Magali (Béatrice Romand), a widow in her mid-forties, is a winegrower in the Rhône Valley. Her best friend since childhood, Isabelle (Marie Rivière), owns a bookshop in town and is happily married. Magali admits to Isabelle that she would like a man in her life, so Isabelle secretly sets out to find her one by placing a lonely hearts ad in the newspaper…
After the Moral Tales (four features and two shorts) and the Comedies and Proverbs (six features), Eric Rohmer began his third series, the Tales of the Four Seasons in 1990, at the age of seventy. With a short break halfway through when he made the portmanteau film Rendez-vous à Paris (soon to be released on DVD in the UK) and the political satire The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediathèque (the only Rohmer feature never to be released in the UK), this series took up most of the decade. An Autumn Tale (Conte d’automne) was the last of the four, but as Artificial Eye seem to be releasing them on DVD in reverse order, I’m reviewing it first.
The first three Seasons (Spring, Winter, Summer, respectively) continued the pattern of the Comedies and Proverbs, with protagonists in their twenties: specifically young women, with the third varying the pattern by having a male lead. An Autumn Tale departs from Rohmer’s practice by having as its leading characters two middle-aged women. However, not just any actress would play them, but two who have been associated with Rohmer for years. Marie Rivière’s first film with the director was Perceval in 1978. She went on to play the major role of Anne in The Aviator’s Wife and was centre stage in The Green Ray, for which she received a co-writing credit. She played smaller roles in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, A Winter’s Tale and The Lady and the Duke. Béatrice Romand, on the other hand, played a featured role in Claire’s Knee at the age of eighteen. She played the lead role in A Good Marriage and smaller ones in The Green Ray and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. So these two actresses have a lot of history with Rohmer, both separately and together, and it’s to their credit that you can well believe them to be childhood friends.
As ever, Rohmer’s gentle pace belies a tightly-constructed story, with a few more complications than I’ve mentioned in the synopsis above. Customarily the emphasis is less on what happens but on what the characters say and do while it happens, with dialogue and nuances of body language constantly revealing character. Rohmer’s films have the air of a well-constructed novella. That’s not a casual observation: the Moral Tales were published that way in book form, and the title of the film has literary connotations in the original French (“conte” being a short story). It’s a film that may seem minor, but only if life, love and human interaction are trivial subjects. Rohmer’s direction may seem artless, but it’s a simplicity that betrays considerable craft. Diane Baratier’s camerawork of the French countryside is another of the film’s pleasures.
An Autumn Tale is a fitting end to the Four Seasons, and is many people’s favourite of them. (Not mine: that for me is A Winter’s Tale.) Many people took this as Rohmer’s summing up, as he was seventy-eight when it was released, but he’s made two more films since then and shows no sign of retiring.
An Autumn Tale was filmed open-matte in 35mm, with an intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1. However, this DVD follows that of most of Rohmer’s films by presenting the film in full-frame 4:3. This appears to be Rohmer’s preference for home viewing, with only Pauline at the Beach so far not presented this way on DVD. The picture is sharp and colourful, with good shadow detail and just a very slight grain.
This was Rohmer’s first film with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack. It would seem that Rohmer, like other holdouts such as Woody Allen, has simply produced a mono soundtrack with the appropriate noise reduction. That’s how it sounded in the cinema, likewise on DVD. However, natural sound, the all-important dialogue, and the music over the end credits are all clear and well balanced. Unlike Allen, Rohmer has dabbled a little with multi-channel sound, particularly in his next film, The Lady and the Duke. Subtitles are optional. There are thirteen chapter stops and the DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.
The main extra is one of those useful featurettes that appear on many of Arrow’s Rohmer DVDs, where he talks over some carefully-edited extracts from this film and others. These are extracts from a 1998 interview with critic Michel Ciment. Rohmer discusses how in A Tale of Springtime and An Autumn Tale he filmed characters more face-on: because they plot and lie, we have to watch them carefully. By contrast, we are meant to believe the characters in A Winter’s Tale and A Summer Tale, so Rohmer tends to shoot them from the side. Additionally, he uses shot/reverse shots more in Autumn Tale while using tracking shots extensively in Summer. He goes on to discuss the location (Saint Paul Trois Chateaux) and the distinctive voices and gestures of the two lead actresses. This featurette is in 4:3 and rund 9:46. In addition, there is the trailer (1:40), non-anamorphic but cropped to 1.85:1, with burned-in subtitles. The extras are completed by a two-page text biography of Rohmer, plus a filmography.
An Autumn Tale shows Rohmer’s energy and filmmaking abilities still going strong well into his eighth decade. Artificial Eye’s DVD presents the film well.