directed by Eric Rohmer
A French Harvest
Autumn Tale, the last in Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” is, like so much of the director’s work, a film that’s at once stunningly lovely on the surface and astonishing for its depths. Given that, it will be to the taste of a only small fraction of today’s audience, but that one’s a fortunate fraction indeed.
The film can be pondered from any number of angles. It is, for example, one of Rohmer’s rare movies that focuses on the friendship of women and on romance in middle age as opposed to youth. Though by no means valedictory in feel, it underscores its relationship to his past work by giving its lead roles to two wonderful actresses associated with earlier Rohmer films, Beatrice Romand (Claire’s Knee) and Marie Riviere (Perceval, The Aviator’s Wife, Summer). But what that stuck in my mind months after seeing Autumn Tale at last year’s New York Film Festival was the sunlight in the film’s second scene.
As the scene begins, Isabelle (Riviere) pulls up to the rural home of Magali (Romand) in her Ford. These two seem to have been best friends forever and are as different as city and country. Tall, blonde and upbeat, Isabelle lives in town with her husband and works in a bookstore. Short and saturnine, with a head of wildly frizzy hair, Magali is a vintner and a widow whose two grown kids, a boy and a girl, have recently flown the coop. Her farm is in the Rhone Valley.
When Isabelle arrives, Magali is saying goodbye to Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of her son. The women exchange greetings and then Rosine leaves. (Rohmer cuts to a shot of her waving goodbye and jumping on her white bicycle. “Enjoy your bike,” Magali tells her.) But even before this moment, which introduces an extended conversation between the two old friends, I was noticing the light.
It is always a factor in Rohmer films. Wherever in France they are set (and it’s impossible to imagine him making a movie anywhere but France), whether in country or city, the particular character of the light is distinct and noticeable enough to constitute a dramatic element in itself. Think of the cool lake hues of Claire’s Knee, the dazzling summery whites of Pauline at the Beach, the gold-emerald of the verdant park in The Aviator’s Wife, the chilly off-season blues and grays of A Winter’s Tale; among others. Here, too, the light is once again different; you feel it before any of the characters speaks a word or the story begins to unfurl.
It’s hard and flat and dry. The light of a particular part of southern France, well above sea level, a plain without either a lot of moisture or the diffusing green of tall trees. It’s strong, it makes you squint. When Isabelle’s car pulls up the light is coming from behind and Rohmer’s cinematographer, Diane Baratier, does nothing to keep it from reflecting harshly, brightly off the car’s roof and fenders. Its bounce makes you realize how dry the air is; you taste the dust.
When the two women leave the front of Magali’s house and go to her vineyard, the light occasionally makes them shield their eyes with their hands, and the wind whips Magali’s hair in wild, frizzy whorls. Isabelle, as the film’s first scene has established, wants to buy some wine—40 bottles! Well, this is France—for her daughter’s impending wedding. So they talk of wine and other things, like agriculture and the landscape. (It is only after this scene that the film’s main plot, which I don’t intend to describe, commences; it concerns Isabelle’s efforts to help Magali revive her romantic life.)
Isabelle says she’s heard that country people dream less than city people. Magali replies that oh, country people dream all right, it’s that they just dream of one thing—money. It’s a fine joke, evoking as it does the rueful pragmatism of the farmer, and nicely offsetting a slight current of romanticism detectable in Magali’s own view of what she does. She says she hates the word trade. She means to cultivate the earth, not exploit it. Her chief concern is to make a Cotes du Rhone that will age as well as a Burgundy. As if it needs stressing, this concern for a wine that ages well is repeated.
The grapes are full and purple, virtually spilling off the vine. It is autumn, harvest time approaches. Magali points out the vines of her neighbor, which are separated into neat rows with nothing between them. That neatness requires herbicides that she doesn’t want to use, she says. Her own vineyard houses a veritable forest of weeds (which of course are not all useless). The women inspect some of the weeds and try to recall their names. Wild snapdragon. Corn rocket. Isabelle says this one
is good in salads. Magali says, but it stinks. Isabelle says, yes it stinks but it is good in salads.
The vineyard is on a hilltop or plateau with a view for miles. Magali points out that the air is clear enough today that you can see the mountain range in the distance. (Rohmer gives us a p.o.v. shot of the hazy, faraway peaks.) Then the women go to a rocky, uncultivated hillside apart from the vineyard. Magali says to be careful, indicating a precipice close by. Isabelle asks if there are snakes. No, but there’s another peril: briars. She gets caught and Magali slowly, carefully picks the thorns from her
When I saw Autumn Tale a second time recently I sat with a friend who’d also seen it before. When the lights came up, we agreed that it didn’t have quite the magical lift that it did the first time. She said, that’s because you know where the story’s going, and the basic metaphor is pretty obvious. Thinking back on this remark later—just as the film was again coming to seem truly magical—I interpreted it as referring to the metaphor of wine, which, yes, is pretty obvious if you take it as applying to the characters and expressing the belief that people and love can improve with age.
