“The script glides blissfully through some well-tested concepts, and does so with abundant charm and knowing wit.”
by Ken Bakely
Is there something special to be said about a movie which is thoroughly familiar but still greatly enjoyable? That’s certainly how one could describe Éric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale, the final entry in his Tales of the Four Seasons quadrilogy. The script glides blissfully through some well-tested concepts, and does so with abundant charm and knowing wit, a kind of approach which Rohmer’s films gorgeously champion with gracious ease. There is an understanding of humanity which is present in his work, and this particular series, as it cyclically represents universal themes and feelings throughout the analogy of a repeating climate pattern, properly emphasizes the reliable and accessible feelings which capture as all – it’s as definite as the passage of the seasons.
Set in the winemaking Rhône region of southern France, Autumn Tale follows Magali (Béatrice Romand). She is a vintner, who, at middle age, is a widow with two grown children. She loves her job and enjoys the success she has attained, but feels lonely without a husband or kids in the house, and occasionally wonders if she could ever find another partner. Yet she tells her friend Isabelle (Marie Riviere) that she would never be so desperate to place a personal ad in the newspaper, as she feels the only men who contact women through such routes are “idiots and perverts”.
But Isabelle is intrigued by the prospect of helping her friend, and secretly runs the advertisement, pre-screening the men herself. Simultaneously, Rosine (Alexia Portel), another close acquaintance, begins attempts to set up Magali with Etienne (Dieter Sandre), a local philosophy professor. He and Rosine dated at one point, and she feels that the two would get along quite well. Magali, entirely oblivious of her friends’ attempts at matchmaking, will soon find herself entwined in these two plots. And so the million-dollar question is posed – can it all work out?
You may be rolling your eyes as you read that plot synopsis, and I don’t blame you. It seems all too familiar, doesn’t it? This is the kind of film that plays in exceedingly safe and shallow waters, but the thing is that it does so with a low-key, rustic charm. Cinematographer Diane Baratier brings a sun-soaked ebullience to the proceedings, much as she did when shooting A Summer’s Tale. However, instead of that movie’s beach setting, Autumn Tale takes place within the French countryside. Scenes pass through neatly-rowed vineyards, as Mont Ventoux towers in the distant background. Others take place in a nearby town, as the carefully preserved architecture of the community’s center add yet another quaint angle to the picture’s humble aesthetic.
It’s a look as warm and comforting as the story itself, which is a smartly written examination of various kinds of interpersonal relationships – friends, family, and lovers. Rohmer is dutifully aware that he is, at times, treading in well-known territory, and as a result, makes sure that his characters are intelligent people who have endearing, knowledgeable conversations. These aren’t the cardboard kooks that you find in one of Hollywood’s dime-a-dozen romantic comedies. What we have are adults, who, even when they make comically nearsighted or unusual decisions, do so with a degree of rationality which has been clearly thought out in the script.
Éric Rohmer was a filmmaker who could captivate us with the strength of the characters he created. In Autumn Tale, we are brought to recognize Magali’s conflict. She wants to find a companion, but feels that she does not need one all the same – she is an independent woman, a professional, and she has friends and family who she visits with frequently. It is this balance, a want but not a need, perhaps, which this movie presents to us. This may not be a very great film, and after its 112 minutes have passed, you’re not likely to remember it as anything special, but you are enchanted by these characters and their world. You wouldn’t mind spending more time with them. They are well-conceived, and act as people do. In the end, isn’t that all you could ask for from a movie like this?