Close to the Autumn equinox on September 22, MUBI brought us Éric Rohmer’s An Autumn Tale, completing its presentation of the director’s ‘Four Seasonal Tales’. This was the last of the four that Rohmer made at the age of 78. (All the previous three tales are discussed on this blog.) Three further features and a short followed to complete his career output by 2007 and he died in 2010 aged 89. It was a remarkable directorial career which started late, in his thirties, but really got going when he was ousted from his editor’s role at Cahiers du cinéma in 1963. Before turning to directing, Rohmer had already been a writer, film critic and editor.
An Autumn Tale is indeed set in the Autumn, though dates are never mentioned, during harvest time. The Spring and the Autumn equinox both have metaphorical links to love, the first to young love and the second to the fruits of love or to the love of those in middle age. The setting is the Rhone Valley with Montélimar as the nearest town. Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Magali (Béatrice Romand) have known each other since they met at school, aged 7. Now they are in their forties with grown-up children. Isabelle is happily married but Magali is widowed and is aware of the loneliness that she tries to blank out by working hard on her vineyard. Isabelle is intent on matchmaking and sets out to find a potential mate for her friend. As the narrative opens, Isabelle is attempting to persuade her daughter, whose wedding is coming up, that Magali should be invited and that perhaps her wine should be available at the reception.
With just this simple starting point, Rohmer constructs a delightful film that steps delicately and wittily through a comedy of manners and the prospect of romance. He finds an intriguing way in which to make Isabelle’s task more difficult, introducing Rosine (Alexia Portal) the girlfriend of Magali’s son Léo. Rosine is a wonderful creation. She isn’t really interested in Léo but she adores Magali and she has her own plan to foster a relationship between her ex-tutor Étienne (Didier Sandre) and Magali. The only other significant character is Gérald (Alain Libolt) who answers the personals ad that Isabelle puts in the local paper. Isabelle’s husband sensibly stays in the background throughout. Here are the basic ingredients which Rohmer mixes so well to form his typically entertaining and engrossing film.
An Autumn Tale won the screenplay prize at Venice and is generally acknowledged as one of the best of Rohmer’s films. It has the advantage of two members of the director’s stock company in the two lead roles. Both Marie Rivière and Béatrice Romand each appeared in several earlier Rohmer films. Like most of his films this is dialogue heavy and underpinned by great performances. But the sense of place is also important and with his cinematographer Diane Baratier, who photographed all his films from 1993 onwards, Rohmer achieves a true representation of the Rhone Valley in Autumn. The film captures both the colours and textures and the play of Autumn sunlight. It also captures the sounds of rural Provence and the wind rustling through the trees. MUBI carries several commentaries on the film and I was struck by several recurring observations. One essay I read commented on how Rohmer has always differed from his erstwhile colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma who also became directors. He is the one who has maintained a documentarian’s interest in settings. As Ginette Vincendeau points out the film begins with a signpost indicating the name of the village and the newspaper Isabelle uses for the ad is published in Montélimar. Rohmer’s films utilise the transparency of classical Hollywood that enables the narrative to move easily and imperceptibly between scenes. The film may be dialogue heavy but it feels light and fast-moving, though thoroughly embedded in a ‘real’ middle-class community.
Both Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ginette Vincendeau refer to the Hitchcockian feel of the plotting. Isabelle and Rosine are both engaged in forms of deception, although their intentions are generally good. Rosenbaum also suggests that Alain Libolt is a little like Charles Boyer, the French lover of Classical Hollywood. There are moments when characters may accidentally meet or overhear/overlook the actions of others. But it all fits together seamlessly. This is a film to restore your faith in cinema.
You can find an interview with Rohmer conducted by Michel Ciment in 1998 in which the director discusses the four films in the ‘Tales of the Seasons’. (The YouTube video has English subtitles available.) He points out that in the Autumn and Spring films the central characters are shot differently than in the Winter and Summer tales. He tells us that the Winter and Summer tales are about philosophical approaches to life and that we believe the characters so that we often see them moving as they converse. By contrast Autumn and Spring are about deception – the characters are often afraid (?) to say what they feel. Because of this we need to see them head-on and in shot-reverse shot as they talk to each other. Rohmer also reveals that he chose his two female leads because they act in particularly expressive ways. They have voices that are “not monotonous like theatre voices” and they use their hands in particular ways – Marie/Isabelle clasps them above her head while Béatrice/Magali crosses her arms. This sounds a little strange until you go back and notice that yes they do this on several occasions. They are ordinary gestures that most actors don’t use as regularly but which many of us do, quite frequently. See the images above and below.
You can sign up for a trial on MUBI and catch all four of the ‘Tales of the Seasons’ over seven days or watch them via the MUBI app on Amazon Prime. Alternatively you can buy a box set of all four films on DVD (Region 2) at a reasonable price. Rohmer has sometimes had the false reputation of producing cerebral heavy films. This film dispels that notion gloriously. Here’s the French trailer (I couldn’t bear the American one).