Unlike other long-lived but more celebrated filmmakers—for example, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and Huston—Eric Rohmer has never made a film that stands on its own as a masterpiece. Indeed, he has not even made the attempt. His modest films come in groups organized around a general themes—Six Moral Fables, Comedies and Proverbs, and now Tales of Four Seasons. Rohmer is best known in America for My Night at Maud's (his only Oscar nomination) and Claire's Knee, two parts of the Six Moral Fables, which came out in 1969 and 1970. But Rohmer has since been unable to reach American audiences, and certainly lacks the cachet of Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, or Louis Malle-other French film-makers of the so-called Nouvelle Vague who rebelled against "commercial" film-making. Unlike these others, Rohmer is a conservative aesthete, interested in the spiritual promise of ordinary human beings. He has been described as a Catholic film-maker.
Rohmer is also a reclusive man, who spent the first eight years of his career teaching literature in a lycée. In the 1950s he became editor of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine of film criticism that published the auteurs whose theory and practice made the French Film Renaissance of the 1960s. Keeping faith with those beginnings, Rohmer has written all his own screenplays. Those artists wanted the audience to encounter the "auteur" who created the film, not the studio that produced it, and Rohmer's films have the stamp of his artistic personality.
Like Monet, Rohmer does not try to get everything into one work. It is difficult to appreciate Monet's significance until you have seen a group of his paintings or (better still) attended a major retrospective. Unfortunately for Rohmer the practical obstacles of a film retrospective are such that he can never expect to find a wider and more appreciative audience. Rohmer is the antithesis of Hollywood: he does not work the demographics, his plots are not thrilling, his pace is slow and leisurely, there is little sex or violence, and no aliens. Nor has he hitched his wagon to a star: no Bardot, Moreau, or Deneuve. His actresses are never larger than the women they portray. Film retrospectives preach to the converted and Eric Rohmer does not have many American converts (the quality of his work is lost on a small screen, so he is not likely to be saved by video). People will not sit in the dark hour after hour for several days until they realize that Rohmer is an extraordinary filmmaker who has found a world of film in the lives of women, much as Monet found a world of beauty in water lilies.
Rohmer's latest film, The Autumn Tale, is the last of his Tales of Four Seasons, and it outshines its predecessors. The film earned best screenplay at Cannes and it has more plot than most of Rohmer's films, which often are no more than aperçus. It also powerfully illustrates Rohmer's approach to filmmaking, which bears striking resemblance to the approach to winemaking taken by Magali (Béatrice Romand), one of the female leads. True to the French vintner's tradition, she treats winemaking as art, not as industry. On the small parcel of land left to her by her parents, Magali produces a local Côte du Rhône aimed at the connoisseur who, she hopes, recognizes that it is as good as a Gigondas, and that if all goes well it will age like a Burgundy. Such connoisseurs are rare, even in the Rhône Valley. And, as Rohmer shows us in this film, even they may need a little prompting. Like Magali, Rohmer seems more committed to his art than to his consumers.
The three women at the center of The Autumn Tale (Magali, Isabelle, and Rosalie) are played by actresses you might expect to meet in real life (Romand, Marie Rivière, Alexia Portal). Rivière makes it clear that Rohmer does not choose his non-celebrity actresses so that he can push them around. In an earlier film, The Green Ray, she was allowed so much room to improvise that she earned a collaborative credit. But Rohmer is not the cinema of improvisation: as auteur, he knows exactly where he wants his films to go.
Much has been written about the "male gaze" of the director attempting to penetrate the mystery of the female. That was the font and the limit of Roger Vadim's creative talent as a filmmaker; he did it first with Bardot in God Created Woman and later with Jane Fonda in Barbarella. When he was not directing, he obsessively painted pictures of women masturbating-as though he could master the female orgasm by objectifying it. Bergman and Fellini were male gazers but in a class by themselves as filmmakers; their films were self-reflexive about what they were doing.
