The modern spectator.has been too long accustomed to interpreting the visual sign, and to working out why each image is there, to be able to appreciate the simple reality of those images.
Eric Rohmer (1)
Early in the film Autumn Tale, the character Magali (Béatrice Romand) explains to her long-time friend Isabelle (Marie Rivière) the mode of relation she has to her vineyard. She works the terrain as though she were an artist, respecting and enhancing its natural qualities, as opposed to seeing it as a business or trade where the terrain must be exploited in order to manufacture and produce. One could say the same thing about Rohmer and his relation to “reality” in the act of filmmaking. Formally and stylistically, he does not impose a viewpoint or interpretation on what he films, nor does he manufacture a feeling or moment. Rather, Rohmer carefully observes his characters and their situations in a manner that is detached, neutral, profoundly respectful and modest. He “works with” “reality” to bring forth its rhythms, presence and intricacies in order to discover and show its essential beauty and soul. Rohmer’s films captivate and arrest the viewer by the materiality andsensuality of the reality filmed: the sounds of birds chirping, the play of light and shadow across Rosine’s (Alexia Portal) face in Autumn Tale, the smile of Isabelle at the moment she is “re-discovered”, the gushing wind and so on. These are moments of a “magic realism”.
Rohmer’s case is quite unique. Although his career began amongst the Young Turks of the French New Wave, his particular vision of the cinema and especially his classical, transparent style of filmmaking were radically different to his modernist comrades. His ideas of cinema are better aligned with those of André Bazin (to whom he was also closer in age). During the ’60s and ’70s, a time of militant modernism, Rohmer was not afraid to be a classicist. As he says in an interview conducted in 1971: Q – “What do you think about what is happening in films just now? Do you think a new kind of cinema is coming into being?” A – “For me what is really new is those ideas that never date” (2).
In a well-known statement, Rohmer reveals his view of the cinema: “not as end-in-itself but as a means” (3). The techniques of the cinema, above all, its unique ability to exactly reproduce reality, provide a means to reveal the world in its full presence and sensuality. Though this vision betrays a conservative and essentialist view of the world, it facilitated a singular style of filmmaking. Rohmer is a modest humanist; his films show the vulnerabilities, confusion, and restlessness of his characters as “small” moments and in subtle ways.
In a roundtable interview with Cahiers critics, Rohmer related his particular brand of “realism” to the silent cinema, in particular, the work of Lumière:
“With these films we are left with the impression of having seen the world with different eyes. They make us admire.things that we did not know how to admire in their original form. People walking in the streets, children playing, trains going by: nothing out of the ordinary. But this – the first feeling of wonder – is, to my mind, the most important.” (4)
Though he believes in the essential beauty of the world and such “ordinary” moments, it is the way Rohmerfilms these moments that is extraordinary. Through precise framing and cutting, attention to the play of natural light and a sound design textured with sounds of the “real”, his films do infuse us with a “feeling of wonder”. And like music, they move gracefully, swiftly and effortlessly, with qualities of feeling and emotion embedded in their formal structure (5).
Although film and music are similar in structure and effects, their constitution is radically different. The cinema, as a representational medium, achieves its force through the act of discovering and revealing reality in its concreteness and materiality. For Rohmer, mise en scène involves the creation of the story through very material means – the physical presence of actors, their words, gestures, the tone of their voice, framing and cutting.
The cinema, even in its works of fiction, is an instrument of discovery. Because it is poetry, it reveals, and because it reveals, it is poetry (6)
By his intention to show things as they really are – instantly eliminating the use of techniques which would effect a moment as melodramatic (hence, no music in his films) or any techniques for that matter that wouldimpose a certain style or viewpoint on the reality filmed – Rohmer’s realism recalls the days the cinema was invented. The clarity and coherence of his vision recall an early mythic cinema and the first appearance of the world reproduced mechanically; the first revelation of bodies moving through space; the magic inherent in framing and telescoping a piece of reality; and the original wonder of everyday surfaces refigured and revealed through light, space and time.
