Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Autumn Tale (Conte D’Automne)

Rohmer on the set with Béatrice Romand

AN AUTUMN TALE (Conte D’Automne)         A-                
from Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons
France  (112 mi)  1998  d:  Éric Rohmer

I want all men to love me—especially those I don’t love.  —Isabelle (Marie Rivière)

The final installment of Rohmer’s Tales of Four Seasons (Contes des quatre saisons, 1990–98) is vintage Rohmer, as the subject itself is the art of conversation, where one might think of this as the endless dinner conversation of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRÉ (1981), but instead taking place between three women in the pastoral elegance of rural France nestled in the sun-lit, open air vineyards of the Rhône valley.  The film is almost entirely told in light-hearted conversation and in the light of day, usually accentuating the female point of view.  Of interest, probably as much to Rohmer as to the audience, the director has brought back two women who played lead roles in earlier Rohmer films while in the full bloom of youth, now returning as mature adults, including Béatrice Romand, who played the alluring 17-year old teenager in CLAIRE’S KNEE (1970), while Marie Rivière began her collaboration in THE AVIATOR’S WIFE (1981) while also starring in Le Rayon Vert (Summer) (1986), both now in their 40’s.  What they bring to this film is a sense of effortlessness working with Rohmer, where a fictionalized story very much resembles the realism of a documentary from the extensive degree of naturalism displayed throughout, which is essential in a charming, short story kind of way, where meticulous attention to details is what makes it so interesting. 

Romand plays Magali, a widow on her own with wild, unattended hair who spends all her time tinkering around her small vineyard left to her by her family, hoping she can create a work of art, never venturing out much to socialize or reacquaint herself with the opposite sex, while Rivière plays her best friend Isabelle, who runs a bookstore in town but is rarely if ever there, instead spending as much free time in the country as she can.  She’s happily married and her daughter is about to be married, a major event in any small town, yet it’s barely mentioned except as an excuse to get Magali out of the house.  Magali’s son Léo has a girl friend Rosine, the irrepressibly gorgeous Alexia Portal, a student who had been conducting an affair with one of her professors, Étienne (Didier Sandre), a pleasant but emotionally unappealing intellectual, so now she prefers Magali’s company to Léo’s, claiming it was she that interested her in the first place, that Léo was only an afterthought.  Unforced, relaxed, and self-assured, the film oozes charm and witty intellect from the 78-year old filmmaker, where the emphasis is on the conversation between the characters, who reveal their feelings and how they relate to each other and the world around them at this particular point in their lives.

The gist of the story involves matchmaking, females plotting behind other people’s backs, planning and scheming and mapping out people’s lives for their own devious purposes while of course claiming good intentions.  Both Isabelle and Rosine secretly conspire to find appropriate suitors for Magali, unbeknownst to her and each not knowing of the other’s similar intentions.  Rosine tries to pawn off her old professor, although it appears her motives may also be to keep his paws off her, as he is reluctant to let her go, while Isabelle takes it a step further and places an ad in the personals, attracting a middle aged business man, Gérald (Alain Libolt).  It’s a bit of a surprise when Isabelle herself shows up, obviously wanting to attract his interest, slowly gaining his trust by going out on afternoon soirée’s, garnering attention that she desperately needs.  Only then does she turn the tables and report she’s only been checking him out for a friend.  The befuddled Gérald has no choice but to accept the terms of the game, here completely defined by Isabelle, who then invites him to her daughter’s wedding reception where he can meet Magali, a woman who supposedly has everything in life she could possibly want, except a companion, believing it is too late in life for her to find the right man, so for Gérald an opportunity presents itself. 

Arriving on the scene, there are twists and turns, with disguises and conniving tricks, where this turns into a comedy or errors and misdirection, where motive, opportunity, and misunderstood feelings mix with desire and attraction and a long-felt, pent-up loneliness, where there is more than a hint of melancholy in the air.  Rather than jump right into things like headstrong young lovers, there’s a feeling out process that takes time, where relationships for mature adults in the autumn of their lives resemble the care and attention needed in aging a fine wine, which if drunk too early in youth will never reach its desired complexity.  While it’s all so simple, really, and the story is told in endless conversations where the characters are so perfectly defined through the time the audience spends with them onscreen.  Other than Professor Étienne and suitor Gérald, men are all but absent in this film, mentioned, but disappearing at the first available chance.  Despite a few difficulties along route, the film is surprisingly upbeat, featuring a few exquisite locations and plenty of time with characters sitting around leisurely sipping wine as they pleasantly pass the afternoons away.  The dialogue written by Rohmer is smart, concise, and most important of all engaging, remaining subtly sophisticated and clever.  It’s a non-pretentious style of filmmaking that belongs to Rohmer alone, as there’s nothing large here, very little action to speak of, simply the charm and elegance of observing human behavior, watching people behaving wonderfully most of the time.   

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