AUTUMN TALE

Directed and written by Eric Rohmer

With Béatrice Romand, Marie Riviere, Alexia Portal, Alain Libolt and Didier Sandre

Distributed by October Films

***


Whenever I hear someone castigate French films as all talk and no fun, I suspect he or she has been traumatized by an encounter with an Eric Rohmer film. Although he's influenced filmmakers as disparate as Arnaud Desplechin, Whit Stillman and Claude Sautet, I doubt his hipness quotient, even in the era of MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S and CLAIRE'S KNEE, has ever matched that of Godard or Truffaut. His knack for dialogue may even have worked against a full appreciation of his work. Many reviews rave about its subtlety and intellectual tone in a way that inadvertently makes the films themselves sound like genteel fluff. In its own low-key way, Rohmer's style is actually quite extreme: in AUTUMN TALE, he once again constructs a powerful drama through a rigorous concentration on the small moments of everyday life.

Because wine-grower Magali (Béatrice Romand) has lived alone since the death of her husband, her best friend Isabelle (Marie Riviere) decides to play matchmaker. Since Magali refuses to actively seek out a man, Isabelle places a personal ad on her behalf and ends up going on several dates with Gerald (Alain Libolt), pretending to be Magali. Eventually, she tells him the truth, planning to bring the two together at her daughter Emilia's wedding. Meanwhile, Rosine (Alexia Portal), who's dating Magali's son Léo, tries to hook Magali up with her former professor Etienne (Didier Sandre), who will also be attending the wedding.

Although Isabelle and Rosine have hatched their plans for Magali separately, the latter is the more manipulative of the two. While treating Léo diffidently, she flirts with Etienne, all the while treating him as a possible suitor for Magali. In fact, she even tells Etienne that she dates Léo in order to get close to Magali. If Isabelle and Rosine weren't so well-intentioned, their behavior would look horribly sinister, but the film's basic set-up could also lay the ground for a screwball comedy. Rohmer knowingly toys with comic standbys like chance meetings and mistaken identities, especially when Isabelle tries to converse with Gerald just as Magali would.

Were AUTUMN TALE a straightforward romantic comedy, Magali and Gerald (or maybe Magali and Etienne) would fall into each other's arms at the wedding and wind up head over heels in love. If it were played solely for pathos, Isabelle and Magali's friendship might be ruined forever. However, Rohmer is hardly a conventional screenwriter: his film ends where most screenplays would begin their third act. In fact, he doesn't seem quite as concerned with Magali's possible romance as Isabelle and Rosine are: the tangled web of friendship, attraction and rivalry between these three women gets just as much attention. Once Magali finally discovers Isabelle's plan and meets Gerald and Etienne, she really comes into her own. Romand's performance brilliantly conveys the way one's emotions can change second by second on such a difficult occasion. Up to this point, Magali's self-loathing, mostly stemming from the (often justifiable) belief that single men always prefer young girls to women in their forties, has kept her passive, but her anger at Gerald and Isabelle finally breaks down this wall. Rather than settling for comfortable conclusions about her future, Rohmer depicts the beginning of a long journey out of her shell.

Magali sees her wine business as a craft rather than a trade, and this appellation also fits Rohmer's self-effacing - and seemingly artless- direction. Because of this restraint - the French magazine LES INROCKUPTIBLES has hailed him as "a director of the invisible" - it's tempting to treat his films strictly as a showcase for their performances and screenplay. In the past, I've certainly been guilty of this condescension myself. However, he's always been extremely attentive to his characters' surroundings - a sensitivity that extends to sound design- and AUTUMN TALE vividly evokes the Rhone valley without the usual quota of breathtaking vistas. (In any case, someone usually stands in the foreground blocking these vistas.) As strongly as the landscape's presence comes across, the characters always remain at center stage. Just as Magali refuses to weed her grape fields, cinematographer Diane Baratier preserves the grit of these rural locations.

Although I'm often attracted to austere, minimalist films, I found it easier to respect AUTUMN TALE than to feel passionately about it, perhaps because I found it too distanced to be particularly moving. Despite this barrier, its virtues are rare and refreshing. Rohmer respects his audience's ability to find as much pleasure in a leisurely character study as in the snappy humor and plot twists of the Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks comedies that he occasionally brings to mind, and takes a welcome interest in middle-aged women's lives: few recent films have offered three female characters as complex and interesting as Magali, Isabelle and Rosine. I doubt this film will convert anyone who was bored to tears by Rohmer's others, but it's another small addition to his collection of miniature gems.