Conte d’Automne (A Tale of Autumn)

There are two perfect, transcendent moments in the Tale of Autumn, or Conte
, which is the fourth and perhaps the best of Eric Rohmer’s magisterial series, “Tales
of the Four Seasons.” The first of these is when we suddenly realize that the simple
story of two women, married Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and her divorced
friend Magali (Béatrice Romand), whom she is trying to fix up with a man,
is far from being as simple as it has seemed hitherto. All right, it was a
little weird that Isabelle placed a personal ad in Magali’s name, since Magali
herself absolutely refused, and that she then began a tentative romance with
Gerald (Alain Libolt), whom she met through the ad, again in Magali’s name. But
we think we see where Rohmer is going with this. We can see Gerald becoming more
and more interested in Isabelle and can imagine what will happen when she breaks
the news to him that she is married and really has been wooing on behalf of her
friend, whom he has never met.

But it doesn’t happen as we expect. In fact Gerald finds it fairly easy to
transfer the interest he has built up in Isabelle to Magali, even though the two
women are physical and emotional opposites. It is Isabelle who can’t let go.
Suddenly we realize that her solicitousness on behalf of an old friend’s love
life has really been a vicarious attempt to enliven her own, which has seemed up
to this point to be completely untroubled. In fact it is the married Isabelle,
far more than the unmarried Magali who is desperate for masculine attention. And
for just a moment, before the moment passes, she is prepared to risk everything
for a man she hardly knows. At the same time, she is not wrong, not at all
wrong, when she says to Gerald by way of explanation for the pass she has made
at him: “I want all men to love
me — especially those I

This incident also casts a light on the other strand of the plot, in which
Magali’s son’s new girlfriend, Rosine (Alexia Portal) is also trying to
matchmake on her behalf. Having decided that she doesn’t much like the son after
all, she stays with him because she has so quickly formed a close bond with his
mother. “I fell for her, not
him,” she tells her previous
boyfriend, Étienne (Didier Sandre), the much older professeur de
whom she is trying to get rid of. Then, teasingly:
“I replaced you not with a boyfriend
but with his mother.” Naturally, her
own interest in Magali makes her think that Étienne would be perfect for
her. Not only would this get rid of the boyfriend and make Magali happy, she
thinks, but “Then he would be taboo
for me and I for him. I’d love

In this case we could probably figure out for ourselves the subtext of
Rosine’s solicitude for Magali, but the parallel example of Isabelle helps to
make the film’s point about the distance to be traveled between spring and
autumn in a woman’s life, between the cold, adventurous — even
predatory — Rosine and the warm but lonely Magali, each of whom finds
something to complete her in the other. This point is also nicely shaded by
memories of a younger Miss Romand’s memorable performances as a young (but early
young and late young), unmarried girl in two of Rohmer’s greatest films,
Claire’s Knee (1969) and Le Beau Mariage (1982).

The second moment comes as a throwaway. You might almost miss it, except that
it has such tremendous implications for what otherwise looks like a wonderfully
and surprisingly warm and happy ending. To get it, you have to cast your memory
back to a conversation between Gerald and Isabelle when the latter was
interviewing him, as it were, on behalf of Magali. When he thought he was
talking to a sympathetic Isabelle, he confided in her that he loved industrial
architecture, and that the ugly smokestacks of the local power station seemed
beautiful to him. Later, at the wedding party for Isabelle’s daughter where shy
Magali, unbeknownst to her, is to meet not only Gerald but also Étienne
at their respective sponsors’ behest, shows her only passion when she is shocked
that the hedge has been cut down that screened the view of the power

At this point we don’t yet know the outcome of the potentially farcical
situation that Rohmer has arranged for us. As it becomes apparent to
us — Gerald is a hit and Étienne a flop — we find ourselves
wishing more than either Isabelle or Rosine for Magali’s happiness. But at the
very moment when, surprisingly, her prospects seem brightest and even before we
have time to worry about the complications that seem to threaten what would
otherwise be a promising relationship, if we had experienced it as the
characters do, the thing seems already futile. At some point in the hopeful
future when they are on their second or third date, Gerald will reveal a love
for smokestacks and Magali will reveal that she cannot love a man who loves

Or not. Perhaps the story would be even better and more piquant in its
melancholy if she were to swallow her own dislike of smokestacks for
Gerald’s sake. But either way, Rohmer
has already qualified for us in his inimitably Rohmerian way the hope that is so
natural for beginning lovers and for lovers of
romance — namely, that they represent a
harmony of thought and feeling that bespeaks the melding of two souls. No, no.
This is a tale of autumn, of middle age, when romance is still
possible — maybe — but not that starry-eyed kind that we see in
Isabelle’s daughter, the bride, who can’t stand Magali. Or not for more than a
minute or two. To produce all this autumnal meditation, Rohmer gives us nothing
more than this tiny hint of what the future is likely to hold.

Otherwise, he asks us to be completely caught up in the tentative coming
together of Gerald and Magali — and the
poor lost souls that their hopeful match leaves behind. Isabelle, for one, but
also Rosine (Alexia Portal), the would-be matchmaker, Etienne, her chosen
match, and Leo, Rosine’s boyfriend and
Magali’s son, who
doesn’t know (or who really does know)
that Rosine doesn’t care for him at
all, but only goes out with him because she fell in love with his mother. The
trail of heartbreak is there for all to see, but Rohmer makes it as easy for us
to ignore as it is for the other incorrigible romantics whose lives he

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