In a contradiction, Rohmer combines (and achieves a balance between) this textured and materialistic mode of filmmaking – what results in the “eroticization of the real”(7) – with a Hollywood-style narrative transparency. The tendency toward the latter is quite prevalent in the final installment to the Tales of the Four Seasons,Autumn Tale (1998) (8). Unlike Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, 1996) and earlier films, Rohmer doesn’t base the story upon the days that pass, where a new day is announced through an inter-title, which has the effect of heightening the “ethnographic” feel of these films. Autumn Tale cuts across time, over days, to an event of significance. Yet it remains “ethnographic” in its brilliant attention, on both levels of sound and image, to the specifics of time and place and the texture and physicality of character.
Integral to Rohmer’s humanism is his fidelity to the specifics of the people and places he films. Hence, the overriding structuring (and interrelated) elements in his films: a character’s age, a particular period in their life, the time of year, the season, the day, the time of day and the city and the country.
Autumn Tale is practically flawless; a musical and lyrical exploration of middle-age life.
At the film’s start, the piercing sounds of birds chirping and the intermittent appearance of perfectly framed, still shots of narrow streets and tall, textured buildings of this small town completely jolt the viewer in their austerity, specificity and immediacy. Anyone familiar with Rohmer’s films knows to expect this. Though most of Autumn Tale takes place in utterly splendid natural settings, Rohmer never indulges in a romanticization of this natural world (what would amount to apolitical filmmaking). Rather he captures it “matter-of-factly” as part of the everyday world of his characters. For example, the innate connection between Magali and her vineyard – the important role it plays in her life – is established in those vista-scenes of the Rhine Valley where her athletic, rugged figure, in the foreground, dominates the frame as she walks through the plants, confidently and carelessly, leading Isabelle.
But it is difficult to deny the innate beauty of the country and small town that is the setting for this story, and the way that it so delicately and insidiously infuses the film and the viewer with an instant lightness and celebratory attitude toward life. Autumn Tale is a humanist-realist testament, a celebration of life and all its ambiguities and uncertainties. And there are plenty in this crystalline plot, which considers the period of middle age, the “autumn” of a life. This is the period where one would assume things are in their place, or should be, where a certain degree of fulfillment and happiness has been attained and one feels settled as they approach their final years. Rohmer reveals however, in his usual masterful fashion, these ambiguities, uncertainties, fears and feelings of restlessness in his middle-aged characters.
Seasoned character Magali, a wine-maker, lives alone, her children and husband gone. In a conversation with old friend Isabelle she reveals her loneliness. This is a remarkable scene for the way Magali’s revelation is so swiftly arrived at – through talk with Isabelle, she reveals in a spurt of pained emotion her deep loneliness. A matter of words exchanged between characters, a line of thought followed, a rhythm and framing, a style of modesty and directness, and Magali’s rough and strong exterior is in one swift moment contrasted with a fragility and longing. The objective to find Magali a partner becomes the driving force of the narrative and the “centre” out of which the actions and motivations of Isabelle and Rosine seemingly derive.
The longing of Magali’s character echoes that of Delphine (Marie Rivière) in The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert, 1986), whose loneliness is captured so movingly and evocatively by Rohmer in the rhythms of her solitary moments. The extent of Delphine’s inner depth and state of longing is revealed in the faith she holds in the green ray of sunset – Rohmer’s most explicit rendition of the theme of everyday magic in his films. The similarities between The Green Ray and Autumn Tale are evident in Rohmer’s wonderful reversal of roles, character and actor in the scenes in both films where one makes the other confront their deep loneliness and emptiness.
Back to Autumn Tale. As we follow Isabelle in her original encounter with Gérald (Alain Libolt), the man who answers her ad, and the various encounters that follow, her motivations become increasingly dubious. For the entire film, she spends more time with Gérald then does Magali. Although Isabelle acts as the “envoy” for Magali, there is a certain intensity between Isabelle and Gérald as a couple that is never quite eradicated. Even the characters acknowledge this intensity: Isabelle, in a slightly drunk and uninhibited state, flaunts her desire at being desired while Gérald trembles at her physical closeness. Isabelle’s anxiety in the final shot confirms a longing, restlessness and questioning that Rohmer explores with such masterful subtlety.
