Au revoir les enfants

Eric Rohmer says goodbye to youth.

THE MALE GAZE and the female perspective: Director Eric Rohmer has always seemed to teeter between two ways of seeing. Poll a few girl cinephiles and youll find at least one who lists Rohmers 1986 Summer as her favorite film, thanks to its goofily sensitive portrait of a woman on the verge of who-knows-what-exactly. I know one woman filmmaker who, on the basis of Summer alone, thinks of Rohmer as a female director. Yet Rohmer is the same director who famously couldnt keep the eye of his camera off Arielle Dombasles peachy bottom in 1983s Pauline at the Beach. His latest film makes that tension explicit, and to a degree resolves it.

Tale of Autumn

Directed by Eric Rohmer

starring Marie Riviere, Beatrice Romand

starts Friday at Broadway Market

Tart as a grape and inhabited by les femmes dun certain age, Rohmers Tale of Autumn rounds out the “Tales of the Four Seasons” series with his most evocative seasonal piece yet. Set in the Rhone Valley, the film shows how wine and love must age to perfection. Lest that sound a little maudlin, let it be said that while the light may be slanting into autumn, On Golden Pond this aint. Like the other three “tales,” Tale of Autumn depends for its plot on a series of comedic miscommunications worthy of Shakespeareor Threes Company.

Magali (Beatrice Romand) is a forty-ish country woman, widowed and deeply involved in her vineyard. Shes prickly, more concerned with weeds among her vines than with suitors. “I want a man,” she says with typical Rohmer erudition, “but under a host of conditions.” Isabelle (Marie Riviere, star of Summer) is her city mouse best friend, eager to set Magali up with a new man. Without telling Magali, Isabelle puts an ad in the local paper, and receives a charming reply from the urbane, sad-eyed Gerald. The happily married Isabelle makes an illicit date with Gerald. Posing as Magali, she tests the waters for her friend. At first Gerald seems regrettably smooth, but typically Rohmer-esque gestures of integritya quirked smile, an insecure hair-patindicate his potential lovability.

MEANTIMES, MAGALI has developed a friendship with her sons girlfriend, Rosine (Alexia Portal), who in an only-the-French plot twist wants to matchmake Magali with Etienne, Rosines own (much older) former lover and professor. The Rohmer who lingers on the nubile, unbearably lovely Rosine is the Rohmer who made his name with the beachside gamine cavorting of Claires Knee. Rosines lamby limbs are irresistible.

Its no accident that Magali and Rosine echo one another physically. Bushy-haired and pouty-lipped, they might be mother and daughter. As the films plot turns on its romantic axis, though, Magali steps into the light. Befuddled, holding her chaotic hair back from her worn face with her rough vintners hands, she becomes a most unlikely romantic heroine. Rosine, meanwhile, steps back into the shadow. The film explores her character and finds her to be, in the end, a not-very-interesting manipulator, despite her exquisite shoulder blades. She needs time to ripen. Rohmersurprise!is casting his lot among the crones instead of the maidens. Just to bring it full circle, the actresses who play Magali and Isabelle are Rohmer vetsthey have both enjoyed the directors more sexualized regard. Now, as they plot and dance, they seem desirable in new ways; not just as potential lovers for Gerald, but in their tried-and-true friendship with each other.

If the model for the plot is Shakespeare, the soul of the film belongs to Jane Austen. Like the headstrong women in Austen, these are not characters who changethey are instead characters who reveal themselves to themselves through their choice of lover. For the middle-aged, such choices are naturally more fraught with danger, as in Austens Persuasion. Magali doesnt become someone other than herself; instead, she learns her own heart. In fact, it would be false to call her choice of lover a choice at all. Shes simply taking her right place in the dance.

And as in Persuasion, the painful coming of self-knowledge yields high comedy. As the ronde draws to a closeat the wedding of Isabelles daughterand Magali takes the hand of the “right” suitor, this tough-talking wine-grower becomes unsure, running about the countryside like a fool, accusing and hugging Isabelle all in the same breath. Raw emotion renders her downright addled. Its Rohmers geniusand genius it isto show the purely human love affair as both all-consuming and, well, a little silly. His characters are all too aware of the pointlessness of their passion, but they also know that its pretty much the measure of happiness were allotted here. Isabelle defends her meddlesome matchmaking to Gerald: “Theres lots of ways to waste time. This ones no sillier than any other.” A fine description of love, of movie-goingand of movie-reviewing, for that matter.