paris in late April/early May. Its theme relates to the idea of Spring as a time for young lovers with the ‘sap rising’. The narrative opens on a Friday afternoon with a young teacher leaving her work at the ‘Lycée Jacques Brel’ (which Wikipedia tells me is in Saint Denis on the Northern edge of Paris). She drives to an untidy apartment and begins to clear up the mess, then retrieves some clothes and packs a bag before driving to a second apartment in the city centre. This second apartment is much tidier, but she can’t stay here as it is already occupied. She collects more clothes – Spring is a time for different outfits. The mise en scène of both apartments is detailed and precise and the teacher, Jeanne, is stylishly dressed (in a modest way) for 1990 (although one reviewer, more attuned to fashion than me suggests she is still dressing in an 80s way). Next we see Jeanne at a party in the suburbs given by an acquaintance. She doesn’t really know the other party guests but gets talking to a younger woman, Natacha, who seems equally marginal to the swing of the party. The pair decide to go to Natacha’s city centre apartment and Natacha offers Jeanne a room for the night since she doesn’t want to use either of the apartments she visited earlier. All will become clear later but for now Jeanne and Natacha simply want to talk.
Natacha is studying at a conservatoire and she plays her new study text, a Schumann piece, for Jeanne. Don’t worry, I’m not going to explain the whole plot but, through Natacha, Jeanne will meet the owner of the apartment, Natacha’s father Igor, who is rarely at home because work takes him on trips and he lives much of the time with his younger girlfriend Ève who is a similar age to Jeanne. Natacha also has access to two houses, the second being a small house in the countryside outside Paris with a walled garden and trees coming into blossom. Because Jeanne has a car, it’s easy for the two new friends to visit the house where at one point they will meet Igor and Ève.
Jeanne is a calm young woman, not easily ruffled, but she will begin to wonder if Natacha is trying to match her with Igor. Natacha is clearly not keen on Ève. This becomes the narrative enigma. Will Jeanne and Igor find themselves together and what might happen? This is familiar Rohmer territory, meticulously planned out and presented via long conversations with a particularly enjoyable discussion about philosophy between Jeanne and Ève, observed by a slightly bewildered Igor and Natacha. (I was equally nonplussed since my knowledge of philosophy is limited – a UK education is much less likely to include philosophy than one in France). Jeanne is studying for an MA in Education and loves teaching philosophy to her working-class students in high school. Ève is engaged in a research degree and is perhaps showing off a little. This film, unusually for Rohmer includes a number of musical pieces as well as the philosophy discussion.
I found A Tale of Springtime to be a delightful film. At the centre of my enjoyment was the performance of Anne Teyssèdre as Jeanne. I was dismayed to visit IMDb and to discover that this was her last film to date although she has appeared on TV in the last few years as a reader. I think she gave up acting for health reasons and became a writer. Rohmer himself commented that of all the performances in his films, her’s was the only one to be irreplaceable. The film couldn’t work without her in the central role. It’s not just her beauty but the way she carries herself and presents herself. The other performances are also strong. Florence Darel as Natacha is very different – more judgemental and more full of vitality. I note that in his Monthly Film Bulletin review (June 1990), Tom Milne contrasts the mise en scène of the four rooms that Jeanne encounters and tries to relate them to the philosophy discussion, concluding that Natacha is the true ‘transcendentalist’ – the subject of the philosophy discussion. Jeanne is the one who likes order. I’m not sure Milne is correct about his description of Natacha, she seems to demonstrate some traits of transcendentalism but possibly contradicts others. I tend to classify characters by what they say and what they do and what is apparent in terms of their social/political views. I know I would want to know more about Jeanne’s classroom practice. Interestingly Monthly Film Bulletin published an essay on Rohmer by Raymond Durgnat in the next issue (July 1990). As always, Durgnat offers a host of ideas, observation and analysis which is certainly stimulating but difficult to summarise.
There is a resolution to the narrative but it is not ‘dramatic’ except in the sense that a relatively trivial mystery is solved. That mystery refers to an incident that might inform the tensions in the triangle between Natacha, Ève and Igor. But it is Jeanne who is the ‘agent’ in the narrative and if she has learned something about herself and how she might act in the future that is a satisfactory resolution to the narrative. I’m determined now to watch A Summer’s Tale (1996). I know that for some audiences, Rohmer’s films are just too slow or too talky, but if you enjoy watching and listening to a small group of characters, Conte de printemps is highly recommended.