Rohmer is quite unlike these other directors. His women are certainly revealed in all of their vulnerability but he does not focus through the lens of sexuality. He is interested in women the way Ibsen and Chekhov were: not in orgasms, but in the mysteries of the self and what a woman wants from the next day in her life. Rohmer does not have the genius of a Chekhov who can find something universal in the very particular social historical context of a provincial Russian woman. That is one reason why Rohmer does not travel well; his characters are decidedly French and he seems as interested in their French soul as in any universal quality he might capture.
It would be difficult to say which of the three decidedly French women in The Autumn Tale is the "heroine." There is neither a star nor a heroine; the film is a triptych, with three panels of equal size. But there is a psychological triangle and the winemaker Magali is at the center. To cope with an empty nest, she has thrown herself into winemaking. She is lucky and engaging enough to have two women friends who seem devoted to her: Isabelle is her own age and a friend from childhood; Rosalie is her son's girlfriend but attracted to her and bored with the son. So Magali is not the prototypical isolated and alienated middle-aged woman. She is youthful, perhaps even shy but by no means desperate. One could imagine her toughing it out, walling up her emotions, and making a life of her vineyard without a man and without Prozac.
But Magali's friends want more for her. They want to fix her up with the right man, each for her own self-interested reason. Throughout this film one senses that both the characters and the audience are in the hands of a great psychologist-if one knew more about the Rhône Valley, its old towns and its new factories, one would appreciate even more how Rohmer's women are suited to their local social reality, which is filmed as carefully as they are.
Rosalie, an extraordinary young woman, is wise beyond her years but perhaps not quite as shrewd or strong as she pretends. Like many of Rohmer's heroines, she is young, vulnerable, willing to choose impulsively, and spiritual. She is coming off an affair with her philosophy professor and she finds men her own age boring. So she has filled the philosopher's spiritual place in her life with her boyfriend's mother, the winemaker. Rosalie has a crush on Magali and is quite open about its intensity. One of the themes in the Tales of Four Seasons is the young woman searching for a mother to love. But neither the abandoned philosophy professor (Didier Sandre) nor the son, mystified that anyone his age could be interested in his mother, seem to be aware of spiritual attachments. Rosalie and these two men constitute a bedroom triangle. The philosophy professor is still sexually interested in his student; it is she who left him. Her immature boyfriend tries to be possessive, but she is calling the shots. She plays the two men off against each other. Rosalie seems to realize that neither of them is for her, but she is still struggling with her attraction to the philosophy professor. She wants to be his friend, not his lover. And then she hits on the idea of fixing him up with the winemaker, making them both into parents. The audience, particularly those who have watched Tale of Springtime, which has a similar theme, can see it coming long before she does-the question is whether the philosophy professor will be interested in a woman his own age after a long series of nubile student conquests. Magali isn't betting on it; she is of the opinion that the older such men get the younger the women who interest them.
A professor with a seriatim harem of students will seem an outdated character to most Americans. In our context Rohmer's philosopher is closer to a high-school teacher than a university professor. French students are given a course in philosophy in the last year of their lycée, when they are the age of first-year college students in America. Certainly a middle-aged teacher who had affairs with such young students would be some sort of loathsome pariah in any American film. But in the provincial Rhône Valley there is no politicized reaction, just a raising of eyebrows. And against them, Rosalie repeatedly insists-perhaps too much-that she initiated the affair by pursuing him. Rohmer, like Sartre and de Beauvoir, began his career as a "professor" in the lycée and is genuinely interested in that year of philosophy. In the Tale of Springtime, an earlier part of this "Season" series, a central figure is a woman professor of philosophy at a lycée who is quite serious about the enterprise. She wants her students to realize that philosophy can play a role in their lives, as it does in hers. In this film Rosalie is clearly having an affair with philosophy as much as with her philosophy professor. That is what makes her character so remarkable and so quintessentially Rohmer.
