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Tale (Conte d'automne) (1998)
Eric Rohmer completes his quartet of the seasons with Autumn
Tale - very engaging, very smart, very talky, very French, and most of all, very wise.
Rohmer, nearly eighty years old, has been making films for forty years. He has always
brought intelligence and sensitivity to his work; age and long experience have seasoned
his wisdom and honed his skills. He pares his tales to their essentials, spins them out
with rich dialogue, and brings them to life with impeccable direction of fine performers.
Central to Autumn Tale is
Magali (Beatrice Romand), a widow and the mother of two grown children, living in the
Rhone Valley where she has a small vineyard. She is devoted to the quality of her grapes
and prefers to let weeds grow amongst the vines, rather than taint the flavor of the
grapes with pesticides. (The ongoing metaphors built around vineyards and vintages aren't
new, but they are neither inappropriate nor overdone here. Rohmer doesn't insist on
things; he puts them on the table for your consideration.)
Magali admits to her good friend
Isabelle (Marie Riviere) that with her children away she is lonely and would like a man
in her life, but she immediately raises her defenses. "At my age, it's easier to find
buried treasure," she says. Romand manages to convey Magali's emotional neediness
without diluting her strength and independence, characteristics that are part of what
makes her both complex and a three dimensional person up on the screen.
Age and aging and the experience of
midlife, when the kids are off on their own and the blush of youth has disappeared with
them, is a central concern of Autumn Tale. Rohmer explores these themes only as
embedded within the very real - and likable - characters he has created. It is a pleasure
to sit at a table in front of Magali's house and listen to her talk with Isabelle.
Intelligent and articulate, they are able to express their nuances of feeling and mood,
sharing that kind of intimacy with each other and, by default, with us.
Isabelle, unknown to Magali, places
a personal ad and meets several times with Gerald (Alain Libolt), a pleasant corporate
type, finally admitting to him that she is really screening for her friend. Once again, we
are sitting at a table, this time in a restaurant as these two go through the initial
verbal sparring of meeting someone new. The conversation between Isabelle and Gerald
crystallizes what Rohmer does so well - his characters listen to each other. There
is real dialogue, not just people talking, but people hearing and responding and
adjusting to each other in the myriad subtle ways that people do.
While Isabelle is plotting her
matchmaking, so, too, is young Rosine (Alexia Portal), a student who has befriended
Magali, meeting her as a consequence of dating Magali's son. Rosine wants to bring her
former lover, a professor with a taste for younger women (who still lusts for Rosine)
together with Magali. You never think for a moment that that will work, but Rohmer has
planted it as a foil for Isabelle's plan. Rosine, beautiful and desirable in her youth, is
also not very wise in managing her own, no less other's relationships. "Some women
never grow old," she blithely declares. We know what she means and at the same time
we see her failure to understand that we all do grow old, that Magali is growing
older and feeling damned insecure about it, too.
All comes to a climax at Isabelle's
daughter's wedding, where all the characters come together for the first time. By then,
you feel you've known these people for years, you care what happens to them, you have an
emotional stake in the outcome - all understated, all gradually developed over an hour and
a half of talk. Rohmer climbs under your skin with his characters to share with you what
he has seen and learned. It works intellectually, it works emotionally. The ending - an
upbeat, utterly adult resolution - fits Rohmer's design to a T.
Above and beyond the content and
experience of the film itself is the delicious pleasure of seeing the work of a master
who, after all these decades, hasn't peaked. Rohmer just gets better and better--like
- Arthur Lazere