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Eric Rohmer's Canvas
The Autumn Tale finds
a world of beauty in the lives of women.
Alan A. Stone
UNLIKE OTHER long-lived but more celebrated filmmakers-for example, Kurosawa,
Hitchcock, and Huston-Eric Rohmer has never made a film that stands on its
own as a masterpiece. Indeed, he has not even made the attempt. His modest
films come in groups organized around a general theme-Six Moral Fables,
Comedies and Proverbs, and now Tales of Four Seasons. Rohmer
is best known in America for My Night at Maud's (his only Oscar nomination)
and Claire's Knee, two parts of the Six Moral Fables, which
came out in 1969 and 1970. But Rohmer has since been unable to reach American
audiences, and certainly lacks the cachet of Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard,
Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, or Louis Malle-other French film-makers
of the so-called Nouvelle Vague who rebelled against "commercial"
film-making. Unlike these others, Rohmer is a conservative aesthete, interested
in the spiritual promise of ordinary human beings. He has been described as
a Catholic film-maker.
Rohmer is also a reclusive man, who spent the first eight years of his career
teaching literature in a lycée. In the 1950s he became editor of Cahiers
du Cinema, the magazine of film criticism that published the auteurs whose
theory and practice made the French Film Renaissance of the 1960s. Keeping
faith with those beginnings, Rohmer has written all his own screenplays. Those
artists wanted the audience to encounter the "auteur" who created
the film, not the studio that produced it, and Rohmer's films have the stamp
of his artistic personality.
Like Monet, Rohmer does not try to get everything into one work. It is difficult
to appreciate Monet's significance until you have seen a group of his paintings
or (better still) attended a major retrospective. Unfortunately for Rohmer
the practical obstacles of a film retrospective are such that he can never
expect to find a wider and more appreciative audience. Rohmer is the antithesis
of Hollywood: he does not work the demographics, his plots are not thrilling,
his pace is slow and leisurely, there is little sex or violence, and no aliens.
Nor has he hitched his wagon to a star: no Bardot, Moreau, or Deneuve. His
actresses are never larger than the women they portray. Film retrospectives
preach to the converted and Eric Rohmer does not have many American converts
(the quality of his work is lost on a small screen, so he is not likely to
be saved by video). People will not sit in the dark hour after hour for several
days until they realize that Rohmer is an extraordinary filmmaker who has
found a world of film in the lives of women, much as Monet found a world of
beauty in water lilies.
Rohmer's latest film, The Autumn Tale, is the last of his Tales
of Four Seasons, and it outshines its predecessors. The film earned best
screenplay at Cannes and it has more plot than most of Rohmer's films, which
often are no more than aperçus. It also powerfully illustrates Rohmer's
approach to filmmaking, which bears striking resemblance to the approach to
winemaking taken by Magali (Béatrice Romand), one of the female leads.
True to the French vintner's tradition, she treats winemaking as art, not
as industry. On the small parcel of land left to her by her parents, Magali
produces a local Côte du Rhône aimed at the connoisseur who, she
hopes, recognizes that it is as good as a Gigondas, and that if all goes well
it will age like a Burgundy. Such connoisseurs are rare, even in the Rhône
Valley. And, as Rohmer shows us in this film, even they may need a little
prompting. Like Magali, Rohmer seems more committed to his art than to his
The three women at the center of The Autumn Tale (Magali, Isabelle,
and Rosalie) are played by actresses you might expect to meet in real life
(Romand, Marie Rivière, Alexia Portal). Rivière makes it clear
that Rohmer does not choose his non-celebrity actresses so that he can push
them around. In an earlier film, The Green Ray, she was allowed so
much room to improvise that she earned a collaborative credit. But Rohmer
is not the cinema of improvisation: as auteur, he knows exactly where he wants
his films to go.
Much has been written about the "male gaze" of the director attempting
to penetrate the mystery of the female. That was the font and the limit of
Roger Vadim's creative talent as a filmmaker; he did it first with Bardot
in God Created Woman and later with Jane Fonda in Barbarella.
When he was not directing, he obsessively painted pictures of women masturbating-as
though he could master the female orgasm by objectifying it. Bergman and Fellini
were male gazers but in a class by themselves as filmmakers; their films were
self-reflexive about what they were doing.