These two triangles are completed by a third. Magali's best friend from school days, Isabelle works in a bookstore and her daughter is about to be married. She too is coming up on an empty nest. In the midst of all the arrangements for her daughter's wedding she gets the idea of putting a lonely-hearts ad in the newspaper for her friend. Her plan is to spare Magali the humiliation of placing the ad and meeting the men by doing it for her and finding one who is suited to the winemaker. It is not difficult to believe that this escapade is as much for herself as for her friend. And when she meets an eligible man, Gerard (Alain Libolt), it is clear that she is as intrigued with him as he is with her. It is only at their third meeting that she tells Gerard, who by then is obviously smitten with her, that he is meant for her friend Magali.
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As a psychologist, Rohmer works from the outside in. His tool is the camera, capturing Isabelle as she plays her game of pretending to be Magali with Gerard; making up the rules as she goes along to have the pleasure and excitement of a dalliance under the guise of altruism. Not surprisingly Gerard-who is delighted from the moment they meet-feels used by the time Isabelle lets him in on the game.
Under Rohmer's directorial gaze Gerard is more vulnerable than Isabelle. The audience has no foreknowledge of what Isabelle had planned or how far she will go. The camera reveals but it does not judge or catalogue. The result is a touching glimpse of human good will and fallibility as two people reach out for each other. Gerard overcomes his pique and agrees to meet the real Magali at the wedding party of Isabelle's daughter.
Now Isabelle has produced Gerard for Magali and Rosalie has offered up her philosophy professor. Suddenly two men may be in her life but neither friend of Magali knows what the other is planning. It will all come together at the wedding party.
Rohmer's outside-in psychology respects and reveals the particularity of his characters; his style leaves the mystery of the woman's self intact and un-pigeonholed. Interestingly Marie Rivière has reported in an interview that-working from the inside-out of her character as an actress-it was her idea that Isabelle would want to take things even farther with Gerard. But Rohmer said no, "That wasn't how he saw things." Going farther would probably have meant something like having an affair. This would have decisively changed the triptych balance of the three women. Rivière would have become the large center panel of the film, and she would have changed the subtle nuanced script into a soap opera of sexual infidelity. The charming Isabelle would have become another cheap imitation of the provincial Madame Bovary. Rohmer's artistic scruples are best revealed in this contrast. But Rohmer's characters, though seen from the outside, are not entirely opaque. Although we do not know exactly what they want from life and neither do they, we do see their lives and their moral choices, and we glimpse their souls.
Rosalie and Isabelle add excitement to their lives by helping Magali find a man. It gives them purpose and a promise of happiness where they seemed to have none. Each is solving her own problem by solving Magali's. Isabelle is proving she can still get a man and Rosalie that she can control her men. Of course they cannot both succeed. By the time we get to the wedding party, all the triangles come together and Rohmer's plot takes on all the complications of a farce. Magali knows that Rosalie plans for her to meet the professor but knows nothing about Gerard. Gerard, who has been prompted about Magali and comes from a family of winemakers, says all the right things about her wine, which is being served at the garden party wedding. It looks like sparks are struck and something will happen when Rosalie drags Magali away to her professor, leaving Gerard at a party where he knows nobody but the hostess and the woman he has just met. Magali does not give the professor much of a chance to show his interest, and he quickly consoles himself with the company of another former student who is eager to join the harem. Magali is more than ready to go back to Gerard but finds him in intimate conversation with Isabelle and suspects he is her lover. It seems that everything is ruined and Magali's worst fears about men have been realized.
But all the triangles get straightened out. Rosalie goes home with her philosophy professor. Magali sends Gerard home with the promise they will meet again. And Isabelle ends the film dancing in her husband's arms, with a melancholy gaze fixed on the distance. This melancholy look is what is left of the actress' inside-out interpretation of her part, and Rohmer allowed it. Even this inward psychologizing goes against the grain of Rohmer's aesthetic of less-is-more filmmaking.
Rohmer's "endings" typically come upon us unexpectedly as we wait to see how it all comes out. But in Rohmer as in life it does not "come out"; one simply lives. His art is about the moral adventure of living, not the fiction of clarifying outcomes. Rohmer is no realist-no more than Monet. One can never hope to see in a water lily what Monet saw. Still, one can admire his artistic achievement, and so it is with Rohmer's gazing at women.