Eric Rohmer Contains Multitudes: An Autumn Tale

An Autumn Tale (1998)

As autumn arrives here, Bram and Kaj close their series of discussions on Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons with An Autumn Tale (1998). Rohmer’s final seasonal tale invites reflections on his entire body of work. It engages with issues such as whether depth of feeling increases with age, on containing multitudes and more.

An Autumn Tale (1998)

Bram Ruiter: We’ve not had much of a summer here. More of a light spring that jumped straight into autumn, with the occasional warmer day sprinkled in for good measure. Rohmer’s France, however, looks like it’s summer all-year round, except for those few weeks where it’s actually cold. Even during the final instalment of his seasonal tales, which details an eventful autumn, the trees keep their green and the sun shines brightly. But it feels as if the autumn comes through in the transitional nature of the character’s lives: a return to the usual routine, where not everything from that careless summer can survive. And in An Autumn Tale (1998), it’s Magali’s loneliness that needs to go. But before we get into that, how was your vacation, Kaj?

An Autumn Tale (1998)

Kaj van Zoelen: Wonderful, really, thanks for asking. I got some nice summer weather in both France and Germany, did some forested mountainside cycling and hiking with great nature views, a bit of canoeing on a lake bordering Switzerland and Austria, saw some beautiful churches & castles and visited a bunch of bookstores and vineyards. Which is why it was really nice to realise, during the opening minutes of An Autumn Tale, that two of the three female protagonists run a bookshop and a vineyard respectively. In a way, watching the film after coming home to rainy, grey Dutch weather felt like a lovely extension of my vacation.

An Autumn Tale (1998)

Bram: Welcome back to our little grey corner of the planet. First of all, this might be one of my favourites of Rohmer’s. It reminds me a lot of Pauline at the Beach (1983), another favourite, in the way both films utilise comedy and the idea of a ‘tight plot’. Of course in the realm of Rohmer, nothing about his oeuvre is either tight or can his dance of philosophy, architecture and characters be called plotting, but there’s an event-based structure at the core of both films which propels a little more enthusiastically than it usually does. In this case it’s how two parties, entirely independent from each other, try to solve Magali’s celibacy: Bestie Isabelle who starts dating a man to whom she introduces herself as Magali; and the young Rosine, the girlfriend of Magali’s son, who tries to marry off her philosophy professor so that he can get over her. I could be describing an early 2000s Hollywood-produced Matthew McConaughey-starring romantic comedy, that I totally would’ve watched a gazillion times on TV. But, whereas such a film would have its plot dictate the characters’ choices, Rohmer finds guidance from within his characters and the actors that portray them. His toying around with the suggestion of a narrative without ever losing track of the humans living through these events is one of the main reasons why this became an instant favourite. But I have a weakness for these types of structural explorations. What about you? Where do you stand on this one?

An Autumn Tale (1998)

Kaj: It reminded me of Chabrol’s The Ceremony (1995), in the sense that it almost feels like a summation of certain strands of his oeuvre, a mission statement and a highlight of his career all rolled into one. All the foibles, hang-ups and lofty ideas on life and love that aren’t all that lofty are here, presented with that typical Rohmerian delight. However, is this the first time the love games in a Rohmer film are mostly between people in their 40s? Rosine and her boyfriend Léo are the only younger characters, and their relationship is the one that is least developed, only there for slight plot reasons. While Rosine is a major character, Léo is so forgettable I just had to look up his name. Even Rosine keeps saying she’ll forget about him soon enough. While we’ve seen characters like her before in Rohmer, and we’ve seen some older male lovers like her professor Etiénne, I don’t think we’ve seen women like Magali and Isabelle, the former a 45-year-old widow and her friend, happily married for decades. Nor the gentle divorcee Gérald. Despite Rohmer being 78 already when making this. Was this a sign of him ‘maturing’ or simply the result of him working again with frequent collaborators Béatrice Romand and Marie Rivière? Either way, Rohmer’s philosophies of love in An Autumn Tale have not changed much from earlier work. Which, to me, makes those smiles by Magali and Gérald when they sense a connection between each other, all the sweeter. And their fears (of opening up, but also of where their emotions come from) all the more real. Even more than before in his earlier work, the philosophies on love, emotions and psychological hang-ups feel lived-in and based on actual experience. Which in turn makes An Autumn Tale feel like a major work to me, one of those late masterpieces by a master still in full command of his craft. One which gains extra depth and resonance in the context of their career. Would you agree?

