The emotional nuances in Eric Rohmer’s movies are so carefully calibrated that at times we seem to be watching the enactment of a theorem. What rescues his best films from desiccation is the playfulness behind the theorizing – he’s a genial philosophe. It may be a little maddening, on occasion, watching his people act out their moral comedies within such a circumscribed radius; the greatest art isn’t so finicky, so tamped-down. But Rohmer, although he’s made movies touched with greatness such as Claire’s Knee and the uncharacteristically free-form Le Rayon Vert, is best understood for the modesty of his designs. He’s not out to jostle our complacencies but only to give them a little nudge. He’s a moralist of a particularly comfy and bourgeois sort – he massages the notions his art-house patrons already have about people and life and the sexes. There are no shocks of recognition in Rohmer’s movies, just little frissons of feeling.
Autumn Tale is the last of a four-season cycle. (The previous entry, A Summer’s Tale, made in 1996, has gone undistributed in this country.) Rohmer is fond of cycles and series – his most celebrated lineup is the Six Moral Tales, including My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee, which he followed with six Comedies and Proverbs – but the link-up of titles is essentially a high-toned marketing device; the thematic conjunction between films is what one would expect anyway from a filmmaker with such a controlling sensibility. His latest has a plot that, if we’re all so unlucky, will end up transposed to Hollywood: Isabelle (Marie Riviere), a married bookstore owner, wants to reconnect Magali (Béatrice Romand), her widowed best friend, with the world of men. Magali lives in the country, where she works the vineyard she inherited from her parents; she wouldn’t mind having a man, but she doesn’t want to go through the rituals and the turn-downs. So Isabelle decides to secretly place an ad on Magali’s behalf in the personals and then impersonate her friend on dates in order to pre-screen the candidates. Meanwhile, Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of Magali’s son, decides her college professor and lover Etienne (Didier Sandre) would go best with Magali.
For a long time, Isabelle’s ruse is like a private joke she uses to titillate herself. Her first respondent, Gerald, a divorced salesman and the son of a vintner (well played by Alain Libolt), falls for her on their first encounter. Isabelle makes jokes at her own expense – she puts herself down for being too tall – but she’s also preening before a man she knows she’ll never have. She regards her subterfuge as “a game that amuses me, even though it’s dangerous,” and that sums up the movie’s effect on us as well. It’s always on the verge of breaking into something unruly and troubling, but Rohmer keeps things tidy. Isabelle is not tempted by Gerald; her friendship with Magali is never seriously strained, even when the jig is up. There’s an element of cruelty in what Isabelle perpetrates with Gerald, but it’s treated as a confectionary whim. “I want all men to love me,” she tells him with a smile. “Especially the ones I don’t love.”
All this might seem too diagrammatic and coy except for the presence of Béatrice Romand, whose Magali makes all ruses worthwhile. Her big blur of wiry hair rests lightly on her head; her face is both cherubic and weathered. Magali is a self-described peasant woman, but she’s not earthy, or if she is, some blue sky got mixed in with the portrait. There’s something cloud-borne about this woman; her encounters with both Gerald and Etienne, which take place during a wedding party for Isabelle’s daughter, bring out the cuckoo in her. She’s reliving the throes of adolescent-style awkwardness. Between bouts, she looks out at the Rhone Valley in the far distance and sulks. She’s not used to feeling love-struck, or lovelorn either, and her bewilderment only makes her more fetching. The joke in Autumn Tale is that it doesn’t matter how old you are; the entanglements of romance end up juvenilizing you. Rohmer, who is 79, has often worked out his moralizings with a younger cast of characters. Here, with an older set, he retains the youthful blush.
Rohmer sees men as being at a disadvantage in the mating game. Flummoxed by feminine conspiracies they’re always the last to know about, they have no choice but to open up. In the male-female universe of Autumn Tale, it is the women who are canny and sphinxlike while the men, desperate to be understood, spill their souls out and are no wiser for it. (Gerald, smitten, does practically all the talking when he’s with Isabelle, and the pattern is later repeated with Magali.) There’s a form of poetic justice in all this, and it gives the film, otherwise straitlaced, its jagged wit: Women on the lookout for love may be fools, but they make sure to turn the men who romance them into even bigger ones.