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AUTUMN TALE, 1998
Starring Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt, Didier Sandre, Alexia Portal
In the south of France, Magali is a widow living on a rambling vineyard isolated except for the visits of her best friend, her son, and his girlfriend. Magali’s wine-growing is a success but she feels lonely. Isabelle, her best friend, secretly puts a lonely hearts ad in the paper to secure a date for Magali. Meanwhile, Magali’s son’s girlfriend, Rosine, is trying to do her own matchmaking, between Magali and Rosine’s ex-professor and ex-lover, Étienne. Who will Magali choose?
In the Four Seasons series written and directed by Eric Rohmer, An Autumn Tale makes the most of glorious autumnal settings in and around vineyards and a small, typically southern French town. It centers on the friendship between two middle-aged women, and Magali herself is a strong and memorable character.
The film begins at the home of Isabelle (Marie Rivière), a chic middle-aged woman with a grown daughter who is planning her forthcoming marriage. We next see her driving out to the vineyard of her best friend Magali (Béatrice Romand). Magali is a beautiful, fit, and self-assured 45-year-old with two grown children of her own. Her son Leo is attending university in the nearby town and flits in and out of her life; her daughter is much less visible, having broken her mother’s heart and moved away. Magali is obsessed with her work in the rustic and beautiful vineyard, making her wine, but she admits to Isabelle that she is partially using her work as a prop to distract her from her loneliness. No one much visits her, and she doesn’t go anywhere. She confesses, as a widow, she’d like to meet a new man, but is unable to envision how it would work out. Isabelle suggests putting an ad in the lonely hearts column of the paper, but Magali is against it.
Magali knows that Rosine (Alexia Portal) , Leo’s girlfriend who is living with her at the moment, is only nominally interested in her son. However, Magali has really taken to Rosine and they are good friends. When Rosine cycles away into the countryside, she meets Étienne (Didier Sandre), her ex-professor and ex-lover. He is almost old enough to be her father, handsome and intellectual, though she meets him tit for tat on discussions about philosophy. He wants to rekindle their romance; she doesn’t. He says it’s easier for her to resist their chemistry because she has a boyfriend; she retorts that he needs to get a girlfriend. At that, they decide not to see each other again until Étienne has a girlfriend.
At her travel bookstore, Isabelle puts an ad in the paper on behalf of Magali. She receives responses but the only one that interests her is from Gérald (Alain Libolt). She agrees to meet him in a restaurant for a daytime meeting. Gérald is immediately taken with the woman he believes owns a vineyard, is a widow with grown children, and who was born in Tunisia. These facts are all true about Magali, but why is Isabelle taking on her best friend’s persona?
In university, Leo struggles to understand Rosine’s flippant attitude toward him, the fact she seems to like his mother more than him, and why she has been seeing Étienne again. Rosine admits she has plans to set up a date between Étienne and Magali. Leo makes his displeasure known, but Rosine ignores him.
Isabelle continues to meet Gérald while pretending to be Magali. On their third meeting, she reveals that she is actually happily married. Gérald is understandably confused and wondering whether he’s been used. Isabelle tells him that Magali would never advertise or answer a lonely hearts ad, therefore Isabelle tested him out. She approves; Gérald has travelled all over the world in his work, divorced his wife, and has come to the south of France for work. Like Magali, he was born in Africa and is also a wine connoisseur. Like Magali, he is of a certain age and is a tolerant, interesting person. When Isabelle suggests he meet the real Magali, he is cagey—until she shows him her picture. He agrees to meet her at Isabelle’s daughter’s wedding.
Also at Isabelle’s daughter’s wedding are Rosine and Étienne. Leo takes his mother, the shy Magali who tries to hide from all the other guests. Gérald recognizes her and is encouraged by Isabelle to introduce himself, obviously not as her would-be-lonely-hearts-ad, but as Isabelle’s business associate. Gérald and Magali immediately hit it off, but being shy, both retreat. Meanwhile, Rosine tries to set sparks flying between Étienne and Magali, but neither are very interested, much to Rosine’s surprise. After seeing an exhuberant Gérald, pleased at the connection he’s made with Magali, embracing Isabelle, Magali flees. When Isabelle finds her and tells her that she can get a ride home with Gérald, is it romance or disaster that will follow?
Rohmer’s characters are very chatty, and indeed all of An Autumn Tale feels very relaxed and natural. There are no high stakes, it’s simply about relationships in different age groups. Rosine is sophisticated and canny, insisting that she seduced Étienne rather than the other way around, and indeed it appears she has him wrapped around her little finger, being coy and then maintaining platonic friendship. On the other hand, she is as completely rebuffed by her failure with the Magali/Étienne meeting as Emma Woodhouse is in her mismatches in Jane Austen’s novel. Magali, so confident and savvy on her vineyard, is reduced to a timid and disbelieving wreck on the unfamiliar turf of the wedding, doubting that Gérald’s interest in her could be lasting and real.
An Autumn Tale is simple and talkative, beautifully filmed, and completely keeping with the ethos of Rohmer’s other Four Seasons films.