Cinema: Rohmer, sweet Rohmer

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The Independent Culture
Who says the cinema isn't in a state of terminal infantilism? Just consider the case of Eric Rohmer. It's a sobering thought that Ma Nuit chez Maud, the film that established his reputation all of 30 years ago, a cerebral comedy about a pious young Catholic intellectual and a flirtatious, free-thinking bourgeoise who spend an unconsummated night together mostly discussing theology, was a huge hit in its day. Sobering, because nowadays, if Ma Nuit chez Maud got made at all, it would probably be marginalised, by critics and public alike, as an avant-gardist, even downright experimental, film - with the audience to match.

During those intervening three decades Rohmer has obstinately pursued his vision of art as the highest form of DIY. Shooting swiftly and inexpensively on location, drawing on a pool of performers he's already worked with, classifying his films in groups with rather preciously 18th-century-sounding rubrics (Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, latterly Tales of the Four Seasons), he alone has remained loyal to the French New Wave credo that a film can, and should, be shot the way a novel is written. Basically, by one person.

If I felt the need to preface An Autumn Tale, the latest and last of his quartet of seasonal entertainments, it's because the temptation exists, even for a fan, to dismiss it as barely more nourishing than the nougat for which its setting, Montelimar, is famous. The story certainly is slender. Magali (Beatrice Romand) and Isabelle (Marie Riviere) have been intimates since the year dot. The former is a fortyish, frizzy-haired divorcee, unresigned to her lonely lot, grumpily cultivating her vineyard much as Voltaire advised us to cultivate our gardens. The latter is a stylish bookseller, about to marry off her daughter. Persuaded that Magali is incapable of finding a man by herself, Isabelle inserts an ad in the local rag's lonely-hearts column which elicits a response from the elegantly melancholy Gerard (Alain Libolt). Whereupon the plot is thickened by the intervention of the malicious Rosine (Alexia Portal, a ravishing brunette with a Cocteauesque profile), who decides to introduce Magali to Etienne, her philosophy professor (Didier Sandre), one of those brainy dandies familiar from the director's work. Each unaware of the other's designs, the two rival matchmakers then choose the forthcoming wedding reception to engineer an encounter between the unwitting objects of their machinations ...

Pure Rohmer, in short, halfway between Marivaux and an episode of Friends. And the spell is cast even before the credits are off the screen. With a handful of shots Rohmer brings an entire community to life - the Rhone valley and its lush environs - with such meteorological exactitude you could set your watch by his sensual but unshowy mise en scene. He may be the very last director alive who knows how to film what DW Griffith called "the wind in the trees", how to film air. His imagery is as refreshing as a glass of cold water.

The same precision is evident in the unravelling of the emotional deceptions and moral complexities in which his characters as always get themselves entangled. Their anxieties are never "existential": they search and they search and they eventually succeed in tracking down the source of their distress. Though it may sometimes sound improvised, Rohmer's dialogue is invariably scripted in advance and seldom departed from, a fact that produces a bizarre aural illusion. Note, for example, how in one early exchange, a coquettish dalliance between Rosine and Etienne, their delivery oscillates almost imperceptibly between the natural and the artificial, the vernacular and the theatrical. If you half-close your ears, as it were, you might think they were speaking in alexandrines.

All that said, it must be admitted that An Autumn Tale is one of the weaker Rohmers. Even during the serenely suave and mercurial first half I found myself distracted by the apparent callousness with which Romand was filmed (did her hair have to be quite such an unsightly mess, her skin quite so blotchy?) and by certain longueurs and langueurs in the pacing. (At 111 minutes, the film has an unnecessarily protracted running time for the usually more lapidary Rohmer.) Then came a moment when, for me at least, the spell was broken altogether.

It's the moment when Isabelle composes the lonely-hearts advertisement on behalf of Magali. Psychological verisimilitude is something one learns not to be too preoccupied with in the cinema, the American cinema in particular, but in Rohmer's work it's absolutely crucial. Marie Riviere is not, thank God, Meg Ryan, Beatrice Romand not Bette Midler, An Autumn Tale not a Hollywood screwball comedy. Which is why I suddenly felt like that military wallah played by Graham Chapman who used to interrupt the more surreal Monty Python skits by barking at his fellow performers, "Now this is silly! This started out as a nice little sketch, but it's become silly!" What Isabelle does is so patently ill-advised - and a woman as worldly as we're led to believe she is would know it was ill-advised - I found it next to impossible from that point on to continue suspending my disbelief.

Others may react differently. One of the mysteries of Rohmer's cinema is that, if ever one of his more or less unconditional admirers (among whom I'd include myself) is disappointed by some individual film in the canon, he deploys against it exactly, but exactly, the same arguments that the director's detractors have used throughout his career - that his dramatis personae are a bunch of feckless, knuckle-headed flibbertigibbets whose languid posturings and complete lack of self-knowledge are calculated to set the teeth on edge. Now, I discover, that can happen not only with one of a series of films but actually within the duration of a single film, for it is, I'm afraid, exactly how I myself felt in the second half of An Autumn Tale.

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