Gathering Leaves

Director Eric Rohmer tells his Autumn Tale--and a seasoned critic turns the page

There's a Shabby Chic air to Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale. Rohmer is in his 70s now, but he seems to have always had the venerable and reflective traits of an old man--ever since his My Night at Maud's presented a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who essentially spent a whole movie talking himself out of a romantic fling. Rohmer's modesty and traditionalism go against the grain of his more aggressive French New Wave cohorts like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. And yet he's a stylish charmer. He's like an affable theology student who can hold his own with suaver and more secular types, and who can give their thoughts a twist without necessarily converting them. He's sneaky--and likable.

Like many of Rohmer's movies, Autumn Tale is part of a larger project, an extended argument. In 1972 he finished the last of his six "Moral Tales" (Chloe in the Afternoon), and now this movie rounds out a "Four Seasons" package that has looked at people of various ages, all trapped in romantic and social predicaments. Here the person most befuddled by the lack of a partner is Magali (Beatrice Romand), a widow who insists she's happy with her remote vineyard, but who shows slight, then deeper interest in the hope of a blind date or two. Predictably, Magali is in the "autumn" of middle age, and there's a little symbolic talk about nurturing and old growth--but at least Frank Sinatra doesn't come on singing "It Was a Very Good Year."

Magali is as stubborn as her friend Isabelle (Marie Rivière) is adventurous. Sensing that she could do a favor for her near-hermitic friend, the happily married Isabelle takes out a personals ad in Magali's name. When a sweet yet nebbishy executive named Gerald (Alain Libolt) responds, Isabelle agrees to meet with him, pretending to be Magali. Meanwhile, Magali's son's girlfriend Rosine (Alexia Portal), who loves her more than her boyfriend, thinks she also has a candidate in her oily and manipulative ex-professor (and ex-lover) Leo (Stéphane Darmon). The whole arrangement (plus a few other plot diversions) isn't quite classic French farce, and neither is it too far removed from some Lifetime made-for-cable movie.

Blowin' in the wind: Marie Rivière in Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale
Blowin' in the wind: Marie Rivière in Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale

Compared to slicker stories from any country, Autumn Tale is casual and friendly and fresh, but in fact it's nothing new. Rohmer wants to show how people deceive themselves, how good intentions and private selfishness can create small and mostly funny emotional accidents. Magali is clearly too proud, too pretty, and too skittish not to have a man in her life, and while no overt resolution takes place, by film's end she seems headed for something she deserves. The characters around her are just as self-deluded, but their interactions are almost hopelessly coincidental.

Yet Rohmer isn't exactly making Vous avez du courrier here. What saves him from the glib rhythms of a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy is his willingness to leave some reality in the mix. His cast is made up entirely of professional actors (and Rivière and Romand are seasoned Rohmer veterans), yet they seem more like interesting librarians or well-read dental assistants or sales managers who take time to think about stuff. In the bargain, they are clothed and filmed in nearly humdrum fashion. True to her character, Magali rarely combs her wild hair and wears frumpy sweaters; a long and important conversation between her and Isabelle takes place in a vineyard where a strong wind makes the women constantly pull back their hair. Ordinarily, the director of a Julia Roberts or a Meg Ryan would wait until the wind died down, but Rohmer is both economical in budget and receptive to the intrusions of "ordinary" experience.

This attitude makes the gifts of his actors even more impressive. Rivière in particular seems always ready to say something other than what she actually does; various alternative words and phrases take physical form in her mouth, and she chews on them before coming up with her final options. In a comedy carried largely by dialogue, others contribute to this sense of contemplation--they don't telegraph their punch lines, and they mute what are sometimes fairly hurtful truths or attacks. The body language is fresh, and the adroit camerawork makes some complicated choreography (especially at a concluding wedding party) seem accidental when it clearly isn't.

So Rohmer becomes a fairly rare beast in the movies (whether foreign or domestic)--a curiously persuasive moralist. He ends his movie with a song about the blessings of longstanding (married) romance and good "weather" on life's journey. It sounds more like a church benediction than a pop song, despite its jazzy beat. It's an old-fashioned message in a very hip wrapping, from someone who can only be called (without irony) a compassionate conservative.

 

 

This will have to be my last review for City Pages. As a just-50 member of the Sandwich Generation, I have realized that other parts of a full life have to take priority over these irregular deliveries of opinion. It's been a fun ride, but other roads are bigger on my map.

When I started reviewing films, I was 30 years old and one of what I think was a half-dozen people in town with an advanced film degree. I was snotty and determined to be erudite, and was especially set on not being like the daily newspaper guys (and they were all guys). I was going to cover film like a pro, not an amateur.

Time and the often goofy work climate at this paper have tempered my attitude; where once I hoarded column space as the paper's only film critic I'm now happy to see many voices speaking up. I trust the local audience more to have its own mind, and I realize they can be erudite in their own ways, thanks to the educational catch-up of the VCR. I think it's okay to write as an amateur, if that means being an interesting and enterprising writer who happens to cover movies. Thanks also to innovative venues (Walker Art Center, U Film Society, Oak Street Cinema, Red Eye Cinema, Uptown Theatre/Lagoon Cinema, Parkway Theatre), these are good cities for seeing, discussing, and writing about movies, and I think City Pages and all its writers have helped to make that happen.

Things have happened in my 21-year relationship to movies as a critic that I still don't get or am embarrassed by. I don't get the appeal of horror, period, and David Cronenberg in particular. Todd Haynes leaves me cold; Todd Solondz amazes me. I don't see why general audiences don't take movies for kids more seriously. And I apologize right now for accepting that press junket for Three Men and a Little Lady. In a larger sense, I both don't get and apologize for the weird but apparently necessary relationship between thoughtful reviewing and the marketing of a movie. I guess I should be proud that few of my phrases were ever quoted in movie ads.

All the time I've been paid by the column at this paper, I've been teaching college by the course, primarily at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and (for a time) Metropolitan State University. Now I'm full time (with a pension!) at MCAD and loving it, and I've got wonderful teenagers with published bylines, and a wife who loves me, and a mother pushing 89 who's on the mend but remains alert and fascinating. I have more real life in my life than the fictions of movies can compete with, so for the foreseeable future I'll join you in the audience. Thanks for reading, if you did.

 

Autumn Tale starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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