Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt, Didier Sandre, Alexia Portal, Stéphane Darmon
Written by: Eric Rohmer
Directed by: Eric Rohmer
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 09/07/1998

Autumn Tale (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Wine in Its Time

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When he was first starting out, Eric Rohmer announced a game plan for his whole career. He would do movies in sets of four, five, or six -- the most famous being the "Moral Tales" including My Night at Maud's (1969) and Claire's Knee (1970) -- which would allow him more creative freedom. He reasoned that producers and distributors would be less likely to tamper with a movie if it was part of a series, and his ploy worked. He was able to develop a personal style and method that was singularly his own and now offers us Autumn Tale, a superb and delightful movie. Although Autumn Tale is the fourth in his "Tales of the Four Seasons" series, it stands well on its own.

In Autumn Tale a widowed winemaker named Magali (Beatrice Romand, from Claire's Knee) lives out in the country and has two best friends. One is an old classmate, Isabelle (Marie Riviere) and the other is her son's girlfriend, Rosine (the lovely Alexia Portal). Both Rosine and Isabelle decide that Magali needs a mate and try slightly devious tricks to set her up. The climax of the movie takes place at Isabelle's daughter's wedding when both suitors show up to meet Magali. The two suitors play a veritable chess game, attempting to get close to her without tipping their hands to her girlfriends' set-up. In the meantime Rohmer's camera observes from a gentle distance while throwing a warm afternoon light on the proceedings.

This is a poor capsulization of Autumn Tale, for I've made it sound like a Runaway Bride-esque Hollywood clunkfest. However, Autumn Tale is delicate and intelligent. It's in tune with the rhythms of emotions, fears, and desires. Samuel Fuller once described the cinema, "in one word: emotion." Rohmer is a master of emotions, and it's no accident that his characters are so real that we develop deep connections with them. He is a brilliant filmmaker who is able to translate his intelligence and talent into feelings that seem true. Rohmer is also brilliant with language. He is adept at creating conversations among his characters that resonate on several levels. You will hardly find a character in this movie that isn't able to hold his or her own in an intelligent conversation, whether he or she is being completely honest or cleverly deceptive.

Rohmer has been criticized with the famous line that sitting through his films is like "watching paint dry." The reason for this criticism is that Rohmer's movies contain a lot of talk and not much physical action. I'm new to Rohmer's movies (I've seen only three) but I found that it didn't take very much patience to get swept up in Autumn Tale and I was never bored. This movie has plenty of action as we root for Magali to meet and fall in love with the right man.

Rohmer has also been said to have made the same movie again and again. While I agree with this, I view it as his strength. How many other directors have we praised for making the same movie again and again? We love Martin Scorsese's mob movies, John Ford's westerns, Josef von Sternberg's lush Marlene Dietrich romances, Akira Kurosawa's Samurai movies with Toshiro Mifune, and David Cronenberg's explorations into the human body. Rohmer himself admitted that he would keep making his movies until he got them right.

If Autumn Tale were to be the 79-year-old director's last film, then I would contend that he got it right.

Autumn Tale has yet to be released on a Region 1 DVD, but viewers may be able to track down the Region 2, PAL import. It comes with English subtitles, an interview with Rohmer, a trailer and a Rohmer filmography. The quality isn't superb, and the image is pan-and-scanned, but it's definitely worth a look.

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