Rosine is a rather typical Rohmerian “young thing”: physically attractive, mature and very articulate and verbal about matters of love and relationships. She lays down the ultimatum to her ex-philosophy teacher turned lover, that they will only see each other until he finds another woman and they will only ever be friends. An act that mirrors Isabelle’s in its unsettling attitude toward love and desire as something that can be explicitly manufactured and maneuvered, Rosine attempts to pair her boyfriend’s mother and close friend, Magali, with her ex-lover, Etienne (Didier Sandre). Though immature and childish, it also provides like Isabelle’s attempt, a fair amount of farce and tension in the plot. Yet, Rosine’s situation is itself complex. She remains emotionally tied to Etienne throughout the film, which becomes fully evident at the wedding where she is jealous of the former student Etienne constantly “eyes” and in the fact that she finally goes home with him and not Léo (Stéphane Darmon). Her relation to Magali is a further area of ambiguity – even she cannot clearly explain its intensity. The doubling of characters in Autumn Tale is another one of its curious features: the similarities between Rosine and Magali are pointed to, both in their physical appearance and the depth of their relationship.
Separate story plots converge at the wedding of Isabelle’s daughter. However, nothing is truly or instantly resolved, especially when Magali finds the man she desires in the arms of Isabelle. A moment of chance and coincidence throws another spanner into the works of this intricately complicated plot, until, after being hurt and confused, Magali discovers the truth and another coincidence occurs – Gérald re-appears and the hope between them is re-affirmed. Rohmer draws his film to a close with the perfect gesture of a generic celebration of life and love at the close of a wedding – full of dance, laughter and joy, and a look of ambiguity amongst it all.
Rohmer has structured Autumn Tale on moments of intrigue, deceit and desire. As Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly points out, the most remarkable thing about the film is the balance Rohmer strikes between “his own brand of middle-class realism and the kind of Hollywood cinema he once celebrated as a critic” (9). Rosenbaum points to how “a good deal of the plot hinges on the potentially disastrous consequences of impersonation and misrecognition, both classic Hitchcockian themes”. He further argues that the nature of the plot, in particular, the concealed feelings throughout the film, reveal realism itself as a construction. The undercurrent of ambiguity and restlessness that engulf these characters and that Rohmer reveals with such subtlety suggests that the only source of harmony and balance in Rohmer’s universe lie in his formal classicism.
It is remarkable and telling that in an age of spectacle and digital technologies, which aim to further shock and woo the viewer, a film which tells its story through the simple materiality of faces and bodies and based on the characters’ search for self-fulfillment and happiness, can so powerfully command and enchant its viewer.
Rohmer is certainly one of the greatest living filmmakers today, not only for his sensitivity and skill as a director but also for the way he has explored and articulated his vision of the cinema as an ideal and unique art form in both criticism and filmmaking. And the way he has done so with such rigour, integrity and longevity.
- Quoted in Colin Crisp, “The Ideology of Realism: Eric Rohmer – ‘Celluloid and Marble’ and My Night With Maud“, in Australian Journal of Screen Theory 2, 1977 who in turn quotes it from: Eric Rohmer, “Cinéma, art de l’espace”, Revue du cinéma, no.14 June 1948, pp. 11, 13
- “Eric Rohmer: An Interview” by Graham Petrie, Film Quarterly vol.24 no.4 Summer 1971, p.39
- “Eric Rohmer: ‘The Old and the New’: Rohmer in interview with Jean-Claude Biette, Jacques Bontemps, Jean-Louis Comolli (November 1965)” in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s – New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, ed. Jim Hillier, BFI, 1986, p.85
- In a round table discussion with Cahier critics, Jean-Louis Comolli, Pascal Bonitzer, Serge Daney and Jean Narboni, Realism and the Cinema: A Reader, ed. Christopher Williams, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Henley, 1980, p. 247
- Rohmer has argued for the innate similarities between music and film in “Le celluloid et le marbre IV”, De La Musique, Cahiers du Cinéma, no.52
- Realism and the Cinema, opcit., p. 24
- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Robert Bresson, from monograph on Bresson published by the Cinematheque Ontario, 1999
- Though I haven’t seen Conte D’Hiver (Winter’s Tale, 1991) so I cannot fully make this claim.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, review of Autumn Tale in Chigaco Reader: On Film web site, uploaded 20 August 1999