An Autumn Tale

France 1998

Reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The southern Rhône valley, in the autumn. Isabelle, the owner of a bookshop, and her husband are planning the wedding of their daughter Emilia. Isabelle worries about the isolation of her best friend Magali (a widowed wine grower), now that Magali's grown-up children have left home. Rosine, the girlfriend of Magali's son Léo, is also concerned about Magali's loneliness. She plots to introduce Magali to Etienne, Rosine's former philosophy teacher and lover.

Meanwhile, Isabelle secretly writes a lonely-heart advertisement on Magali's behalf. Isabelle meets Gérald through the ad and lets him think she's her friend. After having lunch with him three times, she reveals her deception. At Emile's wedding, Magali is introduced to both Etienne (whom she dislikes) and Gérald (whom she likes). When the lonely-heart scheme is revealed to her, Magali is initially mortified and furious with Isabelle. Nevertheless, she's smitten by Gérald, who is also attracted to her, and she invites him to come and visit her.


The genius of Eric Rohmer has always been to make so much out of so little. Throughout his long and productive career he has worked on what could be described as small canvases, with faithful teams of actors and technicians and meagre budgets, with his production company Les Films du Losange. He shoots on location from his own scripts and eschews mainstream stars. An Autumn Tale, which completes Rohmer's Contes des quatre saisons/Tales of the Four Seasons quartet, is a beautiful, witty and serene film. It also vindicates the aesthetic and production ethos that's guided his career since his beginnings in the new wave.

Despite Rohmer's reputation (especially in the UK) as a cerebral and literary film-maker, his work has a concrete, documentary quality that suggests cinéma vérité. The first thing we see in An Autumn Tale is a road sign telling us where we are: Saint Paul Trois Chateaux, a small town in the Rhône valley. The glowing autumn light and the old buildings' and narrow streets' warm tones sketch out an idyllic backdrop. Water gurgles from a fountain in the middle of a square, an archetypal motif of Provençal iconography. Al fresco lunches are served under rustling trees. Isabelle's house and Magali's kitchen wouldn't be out of place in the pages of lifestyle magazines.

Yet Rohmer's Rhône valley is made up of working - albeit middle-class - people: bookshop keepers, wine growers, salesmen, students, teachers. They love their region and admire its landscape, but they also take stock (as does the camera) of its modernisation. Magali's defence of biological wine growing against intensive farming and her work on the ageing of Rhône wines (based on Rohmer's research in the area) suggest this underlying tension.

This tangible social background serves as the bedrock of the characters' dissection of life and love, in the manner of a French analytical novel. But the film never falls into the talking-heads trap. Encounters in cars, cafés, gardens and restaurants are visually dramatised, allowing the characters' philosophies (the action of the film, as it were) to be expressed dynamically. And this literary emphasis on language, something of a cliché with Rohmer, and the simplicity of the mise en scène rest on tight plotting in the tradition of Rohmer's master, Hitchcock.

As with its predecessors in the Contes des quatre saisons and the earlier Comedies and Proverbs, An Autumn Tale hinges on the plotting of Rosine and Isabelle, both engaged in parallel attempts at match-making Magali with a man. If this is reminiscent of Jane Austen's Emma, the emphasis on vision, impersonation and misrecognition reinforces the Hitchcock references. Rosine's two photographs of Etienne and Magali are key props. Isabelle and Rosine spot each other with a man across a square, a sighting from which each constructs a fiction about the scenario. And in a moment reminiscent of many other Rohmer films (such as Pauline à la plage, La Femme de l'aviateur, Les Nuits de la pleine lune, L'Ami de mon amie) Magali opens a door on what looks like, but is not, an amorous embrace between Isabelle and Gérald. Misunderstanding will arise from this, though it will be cleared up in the film's 'happy end'.

An Autumn Tale is the last in the Contes des quatre saisons and the work of a 78-year-old director, so it's tempting to read it as some kind of concluding point and reflection on Rohmer's career. All the more so because Rohmer has said he has no current film project, and because the two leads, Marie Rivière (Isabelle) and Béatrice Romand (Magali) are habituées of his work. Romand appeared notably in Le Genou de Claire (1970) and Le Beau Mariage (1981), and Rivière in La Femme de l'aviateur (1980) and Le Rayon vert (1986). More specifically, Rivière in Le Rayon vert and Romand in Le Beau Mariage are women in search of a man. The time gap between these films and An Autumn Tale, however, signals a maturing of perspective matching that of the heroines. Rohmer's cinema has always favoured women. Even in the Morla tales of the 60s and early 70s, structured around a man who hesitates between two women, the main female character (see Ma nuit chez Maud) was far more lively and interesting than the man. In the Comedies and Proverbs of the 80s and the 90s films, female characters were constructed in a way which allows for the expression of their own desires, sometimes in ways close to obsession.

Rohmer, like Jacques Rivette, is known for involving his actresses in the construction of the story, as well as in their performances. This is unusual enough in French cinema. But Romand and Rivière in An Autumn Tale offer something even more unusual: fortysomething women who are both 'good mothers' and sexual beings, who eclipse the women of the younger generation, and whose relationship with each other is at least as important as their relationship to men. Even Rosine says at one point that it's Magali she really "fell in love with" rather than Léo. Indeed, in the uncovering of Isabelle's plot, Magali is more upset about her friend's deception than she is by how it might affect her possible relationship with Gérald.

Rohmer has said recently, "I've never wanted for my films to be great commercial successes, but I still think that art should serve audiences. I therefore try hard each time to give something new to my spectators." A fitting comment on both this film and his career as a whole.


Françoise Etchegaray
Eric Rohmer
Director of Photography
Diane Baratier
Mary Stephen
Claude Marti
Gérard Pansanel
Pierre Peyras
Antonello Salis
©Les Films du Losange/La Sept Cinéma
Production Companies
Margaret Ménégoz/Les Films du Losange/La Sept Cinéma with the participation of Canal+/Sofilmka/ Rhônes-Alpes Cinéma present
Claire Champion
Pascal Ribier
Marie Rivière
Béatrice Romand
Didier Sandre
Etienne, philosophy teacher
Alain Libolt
Alexia Portal
Stéphane Darmon
Léo, Magali's son
Aurélia Alcaïs
Emilia, Isabelle's daughter
Matthieu Davette
Yves Alcaïs
Artificial Eye Film Company
tbc feet
tbc minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011