A Tale of Autumn
We remember Eric Rohmer for many pleasures, among them his great trio "My Night at Maud's," "Claire's Knee," and "Chloe in the Afternoon," the films that brought us from the revolutionary sixties into the sophisticated seventies. And then, after the missteps of "The Marquise of O" and "Perceval," he found himself again with "Pauline at the Beach" and "Le Beau Mariage."
The oldest of the group that came to be known as the New Wave, and often mistakenly included with them, he actually made his first film in 1950, and had already been the editor of 'Cahiers du Cinema' before Godard and Truffaut made their first films; he never quite fit in stylistically with that thundering herd. He went his own way, writing and directing all his films, most of which have been infused in some sense with his warm Catholicism, a sensibility not of ritual or dogma but a kind of tolerant, understanding love.
"A Tale of Autumn" is the final story in his 'seasons' group, and it tells the story of Magali (Beatrice Romand), a widowed 45-year-old winemaker in the Cotes du Rhone, whose two grown children have little interest in her or her vineyards. Her best friend Isabelle (Marie Riviere), trying to help her find a man, places an ad in the personals column, to screen potential suitors for Magali. And of course she doesn't tell Magali what she's doing. At the same time Magali's son's girlfriend wants to make her a match with her own former teacher and lover. Two plots on a collision course, as often happens in Rohmer films. But as also happens in his films, everyone is resilient enough to survive the kinds of missteps and obstacles he places in their way, and by the end of the harvest we know that all will be well.
The mark of a Rohmer film has always been the conversation his people are consumed by. There are no awkward pauses, no inarticulate boobies, nor any strong silent types in a Rohmer film. Everyone speaks, a lot; and throughout his career that dialogue has been the great pleasure of the films. His people speak well and interestingly and thoughtfully, and often with subtle wit. And as they deal with the conundrums he's given them to play with they charm us and instruct us in the finer points of the good, the true, and the moral -- in the very best sense of those words.
Here in "A Tale of Autumn" the story is charming, the acting is fine, but we can see in the film some unhappy signs of Rohmer showing his age. Intricate staging and choreography were never his strong points, but here he has staged his scenes like a high school play. Two people talk, one stands, the other moves to a chair, the first sits, the second comes around behind the first, the first moves away, the second sits down, the first stands up -- there is an awkward, really an amateurish look to every scene. People move, stand, sit, walk, without motivation, apparently just in order to hold our interest. And even more upsetting to one who has loved Rohmer for many years, the quality of his script is not nearly up to the outline of his own story line. People repeat themselves needlessly, they state the obvious -- something the younger Rohmer would never have allowed -- and they seem drained of wit. There's a sloppiness in the editing as well. Shots don't match, as people move out of one place while talking, and find themselves in the same place in the next shot.
Perhaps this is the end for Mr. Rohmer's filmmaking career, but we can't be sad, for in his long and prolific career he has given us some of the most beautiful films ever made. Let's just thank him for that gift.