It has been almost 40 years since Eric Rohmer, riding the crest of the French New Wave, embarked on the first of his Six Moral Tales. The series would eventually include at least two classics -- My Night at Maud's (1969) and Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). Linked by theme, style and Rohmer's native wit, each of the six films focused on the temptations that face a man in the absence of a woman he ostensibly loves.
Today, this impeccably literate storyteller ("Why be a filmmaker if you can be a novelist?" Rohmer once asked) is still exploring the mysteries of love, loneliness and morality -- and he's still doing it at length, like a novelist writing chapters.
The fourth and last film of Rohmer's Tales of the Four Seasons cycle is called Autumn Tale (Conte D'Automne) and, like its predecessors, concerns romantic choice, the emotional tension between generations, and the complexities of friendship. Rohmer's powers of observation have not waned at age 79, and his sense of humor seems keener than ever. It's autumn now for this great moviemaker, and his accumulated wisdom is evident.
Like his old friends François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, Rohmer has such a beautiful way with actors that we very quickly forget their artifice, and the protagonists here seem deceptively simple -- until the director strikes deep into their interior. Isabelle (Marie Rivière) is an attractive, sophisticated bookseller who has been happily married for 24 years and feels at ease in town. Her best friend, Magali (Rohmer veteran Béatrice Romand), is a widowed winemaker with an unkempt mane who is at home only in her dusty vineyard and who professes to care only about making a superior bottle of Côtes du Rhône. But Isabelle knows better, and so does a playful young student named Rosine (newcomer Alexia Portal), who's dating Magali's son, Leo (Stephane Darmon), but finds herself more drawn, intellectually and emotionally, to his earthy mother.
Unbeknownst to the other, Rosine and Isabelle each conspire to make a match for the outwardly resistant Magali, and another complex Rohmer plot unfurls. While Rosine steers her older ex-lover, a vain philosophy professor named Etienne (Didier Sandre), in Magali's direction, Isabelle uses a bogus romance ad to recruit a sensitive divorced salesman named Gérald (Alain Libolt) as a candidate for her lonely friend's affections.
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These twin ploys may sound a bit calculated, but they give Rohmer the chance to enrich his romantic fable with ambiguities. Not only do Isabelle and Rosine want the best thing for their friend, they want it for themselves as well: When it comes time to give up the catches they've made for Magali, both women are a bit hesitant. In Isabelle's case, this is understandable: Gérald is a gem, with beautiful manners and a nice sense of humor, and he turns the head of even a happily married woman. For Rosine, the reluctance to let go may be more complex: Etienne is a classic philanderer, doomed to chase a new skirt every semester, but he's also the man who ignited this young woman's intellect, and she can't forget that.
Meanwhile, the object of their efforts is no pushover. On the day that Isabelle's daughter is married, the shy but willful Magali unravels the matchmaking when both designated "husbands" show up. Amid laughter and misunderstanding, Autumn Tale blossoms into a lovely but vigorously unsentimental meditation on the sting of loneliness and the possibilities of love -- and the futility of trying to define them. Like all of Rohmer's work -- 22 films and counting -- this one is full of sympathy for the miscalculations of humankind and has an uncommon grasp of our weaknesses. As with cruder romantic comedies, we root for the embattled lovers to succeed, but we know Rohmer won't make it easy. His world, like ours, is a baffling place devoid of hearts and flowers or easy answers.
Admirers of the earlier films in the cycle will likely be moved and delighted by the echoes they find here. In Summer's Tale, an awkward student must choose from among three women; in Winter's Tale, a single mother is romanced by two men; and in Tale of Springtime, a philosophy student tries to set up a friendly teacher with her lonely father. Those elements are all reprised, in one form or another, in Autumn Tale, and the effect is like visiting old friends in Rohmer Country. Watching this exceptionally smart and charming film, you may even feel that you've come home late and the old man is waiting up for you -- not with a stern look and a lecture, but with a glass of wine and a word of wisdom.