But in the scene just described (which on a purely functional level introduces the friendship of Isabelle and Magali and tells us various things about each woman individually), Rohmer is also speaking, I think, about the nature and value of cinema. Here, the metaphor starts to build its meaning from the kernels of sensory experience; the tip-off is that remark about the plant that stinks but is good in salads.
Rohmer’s art stems from two 19th-century sources, both concerned with precision and comprehensiveness of expression: novels of psychological realism such as Flaubert’s, and painting that’s alive with sensory data like that of the impressionists. Is the cinema, as the inheritor of these sources, therefore bound to the word and the image? Not really, Rohmer answers: It implicitly struggles toward a complete engagement with all of nature, through evocations of all five senses. Thus that paradoxical plant suggests smell and taste. Touch comes in Magali’s handling of the grapes and, especially, those briars. Sound is the wind, the car’s creak, dogs barking in the distance. And sight is not only what the camera shows us, but the intentness of conscious looking, as toward those hazy mountains.
The key point beneath this rhetorical lyricism lies in cinema’s particular orientation toward the real. Andre Bazin, whose theorizing is perhaps most closely reflected in Rohmer’s films (with Godard’s running second), said, in effect: The real world exists; cinema’s genius lies in being able literally (i.e., physically) to record it; in so doing, film allows us to contemplate the real in a way that unmediated experience generally doesn’t, a way that encourages us to understand, appreciate and ultimately reconcile ourselves with the natural world. This, in fact, is what Rohmer celebrates: cinema’s unique ability to connect us imaginatively with the sensations of actual sun on the face, dust on the tongue, sweaty skin and so on.
That capacity, Bazin says, comes from the fact that the filmed image has its own physical reality; though immaterial when projected onto a screen, it is a thing itself and therefore honors the sensory thingness of what it depicts. In this, although the two appear so similar, film is the opposite of television (and computer) imagery, which is never material but electronic. If cinema invites a harmony between the viewer and the natural order, tv helps replace the natural with the artificial. It is to reality as pesticides are to the vineyard: an improvement that threatens the fundamental transformation and erasure of what it nominally improves.
As Rohmer rehearses them here, these theoretical matters have some very precise political ramifications. Indeed, the scene I’ve described poetically recapitulates arguments the French have put forward in the GATT talks and similar forums. They believe that culture and agriculture—and what better example than French wine, standing in for cinema or not—both spring from very specific, very rooted human and natural ecologies that need protecting against the changes inexorably enforced by mandates of “free trade” and other purely economic forces. Such appeals to ideas of nature, balance, restraint, quality of life and local control have, of course, proved largely futile against global capital’s bulldozer.
So it is with film itself, shortly to be replaced (for purely economic reasons) by big-screen tv in multiplexes everywhere, whether you like it or not. I’m sorry I haven’t said more about the warm and droll middle-aged love story that is at the heart of Autumn Tale. Rohmer’s film is very beautiful, on a par with the best work of this supremely civilized artist, now in his 80th year. But more than that, it is film, in the most concrete and most refined senses; in other words, a striking representative of a vanishing breed.
Ancient Greece had its Homeric epics, America has its westerns by John Ford: tales that tell how a whole people got that way, staged against landscapes that are fantastically mythic yet utterly real, full of battles and heroes any kid would love to emulate.
As a group, considering the felicitous conjunction of genre and crusty, no-bullshit auteur, they beg to be considered the best and most characteristically American movies of the sound era (though they include silents too), our very own, multipart celluloid epic. They are certainly among the most enjoyable, which is why there’s so much appeal in the idea of spending the next five weekends at the American Museum of the Moving Image, where “John Ford, Western Poet” runs July 10-Aug. 8.
The series encompasses 20 films including Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed by John Ford, and Ford’s four surviving silent westerns, Straight Shooting, Hell Bent, The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men (all with live musical accompaniment), as well as his 25-minute segment of How the West Was Won.
The sound features span the Manifest Destiny lyricism of Stagecoach and Wagon Master through the great cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande to the brooding, late-career revisionism of Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn. Along the way are detours into the Revolutionary War (Drums Along the Mohawk), the Civil War (The Horse Soldiers) and biblical allegory (Three Godfathers).
Finally, there’s my choice for Ford’s best film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin as the baddest bad guy on the range), as well as the film that gets that title from other, mistaken critics, The Searchers. Actually, these films are as much opposite sides of the same coin as are Hitchcock’s similarly complementary Rear Window and Vertigo (which, like The Searchers, grabs critics who think “obsessive, personal” automatically equals “best”). And here, too, the answer’s the same: See ‘em both.