Slightly stoop-shouldered, his thinning hair a greasy, unkempt swirl that hangs to his shoulders, the actor Vincent Macaigne, who plays the main character in Sébastien Betbeder’s stylized but easygoing Paris–set romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, is an unlikely leading man. Few have such an odd charm: The spell is cast the moment he begins to speak, his voice a rich, amiable rasp.
The 35-year-old performer, who’s been hailed back home in France as “the new Depardieu,” was ubiquitous on New York repertory screens this winter: He’s a standout in the Godardian ensemble romp The Rendez-Vous of Déjà Vu, which closed MOMI’s “First Look” showcase, and three of Macaigne’s vehicles, including 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, were featured in the Film Society’s most recent annual spotlight of French cinema. A large part of his appeal stems from the fact that he seems both very much of this moment and a throwback to another era.
That’s also the allure of 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, Betbeder’s second feature (he’s also made several shorts and medium-length works) and his first to receive stateside release. Though set in the present — it spans the fall of 2009 to January 2012 — the film strongly evokes the spirit and playfulness of the Nouvelle Vague: Characters, often while standing in front of rear-projected backgrounds, speak directly to the camera or narrate in prolix voiceover; the story unfolds through a series of brief chapters, HD video alternating with grainy 16mm film; cinephilic digressions reveal entire worldviews. And while earbuds are seen and a few text messages exchanged, 2 Autumns, 3 Winters seems to exist completely outside our isolating, virtual now, unostentatiously paying tribute to real, face-to-face connection.
A collision of two bodies, in fact, sets a romance in motion. Macaigne’s aimless Arman, introducing himself to the audience in the third person (“single, what he does is not interesting”), has decided to embark on a regimen of self-improvement, now that he’s reached the heavily symbolic age of 33. He quits smoking and takes up jogging; while doing laps in the park near his apartment — a loaner from a wealthy friend trying his luck in New York — he crashes into fellow fitness enthusiast Amélie (Maud Wyler), a 27-year-old gallerist who’s earlier announced her own quarter-life frustrations via direct address. They exchange pleasantries but not names, and smitten Arman returns to the park again and again, extending the length of his workout in the hopes of reconnecting with Amélie. They eventually do reunite, brought together weeks later by dramatic circumstances that I won’t divulge, but that land Arman in the hospital for a lengthy convalescence, during which time Amélie begins to fall in love with him.
Just before this perilous incident, Arman had been drinking with Benjamin (Bastien Bouillon), his best friend since their art-school days a decade before, avidly discussing Funny People with him. (Their ardor for Judd Apatow’s unendurable 2009 film is so convincing that I’m almost tempted to give it another chance.) Where Macaigne/Arman projects louche elegance (his nicely cut blazers class up his disheveled appearance), Bouillon/Benjamin suggests a wide-eyed stripling, his sandy, wispy bangs emphasizing his boyishness. It’s all the more startling, then, when this hale, fresh-faced guy collapses from a brain hemorrhage, ending up in the same hospital that his pal is soon to be discharged from.
These health crises, befalling two young men years away from their prime, never come off as mawkish plot machinations; Betbeder mines both humor and tenderness in the episodes devoted to his characters’ near-inconceivable fragility. During one especially poignant moment, Arman, his own body just beginning to heal, sits by Benjamin, rendered temporarily speechless by his stroke but with an odd expression on his face, and says in voice-over, “I take my friend’s hand and smile back at him.”
Benjamin’s debilitated state, like Arman’s, will also lead to love: He and his speech therapist, Katia (Audrey Bastien), about 10 years his junior, begin a relationship. Both couples make a relaxed foursome, though Betbeder never quite succeeds in establishing either Amélie or Katia as round a character as her mate — a shortcoming particularly egregious in the former’s case, positioned as centrally as she is, at least at the start. Also nettlesome is a scene involving Benjamin, eager to diffuse some tension between Arman and Amélie during an Alpine vacation, recapitulating the plot of Alain Tanner’s 1971 film The Salamander, which Katia introduced him to. Yet she sits in meek silence while her boyfriend carries forth with his exuberant homme-splaining.
Despite this gender imbalance, 2 Autumns, 3 Winters extends tremendous compassion to all of its characters, gently exploring their hopes and anxieties as they try to settle into adulthood. As a portrait of male friendship, Betbeder’s film touchingly shows just how moved Arman or Benjamin can be by the other’s kindness and concern — a deep love born of sharing passions for the past several years. They’ve forged a bond growing up together, one that may be further strengthened by growing older.