Rohmer is quite unlike these other directors. His women are certainly revealed
in all of their vulnerability but he does not focus through the lens of sexuality.
He is interested in women the way Ibsen and Chekhov were: not in orgasms,
but in the mysteries of the self and what a woman wants from the next day
in her life. Rohmer does not have the genius of a Chekhov who can find something
universal in the very particular social historical context of a provincial
Russian woman. That is one reason why Rohmer does not travel well; his characters
are decidedly French and he seems as interested in their French soul as in
any universal quality he might capture.
It would be difficult to say which of the three decidedly French women in
The Autumn Tale is the "heroine." There is neither a star
nor a heroine; the film is a triptych, with three panels of equal size. But
there is a psychological triangle and the winemaker Magali is at the center.
To cope with an empty nest, she has thrown herself into winemaking. She is
lucky and engaging enough to have two women friends who seem devoted to her:
Isabelle is her own age and a friend from childhood; Rosalie is her son's
girlfriend but attracted to her and bored with the son. So Magali is not the
prototypical isolated and alienated middle-aged woman. She is youthful, perhaps
even shy but by no means desperate. One could imagine her toughing it out,
walling up her emotions, and making a life of her vineyard without a man and
But Magali's friends want more for her. They want to fix her up with the
right man, each for her own self-interested reason. Throughout this film one
senses that both the characters and the audience are in the hands of a great
psychologist-if one knew more about the Rhône Valley, its old towns
and its new factories, one would appreciate even more how Rohmer's women are
suited to their local social reality, which is filmed as carefully as they
Rosalie, an extraordinary young woman, is wise beyond her years but perhaps
not quite as shrewd or strong as she pretends. Like many of Rohmer's heroines,
she is young, vulnerable, willing to choose impulsively, and spiritual. She
is coming off an affair with her philosophy professor and she finds men her
own age boring. So she has filled the philosopher's spiritual place in her
life with her boyfriend's mother, the winemaker. Rosalie has a crush on Magali
and is quite open about its intensity. One of the themes in the Tales of
Four Seasons is the young woman searching for a mother to love. But neither
the abandoned philosophy professor (Didier Sandre) nor the son, mystified
that anyone his age could be interested in his mother, seem to be aware of
spiritual attachments. Rosalie and these two men constitute a bedroom triangle.
The philosophy professor is still sexually interested in his student; it is
she who left him. Her immature boyfriend tries to be possessive, but she is
calling the shots. She plays the two men off against each other. Rosalie seems
to realize that neither of them is for her, but she is still struggling with
her attraction to the philosophy professor. She wants to be his friend, not
his lover. And then she hits on the idea of fixing him up with the winemaker,
making them both into parents. The audience, particularly those who have watched
Tale of Springtime, which has a similar theme, can see it coming long
before she does-the question is whether the philosophy professor will be interested
in a woman his own age after a long series of nubile student conquests. Magali
isn't betting on it; she is of the opinion that the older such men get the
younger the women who interest them.
A professor with a seriatim harem of students will seem an outdated character
to most Americans. In our context Rohmer's philosopher is closer to a high-school
teacher than a university professor. French students are given a course in
philosophy in the last year of their lycée, when they are the age of
first-year college students in America. Certainly a middle-aged teacher who
had affairs with such young students would be some sort of loathsome pariah
in any American film. But in the provincial Rhône Valley there is no
politicized reaction, just a raising of eyebrows. And against them, Rosalie
repeatedly insists-perhaps too much-that she initiated the affair by pursuing
him. Rohmer, like Sartre and de Beauvoir, began his career as a "professor"
in the lycée and is genuinely interested in that year of philosophy.
In the Tale of Springtime, an earlier part of this "Season"
series, a central figure is a woman professor of philosophy at a lycée
who is quite serious about the enterprise. She wants her students to realize
that philosophy can play a role in their lives, as it does in hers. In this
film Rosalie is clearly having an affair with philosophy as much as with her
philosophy professor. That is what makes her character so remarkable and so
These two triangles are completed by a third. Magali's best friend from school
days, Isabelle works in a bookstore and her daughter is about to be married.
