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"Autumn Tale" is seasoned Eric Rohmer

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 9, 1999:  After five decades and some two dozen movies, Eric Rohmer has become as reliable and well-worn as the morals, proverbs, and seasons he bases his stories on. With slight variations, these tales remain the same, the tragi-comedies of ordinary people who analyze and plan and obsess over their lives and, despite that, somehow manage to live them. It's a tribute to Rohmer's matter-of-fact style, his blithe but minute observation, and his austere but gentle irony that these unremarkable characters are almost as fascinating to viewers as they are to themselves. Autumn Tale, the concluding film in his "Four Seasons" series, might not be a vintage work, but it's a lot more bracing than most of the cinéma ordinaire on tap this summer.

Like many Rohmer films, Autumn features a bunch of people who talk a lot about themselves and one another but don't have a clue who they are or what they want. At the heart of the discussion is Magali (Béatrice Romand, whose protean features complement her character's thorny moods), a 45-year-old widow whose kids have grown up and left and who has been trying to fill the empty nest by toiling on the family's Côtes-du-Rhône vineyard. She's a project calling out for volunteers, and in the world of Eric Rohmer there's seldom any shortage of these.

Such as Isabelle (Marie Rivière in a measured, layered performance), Magali's on-again, off-again best friend since childhood. A bookseller, Isabelle is not big on nature; on a visit to Magali's vineyard, she complains about the weeds and ends up entangled in thorns. Neither does she put much credence in Magali's passive attitude toward finding a new mate or her resigned expectation that she can overcome loneliness through work (Magali's dream is to develop a Côtes-du-Rhône wine -- a variety noted for its ephemeral fruitiness -- that ages well). When Magali rejects her suggestion to try a personal ad, Isabelle takes one out on the sly, with herself filling in for her friend.

Meanwhile, Rosine (a chirpy Alexia Portal), the erstwhile girlfriend of Magali's callow son Léo (Stéphane Darmon), has her own solution. Rebounding from an affair with her former philosophy teacher, Étienne (Didier Sandre), Rosine has taken up with Léo, by her own admission not because she loves him but because she loves his mother. With perverse logic she decides to fix up the 40ish Étienne with Magali.

Rosine seems on the rebound not just from Étienne but from the kind of sardonic film about younger people -- A Tale of Springtime (1989), for example -- usually associated with Rohmer. What is said about Étienne's choice in lovers in Autumn could be applied to the director in his choice of protagonists -- they get younger as he gets older. With Autumn, though, Rohmer takes characters closer to his own age, and the result is more depth and complexity, and a mellower edge of irony. For example, the scene in which Isabelle has lunch with Gérald (Alain Libolt, a disarming mix of decency and seediness), one of the more promising respondents to her ad. Compounding the distance and tension when two strangers embark on intimacy under crass and artificial circumstances is Isabelle's imposture. She's pretending to be Magali, but her attraction for Gérald is all her own (her husband of 24 years remains a convenient footnote throughout the film).

This attraction will resurface inopportunely later, at the wedding of Isabelle's daughter, where both Isabelle and Rosine, independently and unwittingly, have plotted their matchmaking schemes' fruition. Isabelle, the older, has opted for secrecy, calculation, and duplicity; Rosine, in her youth, favors the straightforward approach. Neither plan really works, and Rohmer shows aching restraint in orchestrating their intersecting comedies of errors.

The veritas, however, proves to be in the vino -- both as a test of taste and as a loosener of inhibitions. As in the best of Rohmer's films, clarity comes in a flash of insight or synchronicity, an epiphany both miraculous and commonplace that unrolls complications, verbiage, and folly. "I feel like I'm 18 again," says a giddy Gérald, and it's a state of mind viewers of all ages will share. Although a little weak in the finish, Autumn Tale goes down smooth with a subtle kick.

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