Conte d’automne / Autumn Tale (1998)

17 09 2013

One has to wonder if Eric Rohmer worked himself into a corner. After this film, he would not return to his usual territory, at least not superficially. This is the last film of his to all into one of his cycles, and it’s the last film that isn’t influenced by period or overt-genre nods. In a sense, it’s the last film he made that features the iconography that people associate with the director and that’s a bunch of people talking about their relationships or their non-relationships. Rohmer’s consistency and perceived repetitious nature are strengths to me, and the familiarity of Autumn Tale is just as important to my appreciation of it as its uniqueness.

1

Magali, a winemaker, lives alone on her vineyard in southern France. Her friend, Isabelle is trying to get her to come to her daughter’s wedding but Magali is less than enthusiastic. After all, she doesn’t go out much anymore and she’s not exactly comfortable being around a large group of people. Her son, Leo is involved with Rosine if only in technical terms. Rosine is still in the process of closing off a relationship with a former professor, Etienne. Rosine takes a liking to Magali and sees the chance to play matchmaker with Etienne and Magali. Meanwhile, Isabelle herself is busy trying to find Magali a suitor in time for her daughter’s wedding.

2

The film opens in a quiet and remarkable fashion. A series of static shots are placed in between the credit cards in a fashion that does suggest a nod to Ozu’s pillow shots. I’ve hinted at the filmmaker’s connection in the past, but it never felt like one that was exactly visual. Here, though, it is and fittingly, this is easily Rohmer’s best photographed film. It’s visual quality is almost jarring in a way, because breathtaking visuals are not a hallmark of the man’s work. In fact, they’re intentionally uncommon. The poetic potential of cinema risks Rohmer’s insights losing their power. This might seem like a pretty big claim, but the man himself said so as much. Personally, I don’t think anything in lost here, but I wouldn’t argue that this film is one of his most dense works. Sure, it’s loaded with plenty more than most other films, but it’s about par for the course for Rohmer.

3

There is a specificity present in Rohmer’s best films and it is present here, though I guess I connect with it less on a gut level. A Summer Tale and The Green Ray are masterpieces, but I’ll admit that they absolutely benefit from parallels I can form between them and my own life. It’s unfair for Rohmer to be penalized for simply shifting his focus to someone a little older, but perhaps I’ll always be more partial to the those mentioned above. Magali does have something in common with the 20somethings that populate the two aforementioned films: it’s that they’re all alone. Much like Delphine in The Green Ray, Magali is not alone because she wants to be, but instead because conditions are not ideal for her to meet someone. Delphine’s problem is more immediate because it comes from her heart and Magali comes from the fact that she’s exiled herself from most of the world.

4

Magali’s loneliness is the film’s center but the most interesting developments are the ones that happen outside of her isolated vineyard. The most intriguing is the relationship between Rosine and Etienne. They’re no longer together, but that is only because Rosine says so. She is apprehensive to show this in body language. She allows Etienne to touch her passionately, and only pushes him away when he attempts to undress her. She’s “with” Leo now, but she makes it quite clear that she is not interested in him in the long term. Indeed, we seldom see the two doing anything that would suggest an intimate partnership. Rosine wants Magali, who is Leo’s mother, to be with Etienne. This would hypothetically create the weird scenario where her ex could be her father-in-law.

5

Rosine is playful around all men, almost to the point that it’s enraging. Alexia Portal is pretty brilliant here, and it’s easy to see why Etienne would be hung up on her and why Leo would frustrated by her. Her business with the former seems to be unfinished, which would explain why she wants to see him with Magali. She explains that she’ll never be able to love Etienne again once he loves another women, but then also looks forward to the idea of hanging out with both of them. Etienne never really works out with Magali, mostly because she’s too old, but his presence in the film is significant because of how it relates to Rosine. She never admits she still has feelings for her former lover and her upbeat attitude doesn’t allow us to read into her intentionally remaining quiet on these desires. It’s her actions alone that suggest she might be confused about her feelings for Etienne. So often in film the audience is required to read an actor’s body language or notice technical choices to grant access into the character’s true feelings. Rohmer, of course, never allows us such access. That would be too easy.

6

With everything there is to write about Rosine (and there could plenty more beyond the above paragraph) she is nothing more than a supporting character. She gets plenty of screen time, sure, but this is a film ultimately about Magali’s isolation. On the other hand, Isabelle is just as busy finding a suitor for Magali. Thus, Isabelle and Rosine play as parallel storylines and their success and failures in playing the role of matchmaker are different. Isabelle’s intentions seem a bit more honest and transparent, she definitely wants Magali to find a man. However, she makes quite an elaborate construction to get to this point. She puts out an ad, which gets a response from Gerald. The two go on a few dates and Gerald is (understandably) under the impression that he’s dating Isabelle. It’s all just a test run to make sure he’s suitable for Magali. It seems cruel, but things end up rather nice. One moment suggests that Isabelle actually is interested in Gerald, but obviously keeps herself from feeling this because she herself is already married. Like Rosine with Etienne, we never get any lingering shots of Isabelle punctuated with longing music so we really don’t know if she’s upset that she can’t be with Gerald. Again, her confidence doesn’t give us hints into her psyche, we can only observe her actions and try to draw conclusions from that. It sounds corny to say, but the process is not only one of the most rewarding things about watching a Rohmer film but it’s also a lot of fun.

7

For once, I feel the criticism of Rohmer’s lightness actually resonating. I mean, the film “hits” (for lack of a better word) several times and it feels right in all of its observations and it has this type of sting that I associate with the filmmaker. But, on the other hand, it might be a little too unassuming. Unassuming can be used to describe a lot of Rohmer’s work and I would view it mostly as a positive, but in this case, there is something missing that prevents this film from being the amazing experience of a film like The Green Ray or A Summer Tale. If I’ve learned anything about the man, though, it’s that the endings of his films can greatly alter my feelings towards them and again, the ending has great flexibility in how you read it. The quiet sorrow of Rohmer can be viewed long after one has completed the film. That, to me, is a sign of not just a filmmaker but an artist who has left behind something very vital.

8

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