She too is coming up on an empty nest. In the midst of all the arrangements
for her daughter's wedding she gets the idea of putting a lonely-hearts ad
in the newspaper for her friend. Her plan is to spare Magali the humiliation
of placing the ad and meeting the men by doing it for her and finding one
who is suited to the winemaker. It is not difficult to believe that this escapade
is as much for herself as for her friend. And when she meets an eligible man,
Gerard (Alain Libolt), it is clear that she is as intrigued with him as he
is with her. It is only at their third meeting that she tells Gerard, who
by then is obviously smitten with her, that he is meant for her friend Magali.
AS A PSYCHOLOGIST, Rohmer works from ..the outside-in.
His tool is the camera, capturing Isabelle as she plays her game of pretending
to be Magali with Gerard; making up the rules as she goes along to have the
pleasure and excitement of a dalliance under the guise of altruism. Not surprisingly
Gerard-who is delighted from the moment they meet-feels used by the time Isabelle
lets him in on the game.
Under Rohmer's directorial gaze Gerard is more vulnerable than Isabelle.
The audience has no foreknowledge of what Isabelle had planned or how far
she will go. The camera reveals but it does not judge or catalogue. The result
is a touching glimpse of human good will and fallibility as two people reach
out for each other. Gerard overcomes his pique and agrees to meet the real
Magali at the wedding party of Isabelle's daughter.
Now Isabelle has produced Gerard for Magali and Rosalie has offered up her
philosophy professor. Suddenly two men may be in her life but neither friend
of Magali knows what the other is planning. It will all come together at the
Rohmer's outside-in psychology respects and reveals the particularity of
his characters; his style leaves the mystery of the woman's self intact and
unpigeonholed. Interestingly Marie Rivière has reported in an interview
that-working from the inside-out of her character as an actress-it was her
idea that Isabelle would want to take things even farther with Gerard. But
Rohmer said no, "That wasn't how he saw things." Going farther would
probably have meant something like having an affair. This would have decisively
changed the triptych balance of the three women. Rivière would have
become the large center panel of the film, and she would have changed the
subtle nuanced script into a soap opera of sexual infidelity. The charming
Isabelle would have become another cheap imitation of the provincial Madame
Bovary. Rohmer's artistic scruples are best revealed in this contrast. But
Rohmer's characters, though seen from the outside, are not entirely opaque.
Although we do not know exactly what they want from life and neither do they,
we do see their lives and their moral choices, and we glimpse their souls.
Rosalie and Isabelle add excitement to their lives by helping Magali find
a man. It gives them purpose and a promise of happiness where they seemed
to have none. Each is solving her own problem by solving Magali's. Isabelle
is proving she can still get a man and Rosalie that she can control her men.
Of course they cannot both succeed. By the time we get to the wedding party,
all the triangles come together and Rohmer's plot takes on all the complications
of a farce. Magali knows that Rosalie plans for her to meet the professor
but knows nothing about Gerard. Gerard, who has been prompted about Magali
and comes from a family of winemakers, says all the right things about her
wine, which is being served at the garden party wedding. It looks like sparks
are struck and something will happen when Rosalie drags Magali away to her
professor, leaving Gerard at a party where he knows nobody but the hostess
and the woman he has just met. Magali does not give the professor much of
a chance to show his interest, and he quickly consoles himself with the company
of another former student who is eager to join the harem. Magali is more than
ready to go back to Gerard but finds him in intimate conversation with Isabelle
and suspects he is her lover. It seems that everything is ruined and Magali's
worst fears about men have been realized.
But all the triangles get straightened out. Rosalie goes home with her philosophy
professor. Magali sends Gerard home with the promise they will meet again.
And Isabelle ends the film dancing in her husband's arms, with a melancholy
gaze fixed on the distance. This melancholy look is what is left of the actress'
inside-out interpretation of her part, and Rohmer allowed it. Even this inward
psychologizing goes against the grain of Rohmer's aesthetic of less-is-more
Rohmer's "endings" typically come upon us unexpectedly as we wait
to see how it all comes out. But in Rohmer as in life it does not "come
out"; one simply lives. His art is about the moral adventure of living,
not the fiction of clarifying outcomes. Rohmer is no realist-no more than
Monet. One can never hope to see in a water lily what Monet saw. Still, one
can admire his artistic achievement, and so it is with Rohmer's gazing at
Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue
of Boston Review