Autumn Tale

Friday July 23, 1999

     Though you wouldn't know it from Hollywood's kids 'r us obsessions, directors actually can improve as they advance in age. The droll and delicious "Autumn Tale" is the 22nd feature in 79-year-old writer-director Eric Rohmer's four-decade career, and besides being one of his wisest and most enjoyable films, it also has the light-fingered vigor and panache more chronologically youthful directors are not always able to muster.
     Rohmer, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, is one of the New Wave directors who revolutionized French film starting in the late 1950s. Over the years, he's made such favorites as "My Night at Maud's," "Claire's Knee," "Chloe in the Afternoon" and "Pauline at the Beach," all marked, as "Autumn Tale" is, by elegant, character-driven plots as carefully worked out as intricate mathematical proofs.
     Mostly, as those films indicate, Rohmer's work has focused on the male fascination with (invariably) younger women. Recently, however, not only have Rohmer's titles gotten simpler ("Autumn Tale" was preceded by "Summer's Tale," "Winter's Tale" and "Tale of Springtime," all part of his decade-long "Tales of the Four Seasons" series), but he has tended to see things more from the female point of view.
     "Autumn Tale" is also unusual for Rohmer because it's involved with women "of a certain age," focusing on the romantic difficulties of a 45-year-old widow and the increasingly frenetic efforts of the well-intentioned but misguided friends who try to help her.
     Rohmer has retained not only the assurance that comes with great experience, but also his marvelous sense of character. It's a pleasure to have a writer-director who understands people so well; his sense of how the combination of good intentions and faulty judgment can land us in a terrible mess is both compassionate and exact.
     More than anything, Rohmer's people love to talk. Passionate about their own thoughts and ideas (though not necessarily anyone else's), these formidably articulate individuals analyze, reflect on and consider everything they do--not once but several times--all to magnificent effect.
     The main talkers are two longtime friends living in the Cote du Rhone region of southern France: Magali (Beatrice Romand, who debuted in 1970's "Claire's Knee") and her closest confident, Isabelle (Marie Riviere, also in Rohmer's acting stable). Happily married Isabelle is dealing with her daughter's impending wedding, while Magali, a bit estranged from both her grown children, devotes herself to the winery left her by her parents.
     An early scene of these two women walking and talking among Magali's plantings illustrates the subtlety of Rohmer's approach. Nominally nothing of substance is discussed as the two women wander aimlessly amid the vines, but, in fact, everything we need to know about both of them, about Magali's forthrightness and stubborn candor as well as Isabelle's flighty, not quite practical nature, is gracefully revealed, as is the intimacy they share.
     Chatting later in the farmhouse, Magali reveals that while she would like to have a man in her life, she's all but given up on the idea as impossible. "It's the hardest thing of all," she explains. "At my age, it's easier to find buried treasure!" Prospects are even more unlikely in her case because, as Magali is the first to admit, "I need to meet a man but I refuse to do anything about it."
     Undaunted, Isabelle, who owns a bookstore, forms a plan to help her friend out. Not only does she place a misleading personal ad ("Fun-loving, lively, sociable") in Magali's name in the local newspaper, she also decides, in an excess of comradely zeal combined with a desire to bring a little flirtation into her own life, to impersonate her friend and test-date Gerald (Alain Libolt), the most likely of the candidates, herself.
     Also for personal reasons, someone else is simultaneously trying to act as matchmaker for Magali. The beautiful young Rosine (Alexia Portal) is nominally the girlfriend of Magali's son Leo, but her strongest emotional attachment is to Magali.
     Young though she is, Rosine has romantic complications of her own. She's trying to get over a love affair with her insufferable college philosophy professor Etienne (Didier Sandre). Ignoring his obsession with young women, she thinks that if she's successful in hooking him up with Magali, she'll have succeeded in killing two birds with the same stone.
     These romantic shenanigans are all the more appealing because Rohmer understands that when adults are involved with affairs of the heart, their nominal maturity often disappears, leaving them as shy, awkward and accident-prone as the most love-struck teenager. When you're going out on a first date, it's always high school in your mind.
     With his characters hatching more and more complicated schemes, Rohmer delights in revealing how we inevitably complicate our lives simply by being human. When Isabelle writes in her personal ad that what's wanted is a man "interested in moral as well as physical beauty," she could be describing this consummate filmmaker just as easily as Magali's imaginary dream date.

Autumn Tale, 1999. PG, for mild thematic elements. A Les films du Losange production, with the participation of Canal+, Sofimka, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, released by October Films/USA Films. Director Eric Rohmer. Producers Francoise Etchegary, Margaret Menegoz, Eric Rohmer. Screenplay Eric Rohmer. Cinematographer Diane Baratier. Editor Mary Stephen. Words and Music Claude Marti, Gerard Pansanel, Pierre Peyras, Antonello Salis. Sound Pascal Ribier. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Marie Riviere as Isabelle. Beatrice Romand as Magali. Alain Libolt as Gerald. Didier Sandre as Etienne. Alexia Portal as Rosine. Stephane Darmon as Leo.

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