Éric Rohmer's films (My Night at Mauds, 1969, The Green Ray, 1986) redefine the notion of intrigue. Seemingly so simple, mundane and uneventful – comprising glimpses of people talking, eating, walking, working – Rohmer's brilliantly scripted pieces absorb the viewer in interpersonal tangles more tense and mysterious than any thriller.
Now in his mid-eighties, Rohmer has based his career on portraying people rather like himself: urbane, literate and highly cultured. His characters tend to be middle-class professionals of all stripes: artists, bureaucrats, shop owners, architects.
On the surface, every aspect of this French lifestyle, from family ceremonies to vacation rituals, seems perfectly ordered, sane and civilised. Rohmer respects the elegance and cultivation of this surface, but he is more interested in what it conceals – all the doubts, fears, games, desires and perversities harboured by his characters.
In Autumn Tale – the last of his "Tales of the Four Seasons" series begun in 1989 – Magali (Béatrice Romand) is a middle-aged mother and farmer in the southern Rhone valley. Now and again, her despair over lacking a partner peeps through. So her closest girlfriends rally to the cause: Isabelle (Marie Rivière), secure and happy in her own marriage and career; and Rosine (Alexia Portal), the sophisticated girlfriend of Magali's young son, Leo (Stéphane Darmon).
Isabelle secretly places an ad in the local newspaper and screens the ensuing applicant, Gerald (Alain Libolt). Concurrently, Rosine approaches her ex-teacher of philosophy, suave Etienne (Didier Sandre). But these are instantly ambiguous situations: Isabelle takes a long time toying with Gerald's affections; Rosine and Etienne are ex-lovers. Furthermore, Rosine confesses that she feels more deeply for Magali than for Leo.
Many of Rohmer's films have trained a loving but ironic eye upon the dilemmas and manners of glamorous youth. Now that he has reached a contemplation of life's autumn – times and places are always richly symbolic in his work – there is a deeper, keener melancholy at work. As in Rohmer's best, darkest films (such as Full Moon in Paris, 1984) the full implications of the story are never directly stated; it is up to us to feel the mood and read the hints.
In every way, Autumn Tale is vintage Rohmer. All the lines of this story converge on the wedding party held for Isabelle's daughter. Here the intrigue plays itself out, but in surprising ways. Like a master crime novelist, Rohmer keeps us guessing as to which plot line will be central and which will turn out to be the red herring.
Throughout, Rohmer hones his familiar style of staging and filming seemingly ordinary interactions. The way his characters sit, stand, move, glance, drink, embrace: every detail is rich, telling and superbly orchestrated. Rohmer is so firmly in command of such naturalism that he can allow tiny diversions into farce, as when characters interrupt each other unexpectedly or mull around awkwardly in the background.
Autumn Tale is among the great films of the late '90s. A special word, however, to projectionists: do not raise the lights, draw the curtains or stop the projector before the conclusion of the final image after the credits (all three sins were committed at a public session I attended). The entire movie builds to and depends upon this vision.
© Adrian Martin March 2000