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ÉRIC ROHMER: A TALE OF AUTUMN/CONTE D'AUTONNE (1998) - "Tales of the Four Seasons" in new restorations at Film Forum

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"I'M A WINEMAKING MOM
LIKE A NORMAL MOM
BUT COOL AS WELL"


"Je suis viticultrice. Si j'étais un homme, je dirais 'vigneron.' Mais 'vigneronne' c'est pas très joli."

That French saying "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" certainly applies to the films of Éric Rohmer, all of which are different, yet all of which unceasingly focus on the same issues of straight white people looking for the ideal mate, with endless discussions along the way. A Tale of Autumn, fourth the 1990's "Tales of the Four Seasons," is no different from the rest in that regard. But there's one pretty big switch in making the main focus on a pair of middle-aged women, long-time best friends Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Magali (Béatrice Romand), both in their mid-forties, and on Isabelle's matchmaking for the lonely Magali.

The mid-life focus is one autumnal aspect. The other is that it's fall in the Drôme, in the southeastern Rhone valley, wine country, time of the vendage, harvest of grapes. Magali is a viticultrice, feminine for winemaker, a word fashionable enough nowadays to be emblazoned on French T shirts and coffee mugs, and whose usage Magali explains and justifies (see above). The film at several points goes specifically and knowingly into winemaking with reference to Rhone wine. Magali has specific ideas. She refuses to use chemical weed killers as the neighboring winegrower does because they "spoil the taste of the wine." She seeks to make wine that proves Rhone can be a vin de garde, a keeper wine that improves with age, like burgundy.

As a person, Magali is a widow whose son has moved out of the house, and who acknowledges to Isabelle that she's lonely and would like a man in her life again. But she isn't willing, and hasn't the time, to look. She abhors Isabelle's suggestion to passer une petite annonce, to run a personal ad, in the local paper. Such things are arnaques, she insists, scams, and the people who place them are crazy and obsessive. The wonderful, defiantly frizzy-haired Béatrice Romand, who had been in Rohmer films half a dozen times, shows off magnificently in her early scenes with Rivière, also a Rohmer favorite, how charmingly feisty and independent - and yet vulnerable and needy - Magali is.

Isabelle, who has a successful bookstore in town (a bookseller, though, but not a "bookworm", she specifies), is a slyer, smoother, more guarded woman; she chooses to run an ad in the paper in her own name, but to find someone for Magali, and she chooses the only sensible, convincing answer and starts seeing the man. He is Gérald (Alain Libolt), a local salesman but with a rich background, who in fact grew up in north Africa in a winemaking family, just like Magali. And what's more, he is sensitive, intelligent, and looks like Charles Boyer. He's the guy. But how is it going to happen?

First of all, Gérald will be shocked at Isabelle's having three daytime "dates" with him under false pretenses, just to size him up for her friend. Second, Magali is going to be furious at Isabelle for rigging a meeting at her daughter's upcoming wedding between her and Gérald and running that "petite annonce" against her principles and stated wishes.

Secondly, there will be plenty of static, in the form of other people and other schemes. Magali's son Léo (Stéphane Darmon) has a girlfriend, Rosine (Alexia Portal) though Rosine considers him only a filler and she asserts to her not-quite-ex older lover, philosophy prof Etienne (Didier Sandre), that she really loves Magali much more than her son. Rosine, Léo, and Etienne is occasion for a lot of talk about older men who like younger women and vice versa. This is a subject on which the French arguably have views both more liberal and more extensive than English-speakers. Rosine sets up a "chance" meeting of Etienne and Magali, just as Isabelle sets up one between Magali and Gérald, at Isabelle's daughter's wedding. Isabelle has a husband she's very happy with, by the way; we glimpse him at a lunch, sipping wine, and later with the closing credits Isarelle and he are dancing at an autumn country festival. But it's her interest in and very warm exchanges with Gérald that get the prominent display; she is enjoying the experience she has with him of still being seductive. It's just a given that Isabelle and her husband are happy together, not a subject the film is interested enough in to demonstrate. This too is Rohmerian and French.

Another central issue is physicality. Much emphasis is placed, by Isabelle, with Gérald, on what "type" he prefers, and he balks, but it becomes clear that Magali, who is small and dark-haired, as was his ex-wife, is the type he is drawn to. Isabelle, though she definitely began to fascinate Gérald during those three slippery dates - and afterward - also struck him as odd first off because she seemed to him too elegant for a "country" woman. Rohmer may intend to mock this old-fashioned idea of a "femme de compagne." So, anyway, in the film we get to admire Marie Rivière in a series of elegant outfits, from angles and in light to set off her blonde hair, blue eyes, and tall stature. Both Romand and Rivière have the perfect svelte physiques associated with stylish Parisian women of a certain age. Match-making in French terms is a physical thing, a moral thing, and a thing of the soul, the interior. But the physical comes first and must not be forgotten. Rohmer's films, with all their intellectual arguing, are intensely physical and sensuous; even My Night at Maud's, with its austere look and its Catholicism, teeters on the verge of sex for most of its run-time. Rohmer studied philosophy and theology, made "Moral Tales," and links his films with general principles. But I find that people generalize too much about his films, which are above all as specific to themselves as they are intensely, physically, in the moment.