Bram: For sure! Especially after A Tale of Summer, a film we both really enjoyed, but had difficulty saying anything about except for ‘hey, that’s nice.’ It felt like he was cruising through it, retreading his steps of Boyfriends & Girlfriends (1987) and Full Moon in Paris (1984). Meanwhile, Autumn has a particular curiosity to it and I think the shift in age is definitely a big part of that. In a way, while I’m drawing comparisons, Autumn feels more in line with The Green Ray (1986) and The Aviator’s Wife (1981): his previous explorations of absent love that are a bit more high concept. And if you’ll indulge me: Winter feels more akin to My Night at Maud’s (1969), both wintery and deeply philosophical, while Springtime reminds me most of Perceval le Gallois (1978) or even The Sign of Leo (1962) in the way that they feel more experimental than others. But these comparisons could all easily shuffle around if you’d change the angle at which you’re looking at his oeuvre. And that’s getting at what you were saying, the extra depth and resonance in the context of his career. Over the course of a little over a year, you and I started this project of watching all of Rohmer’s films and reading the excellent biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe simultaneously. And because I am an enormous nerd, I’ve been trying to rank his films. Yet, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to pick a favourite or even point at an absolute masterpiece. I know the people flock to Maud’s for that, but I don’t buy it. Just like with Hong Sang-soo or Steven Soderbergh, it is the individual parts as much as the sum, the totality of each and all of Rohmer’s films, that is his masterpiece.

Kaj: It is then perhaps no coincidence that The Green Ray and The Aviator’s Wife are my personal favourites, to which I’ll now add An Autumn Tale. I was about to respond that I myself hadn’t ranked his films, but of course, I already did three years ago. I just hadn’t updated it since. I only joined the project starting with The Marquise of O… (1976), the older films are a bit further away in my memory, which is perhaps part of why I tend to favour his later work. My Night At Maud’s currently doesn’t even crack my top ten, which is not a knock against that seminal film. It is indeed difficult to rank his films, though as much as each informs the next and the sum matters much, there are things that differentiate his work more than for instance Hong, and Soderbergh is far more uneven in my experience. To me, the go-to example of what you’re talking about is Ozu, the golden standard for this. Though he has his stand-outs too, naturally, he’s the first I think of when it comes to a body of work that gets richer the more you see. Where your understanding and enjoyment of each individual artwork increases every time you see another. This is true for Rohmer too, perhaps, but more so in the case of An Autumn Tale, in which everything comes together. In which the variations on the usual themes, types and talks feel like a continuation of what came before, but also like something new and, dare I say, unique, within Rohmer’s oeuvre. This doesn’t just apply to Magali, Gerald and Étienne and their possible (or impossible) love connection, but also to Isabelle, the happily married woman who selects Gerald for Magali by pretending to be Magali on a few secret dates. Perhaps the most interesting part of An Autumn Tale is not what her machinations mean for the potential relationship between Magali and Gerald, lovely as that is, but what it does to her relationship with Magali, her own sense of self and where she has ended up in life. How much does that wonderful wistful look on her face in the last shot of the film really mean, while she dances with her husband at her daughter’s wedding?

An Autumn Tale (1998)

Bram: I like how you consider Isabelle and Magali’s friendship in light of the Gerald-adventure. And I like that you start your question with ‘how much’ instead of ‘what’. You can find a similar nuance in the way Gerald handles Isabelle’s casual reveal of her master plan. The rug is being pulled from under him and even though he does get up and follows along with the plan, Gerald is visibly shocked and even hurt. And he expresses his befuddlement and needs some time to recoil from this apparent loss. Like he said, he was falling for her. And so, by the time Gerald meets up with Isabelle at her daughter’s wedding to tell her he’s made a good first impression on Magali, they share an unplanned intimate moment. It is also the only time we see Isabelle be actively intimate with a man, as her husband is kept out of the picture. This doesn’t mean she’s not intimate with her husband, it just means we don’t see much of their relationship. All this leads back to that wistful look: maybe this is her taking some time to recoil from a bittersweet matchmaking, maybe it’s her realising she’s bored in her current relationship, maybe it’s her going over the past few weeks and mourning the end of it, or maybe it’s that’s she’s been up and about, living a double-life and now that everything’s over, she’s tired and would love to take her shoes off. And in the case of the Rohmer I’ve gotten to know and I’ve come to love, it is probably all of the above, because, as Walt Whitman wrote: we are large, we contain multitudes.

This Essay article was published in September 2021