Will the current craze for filmed Shakespeare and the ongoing one for genteel adaptations of 19th-century novels vault the great miniaturist Eric Rohmer beyond his own long-established niche? Here is an auteur whose movies are as richly verbal as any stage play, as steeped in romantic complication as Edith Wharton, and, albeit less obviously so, as purely cinematic as those of his model, Alfred Hitchcock.
Autumn Tale, the latest and perhaps the last Rohmer opus, is set somewhere in the Rhône valley in the south of France. Summer may be ending, but meals are still taken alfresco and talk of marriage is in the air. The film’s opening scene has the fortysomething Isabelle (Marie Rivière) discussing daughter Émilia’s wedding, then musing on the lonely situation of her best friend, Magali (Béatrice Romand), a widow with a small vineyard and an empty nest.
Hoping to find the diffident Magali an appropriate suitor, Isabelle, who owns a bookstore in town (proof of her business acumen and romantic imagination), places a discreet personal ad in a local paper. Then, posing as Magali—who, of course, knows nothing of this scheme—Isabelle dates the most promising prospective swain, a pied-noir salesman named Gerald (played with smooth eligibility by Alain Libolt), before comically disorienting him with the explanation that she is only a surrogate.
Nor is Isabelle the only one to ponder the seemingly self-sufficient Magali’s romantic situation. Adding to the confusion, the precocious student Rosine (Alexia Portal), girlfriend to Magali’s son Léo but even more devoted to Magali, is hatching her own plot to fix up the older woman. Even more ambitious than Isabelle, Rosine hopes to kill two birds with a single stone by matching Magali with her own older lover (and former philosophy professor) Étienne and thus force an end to their relationship.
Headstrong and self-possessed, Rosine is full of youthful arrogance, playing at being Jane Austen’s Emma even while staging, behind her own back, some sort of oedipal scenario. She’s the callowest of the principals—as Rohmer’s vineyard metaphor none too subtly suggests, aging is to be desired. As the obscure and unknowing object of desire, Romand—wide-eyed and pouty, with a great corona of frizzy hair—becomes an increasingly interesting character as the action proceeds. Indeed, for those of a certain age, Autumn Tale derives considerable subtext from her presence along with Rivière, another Rohmer veteran; both first appeared in his movies when they were gamines.
“What’s got into you all?” Magali asks at one point, as well she might. Like any number of previous Rohmer films, Autumn Tale is a comedy predicated on two rival strategies. The sullen Léo, who doesn’t seem to like his mother much, is appalled by Rosine’s “monstrous” attempt to match Magali and Étienne (whom he fails to recognize as a rival). “Kids shouldn’t mess in their parents’ lives,” he explains, to which Rosine responds that Étienne is not her father.This sort of elaborate minor-key argument is the essence of cinema Rohmer.
It is one of the director’s paradoxes that, compared to those in most other movies, his “naturalistic” actors give performances that seem as stylized as those found in the silent cinema. Typically sharing the screen with another avid conversationalist (rather than appearing in shot-countershot), Rohmer’s creatures express themselves as much by “talking” (and listening) as by what they actually say. Speech has a material character—in addition to constant chatter, the soundtrack is rich with the sound of rustling leaves and barking dogs.
Its season notwithstanding, Autumn Tale has more of a summertime indolence than the brisk pace of fall.But if the carefully planted romantic intrigue is serenely slow to ripen, the process is never less than intriguing. Events finally reach fruition at Émilia’s wedding. This lengthy set piece is staged with Rohmer’s mathematical plot construction and shot with an analytical eye—as well as the droll recognition that anything can happen at the marriage carnival.
Autumn Tale is not one of Rohmer’s series of “moral tales,” but it does suggest a few pop-song truisms: to wit, “to everything there is a season” because “you can’t hurry love.” The he-said, she-said shenanigans suggest that high school may be eternal but autumn has its wisdom. In the last scene, the 78-year-old filmmaker brings his favorite conspirator back for a last dance—it’s a vintage performance that invites applause.
The title of Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September refers to a season of life, and that’s scarcely the only Rohmerian aspect to the French cineaste’s adventurous if disappointing follow-up to his art house firecracker Irma Vep. Assayas’s portrait of a half-dozen still-youngish Parisians is deliberately structured, steeped in dailiness, and filled with constant conversation—it’s very much a series of one-on-one scenes concerned with issues of love, work, and real estate.
Of course, the hyperkinetic Assayas style has almost nothing in common with Rohmer’s understated understatement. Rather, Assayas has a showy facility for long, fluid takes and complicated ensemble acting. Shot vérité-style in Super-16, Late August, Early September exults in this. The elliptical opening sequences, mainly hectic handheld close-ups, introduce a surplus of characters and material. Much of the action thereafter is disconcertingly oblique and brusque—albeit softened and distanced by African musician Ali Farka Toure’s elusive fretted-instrument score.
If the film’s focus is not immediately apparent—lost in a clutter of purposefully banal interactions—it may be that Assayas is treating us to a somewhat older cohort than in his earlier films. Mainly in their thirties, most of his characters are already burdened by history—emotionally tied to their ex-lovers or jointly owned apartments, worried about their career choices, and haunted by a sense of failure. The focal point is the group’s senior member, a serious novelist named Adrien (François Cluzet); the protagonist is his admirer Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), a would-be writer caught between his relationship with the warmly nostalgic Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) and a gorgeous, but manic, younger woman (Virginie Ledoyan).
The boyish and slightly feral Amalric—who played a not dissimilar role several years ago in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument—is not always easy to read, but then all the characters lack definition. Or rather, they are defined only in relation to each other. Assayas is at his best with a close-up pan through the crowd at a smoky nightclub or choreographing the emotional complexity of a scene in which a gaggle of old friends reminisce. But too often, the movie sinks into an amorphous state of emotional torpor.
Late August, Early September unfolds over the course of a year. Gabriel ends one relationship and embarks on another, gets (and quits) his first “real” job, and loses a friend to death. The movie exits leaving a trail of vignettes that seem to have been designed to show that life goes on. It’s a pretty slight payoff for such a diffuse plot. In the end it seems to be the filmmaker, not Gabriel, who is working something out.