A TALE OF WINTER *** 1/2
Eric Rohmer made this film in 1992. It follows "A Tale of Springtime" (1989) within the series "Tales of the Four Seasons." "ATale of Summer" will be next.
Rohmer, Catholic intellectual, former schoolteacher, Ph.D., film critic, editor, novelist, film teacher and maker of educational documentaries in addition to fiction films, is a powerhouse of talent. He was born in 1920, which makes him the doyen of the French New Wave. Yet, although he entered filmmaking earlier than his junior colleagues, his fame spread from cine-connoisseurs to the public only after "My Night at Maud's" of 1969, when already such directors as Godard, Malle, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais had been celebrities for a decade.
Rohmer's cerebral yet accessible films are unlike anyone else's. Most viewers will say that there is no action in them, in the ordinary sense, yet, while Rohmer is his own kind of minimalist, things do happen all the time as the films explore feelings, thoughts, interactions and relationships through talk, body language, facial expressions and context.
By and large, Rohmer's main characters are younger people, mostly women. The director's astounding understanding of them should qualify him for prizes by the AAUP: the American Association of University Professors, for literary values, and the other, yet un-created AAUP, the American Association of Unretired Persons, for the youth of Rohmer's casts and the youth of Rohmer's brain.
"A Tale of Winter" is about the sentimental journeys of Felicie, which are like a ballet of hesitations and indecisions. If Robert Altman's "Ready To Wear" concludes with clothed with naked models, "Winter" has a nude Felicie at the start, doing fun things and making love with her new lover Charles. She is 20 or so, has a vaguely Hillary Rodham kind of face and an Altman-runway figure. It is the end of summer, a season Rohmer films often use as the end or the beginning of relationships.
Cut to "Five Years Later." Felicie appears to be the part-time live-in girlfriend of a man who turns out to be not Charles but Loic. The movie operates like a mysteryless mystery -- we gradually learn about its people in an onion-peeling way, but naturally, without trickery.
Loic, it turns out by bits and pieces, is, like Rohmer, a Catholic intellectual. A school librarian --and possibly a teacher too -- Loic is likable, brainy, sincere. At the same time, Felicie, a beautician, is having an affair with her boss Maxence, the older, pleasant owner of several salons. When he announces to Felicie that he has finally left his wife, is moving to Nevers to open another shop and wants Felicie to join him there, she hesitates.
Without going into details of the tale (something impossible, in any case, given the predominance of dialogue), and without revealing some developments, I will only say that Felicie has a little girl by Charles, that Charles was a freelance chef, and that he has disappeared. No, he did not abandon Felicie, but, when the two parted after their vacation, in the hubbub of the train station she gave him the wrong Paris suburb as her address. There is something of "Love Affair" and "An Affair to Remember" in this confusion and lack of contigency planning. Felicie keeps trying to track him down, without luck.
That's half of the problem for Felicie. The other half is that Charles is the love of her life and no matter how self-centered (like most Rohmer characters) she is, she cannot find any true contentment with either suitor. She tries, in Nevers, but exits rapidly with a lucid reason: "I don't love you enough to live with you. I should love you madly." And about the other man she says :"He's not my type, he's too sweet."
It's much more complicated than that. The conversations go on and on, and not only touch on feelings, they take on literature, the supernatural, superstitions, philosophy, faith, Catholic theology. Rohmer does it with light-fingered humor, a soupcon of irony and a dash of satire, but essentially he is quietly serious. The talk is not of banalities but of self-search, introspection and analysis.
Now and then Rohmer will dash off a line that, in New Wave fashion, is an in-joke or a film reference. As when Felicie can't remember Charles' family name. " It sounds Dutch, Van Den something..." which is like ther name of the actor who plays Charles. The most esoteric of references comes when Felicie, on her first visit to Nevers, discusses with Maxence her predicament with the vanished Charles. She adds " I was crazy", which has to be a nod in the direction of "Hiroshima Mon Amour" where the heroine, in a flashback to her native town says "I was crazy --crazy in Nevers."
There is minimal symbolism in Rohmer. What you see and hear is what you get. The first visit to Nevers is a fairly happy one, but after Felicie moves there, that beautiful city, felt subjectively, becomes oppressive and claustrophobic. So goodbye,Maxence.
Loic, who recites Victor Hugo poetry to prove eloquently a religious point, has a fine, cultivated mind, and discerningly tells untutored Felicie that what she says is instinctively what the philosopher Pascal expressed in his famous bet, and what Plato's views on reality were. Those are recurring themes in Rohmer movies.
Interestingly, in a film that resembles only other Rohmer movies -- and, distantly, Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre"-- the trio where the two men do not meet but know all about each other, is no typical menage a trois either. Nor is it the standard construct where a woman has to choose between Tom, Dick and Harry. Felicie, who is in at center stage, does not blow hot and cold, she blows at most tepid and cool. How could she do otherwise when she is haunted by Charles, that one and only lost love who is the measure of all things?
Near the film's end, Loic takes Felicie to see a performance of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." Specialists will note the fine correspondences between the two "Winter" works, but it is enough to say that it is Felicie's Road to Damascus. Moved by the play, she has a sudden flash, an illumination which, so to speak, sets the stage for chance to come to the rescue and give the film its satisfactory closure.
With his usual cinematographer, the extraordinary Nestor Almendros (who died in 1992), Rohmer had achieved a pure, spare visual style to match his storytelling, akin in some ways to those of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. In "Winter" the collaboration with Marcel Pages retains those characteristics as well as Rohmer's simplicity and clarity in the use of natural light and real-life exteriors.
There is not a single image that looks like a studio set, while the profusion of outdoor sequences of Paris, its suburbs, Nevers and other places adds realism to the film and transforms the locations into characters.
The naturalness is shared by the flesh-and-blood performers, mostly unknowns, all entirely credible, all like real persons on whom we are eavesdropping. And, since there are so few of them, they can be developed fully, by touches and increments.
"Winter," like most other movies by Rohmer, is not for fanciers of only bang-bang or other obvious melodramas. But for those who appreciate the subtleties of conversations and of leisurely, finely drawn portraits, this thinking person's film is a delight.