FILM / Now is the winter of our discontent: Un Conte d'Hiver (12)Eric Rohmer (France); Tous les Matins du Monde (12)Alain Corneau (France)

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The Independent Culture
For a decade or so back there, Eric Rohmer looked like the most rewarding of the film directors associated with the French New Wave, but somehow all that nuanced rigour, that fastidious truthfulness has gone to pot. As recently as 1984, in Full Moon in Paris, Rohmer - born 1920 - was able to take a rather vacuous young woman as his heroine, and make her completely convincing. But Felicie, the lead character of his new film Un Conte d'Hiver, is a thin creation, and the story just doesn't add up. Rohmer has begun to pay a heavy price for having protagonists of a generation so much younger than his, disowning his own worldly wisdom without offering anything of comparable value to replace it.

It all starts with a holiday romance in Brittany. The opening sequence is a wordless overture, a series of cinematic holiday snaps bathed in sunshine. Felicie (Charlotte Very) falls in love with a young man called Charles (Frederic van den Driessche) but somehow - somehow - she writes down the wrong town when it comes to giving him her address. He's travelling around, so she has no way of contacting him. They're separated indefinitely and then she finds she's pregnant.

Two lovers separated by a single, irreversible slip. It could be a fairytale, involving a curse, or it could be a Freudian study hingeing round a fatal slip of the pen, the 'mistake' betraying a secret wish - but it can hardly be both.

As the years pass, Felicie has a daughter, and she herself is torn between two unsatisfactory lovers, a bookish intellectual and her boorish boss at the hairdressers. Her relationship with both men is distorted by futile memories of her romance with Charles. After that transient perfection, nothing can measure up, and she ends up treating both imperfect men badly. This should be classic Rohmer territory, a study of the way idealism can actually corrupt personal behaviour, though the insights seem dutiful rather than inspired. Might Felicie unconsciously be using the image of Charles to manipulate the two competing men and keep them at a distance? It shows what a pretty pass things have come to with Un Conte d'Hiver that the viewer can't be sure that psychological depth of this sort is even intended. And all along there is a second theme, steadily gaining ground, that annihilates the first: Felicie's unshakeable loyalty to Charles as a secular version of religion, her loving faith a devotional act.

Un Conte d'Hiver follows Un Conte Printemps in a series of films apparently based on the seasons; certainly it reaches its climax, if a slight thickening of texture constitutes a climax, at the holiday time of Christmas and new year. But there is another dimension to the title. Felicie and her bookish suitor go to a performance of Winter's Tale, which much against expectation stirs her deeply. We see an extensive passage of the last act, where the statue comes to life, what is lost is found, and the past is redeemed. These mighty blasts of reconciliation seem out of scale with the modest anecdote we started with. As the year turns, Felicie's fantasies are fulfilled, but if the heroine is rewarded for her patience, the viewer is fobbed off with false naivety and bogus resolution.

The failure of Un Conte d'Hiver is all the more grievous because there is now a generation of film- goers convinced that a licence to make a French film cannot be issued unless there is a part in it for Gerard Depardieu. That's not to belittle Depardieu, whose hearty, meaty presence has given body to many a thin cinematic concoction.

In Tous Les Matins du Monde, directed by Alain Corneau, Depardieu plays the historical figure of Marin Marais, a court musician in the 17th century. The opening shot daringly shows nothing but Depardieu's face for several minutes, bewigged, powdered and sagging, as he vocalises doggedly along in the course of a rather somnolent masterclass for viola da gamba players, and reminisces about his teacher, Monsieur De Sainte Colombe.

Marais as a young man, a cobbler's son who sang in the royal choir until his voice broke, is played in the flashbacks by Depardieu's son Guillaume, who gives a good account of himself in his first film role. If there is one thing, though, that Guillaume hasn't inherited it is his father's glorious schnozz, and there is a rather disconcerting scene in which his own slimline nose is abruptly built up to prepare us for his father's imminent taking over of the role. Of course it only looks as if he's auditioning, inexplicably, for Cyrano.

Depardieu reins in most of his barnstorming as the adult Marais, a showman who is quite happy to seek patronage, whether or not it is musically discriminating. Almost nothing is known about Monsieur De Sainte Colombe - not even his christian name - but he was an amateur who wasn't interested in securing an official position. Jean-Pierre Marielle as Sainte Colombe gives a performance of fierce melancholy. Corneau and Pascal Quignard, who wrote the script, have elaborated a conflict between the two men. Saint Colombe by their account retreated from the world when his wife died and composed music that was essentially mourning made audible. In the film these melancholy airs actually conjure up his dead wife - played by Caroline Sihol, glowing as if she had just been told she was French cinema's answer to Michelle Pfeiffer.

Corneau has composed and lit almost every shot as if it was a painting by Baugin, who makes a brief appearance, cynically turning out exquisite still-lifes for money. Is it possible to have too much pictorial ravishment in a film? Perhaps it is.

Quignard, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, is an expert on the period - he is president of the Baroque Festival at Versailles - and it shows. It shows in the extraordinary beauty of the soundtrack, and in the effortless passing on of technical details. It shows perhaps also in a story that, despite some melodramatic embellishments (betrayal, suicide) remains more of a thesis than a drama. In Amadeus, Salieri was maddened by the knowledge that he was so outclassed by Mozart as to be excluded from music altogether. The conflict between the two musicians in Tous Les Matins du Monde is much more superficial, and ends eventually in reconciliation. It is almost as if we are being told, by someone who knows, that the essence of the Baroque can be reached equally by rigour and by exuberance - rigour informed by passion, exuberance tempered by discipline. This is a worthy thesis, but less than a compelling basis for cinema.

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