Conte d'autonne may have the warmest and most beautiful setting of any Rohmer film. The bright spaces of his summer films, though full of delicious young men and women in bloom, may seem a bit shrill and bleached out in comparison to the golden glow on view here. The little town glimpsed at the outset is gorgeous, its empty streets serene. Magali's vineyard is bursting with life - and deep purple grapes we see lovingly picked and laid into small bins. There are attractive young people, Léo and Rosine and others. But here for once we learn in a Rohmer film to admire older adults: Magali and Isabelle are splendid, and Etienne and Gérald handsome and interesting, all of the admirable in the autumn of their lives.

Things are moving in the direction of farce and even Shakespearean romantic comedy throughout, and this film has the classic concluding minuet celebrating unity - but with perhaps a bit more than usual of Rohmer's customary restraint. At the end, Magali and Gérald have approached, avoided, and returned to each other with revealing and charming laughter and smiles. But it's not a done deal or a quick plunge. Their next meetup is postponed to the harvest festival, and it's clear they've still got a lot of Rohmerian cogitating and discussing to do.

For all its beauty and assurance of construction - Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that it's the best of the "Four Seasons" films, and shows him a master - admitting also he was probably already one in 1969 with My Night at Maud's (indeed so!) - I show my perennial immaturity no doubt in relating much better to Melvil Poupaud in Summer's Tale, and think its structure of a series of meetings and sexy chats with different women more enjoyable than the deceptions and setups of Autumn.

Rohmer contrives a wonderful way to show off his two favorite actresses here, certainly. But Isabelle's dodgy, contrived dates with poor Gérald make me uneasy, and so does Magali's grumpy behavior at the wedding and her downright strange actions when Gérald is supposed to be giving her a ride home from the wedding. It works, but it just isn't fun. This may be perfection. But it's not what I'd want. Matchmaking and mate-finding are particularly tricky for older people. And Rohmer hasn't shown here that it works. Nonetheless, no doubt A Tale of Autumn an essential part of the Éric Rohmer canon.

Éric Rohmer’s charming quartet of romantic comedies, Tales of the Four Seasons originally released in France from 1989–1998, will run in new restorations at Film Forum from Friday, September 3 to Thursday, September 9, 2021.

I've reviewed A Tale of Summer and The Aviator's Wife, and Adventures of Reinnette and Isabelle and Boyfriends and Girlfriends, and after his death in 2010 wrote an appreciation of his work.

Here are the Film Forum blurb descriptions of all four films:

A TALE OF SPRINGTIME
(1989) Caught between apartments, philosophy teacher Anne Teyssedre crashes with a teenage piano student she's met at a party, only to find the next morning that she's been dragged into a father/ lover/ daughter triangle that looks like it's about to become a quadrangle. Approx. 108 mins.

A TALE OF WINTER
(1992) After a sun-splashed summer idyll, we're suddenly in the season of the title as not-so-bright hairdresser Charlotte Véry (Kieslowski's Blue) vacillates between her beefy boss and an over-intellectualizing librarian, while vainly awaiting the return of that long-ago summer romance. Approx. 114 mins.

A TALE OF SUMMER
(1996) On vacation in Brittany, a guitar-toting math major hopes that his sort-of-girlfriend decides to show, but strikes up a platonic (or maybe not) friendship with already-taken ethnologist/waitress (Pauline's now grown-up Amanda Langlet), who nudges him into a summer fling with her pal...when guess who turns up. "Delicious...conjures up a cornucopia of emotional, philosophical and comic riches." -- Geoff Andrew, Time Out London. Approx. 113 mins.

A TALE OF AUTUMN
(1998) At harvest time in the Rhône valley, 40ish widowed winemaker Béatrice Romand suddenly finds herself with two potential mates: her son's girlfriend's ex and the respondent from a personal ad placed by her best friend. Best Foreign Film, National Society of Film Critics. "The work of a master with nothing left to prove but everything to give." -- Stuart Klawans, The Nation. Approx. 112 mins.

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MARIE RIVIÈRE, BÉATRICE ROMAND IN CONTE D'AUTONNE

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