In his introduction to Éric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale, which screened last night as part of BAM’s Late Film Series, YOU or The Invention of Memory author Jonathan Baumbach began his introduction by referencing one of the more notorious allusions to Rohmer in popular culture: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was like watching paint dry.”
This is Arthur Penn (via Gene Hackman) in 1975’s Night Moves, and even if Hackman’s grizzled PI isn’t the best source for a movie recommendation, this isn’t exactly the kind of shout-out anybody wants from Hollywood. For the record, watching a Rohmer movie is nothing like watching paint dry, unless you happen to find the process truly emotionally compelling.
As one of the last of the Nouvelle Vague directors – Rohmer was still toiling in the Cahiers du cinéma offices while Godard and Truffaut were hitting the international film scene — Rohmer’s films don’t quite dismantle structure the way his predecessors do, but instead foreground the interior lives of his subjects, integrating the New Wave-y tactics of ironic voiceovers, casual philosophizing, and low-key naturalism to create his signature style.
Not quite as flashy as Godard, but still, far from paint drying.
Rohmer first gained attention for his Six Moral Tales, a cycle of films that addressed the quiet ethical dilemmas of everyday life, and the ways in which individual subjectivity complicates these situations. In The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the first of the series, a young man rationalizes the seduction of a bakery girl, knowing all the while she’s only a stand-in for a mysterious woman he keeps encountering in the street. While little happens over the course of the (short) film, Bakery Girl, as with all of Rohmer’s work, is engaging on a different level: by the time the viewer has adapted to the narrator’s rationale, the motives of new characters have been introduced into the mix, creating scenarios without clear moral guidelines that operate entirely through emotion and subjective reason.
“One of the reasons that these Tales are called ‘Moral’,” Rohmer has said, “is that physical actions are almost completely absent: everything happens in the head of the narrator.”
Which brings me to Autumn Tale, the final film of Rohmer’s seasonal quartet. Since Rohmer began the series with 1990’s A Tale of Springtime, the project has racked up awards at the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals, and been widely regarded as one of the best of his career.
Set in the France’s pastoral Rhône Valley, Autumn Tale is the story of Magali, a widower and winemaker whose desire for companionship motivates her female friends to try to find her a partner. Of the friends in question, her son’s girlfriend attempts to set her up with her own former professor and lover (apparently naïve to the potential complications), while her best friend Isabelle goes a bit further, placing an ad in a local paper and scouting potential suitors by dating them herself. Somewhere between a comedy of errors or a comedy of manners, Autumn Tale is typical late Rohmer — voiceovers have been replaced with monologues, black-and-white has given way to color, and his characters have aged from the egotistical young men of his earlier works into the more subtle and complex figures of middle age.
As Autumn Tale demonstrates, Rohmer has refined his ability to illustrate the unspoken intricacies of interpersonal relationships, and through the film, he creates a rich world in which intentions and perceptions resonate as deeply as actions. For those who charge his films are “about nothing” (a condemnation that’s often the hallmark of great art) critics miss the point. To paraphrase Jonathan Baumbach, “The personal, which is where we begin and end, is about everything.”