Four films make up a year’s worth of light drama from French New Wave icon Éric Rohmer in a new set from the Criterion Collection.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO

Some people call him Maurice; and he speaks of the pompatus of love (whatever that is).  But despite those similarities to the perennial FM radio hit of the thoroughly American Steve Miller Band, French auteur Éric Rohmer (real name: Maurice Schérer) was no joker.  If, however, one looks quite closely at his career’s worth of humbly produced dialogue-driven relationship films, one may perceive a welcome air of fun… or something like it.

Light in weight but fully sincere in their storytelling, Rohmer’s films, at a glance, may appear unattended and even slipshod in their art direction.  He did like to keep his crews small…. Closer inspection, though, reveals deep intentionality in color and decor.  While his workaday worlds are decorated rather than constructed, Rohmer’s mise-en-scène is, in fact, strong.  It ultimately validates his standing as not just a revered and successful director, but as a Film Studies academic.  

Rohmer stood tall as an icon of the golden era of Cahiers du Cinéma, where he worked as a film critic and then the publication’s editor in the cinematically vital period spanning from 1951 to 1964.  During that time, he would also become a director as part of the essential French New Wave movement.  

Much to the delight of those who gravitate to grouping things, Rohmer was particularly fond of presenting his films as part of pre-determined 'bundles.' His early career yielded the classic Six Moral Tales.  Later, in the 1980s, he made a run of Comedies and Proverbs.  Criterion now presents Rohmer’s later-career series, Tales of the Four Seasons” (Contes des quatre saisons), in a long-awaited and quite attractive spick and span Blu-ray set.

Included are A Tale of Springtime (Conte de printemps1990), A Tale of Winter (Conte d'hiver, 1992), A Tale of Summer (Conte d'été1996), and finally, A Tale of Autumn (Conte d'automne1998).  Some if not all of these films sometimes go by other English language titles, though in one of the vintage audio interview excerpts included for each title, Rohmer makes a point of differentiating that his 1992 film is called A Tale of Winter, not A Winter’s Tale.  The former is basically the title of the Shakespeare play that is sampled in the film, perhaps adding to why A Tale of Winter is, to this day, sometimes referred to as A Winter’s Tale. Whatever the excuse for referring to his 1996 film as A Summer’s Tale or his 1998 film as Autumn Tale is not as obvious.

Across the eight-year/four-film series, Rohmer’s female characters take the spotlight.  This is even true of the one with a male protagonist, A Tale of Summer (aka A Summer’s TaleConte d'été, starring Melvil Poupaud as young self-serious musician Gaspard).  These are simple, rather straightforward stories of complex feelings and experiences. 

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As the film critic Imogen Sara Smith, puts it in her accompanying booklet essay entitled “Another Year,” Rohmer’s Four Seasons series takes a “trademark philosophical approach to matters of the heart.”  She goes on to discuss the subtle relational and behavioral palindromes of the series.  The protagonists of the middle two films, A Tale of Winter (1992) and A Tale of Summer (1996), are both juggling two lovers while obsessing over an absent third.  

In the bookending two films of the quadrilogy, A Tale of Springtime (1990) and A Tale of Autumn (1998), the focus is on female friendships and their individual love lives. “These echoes are unstressed,” Smith writes. “When you notice them, they enrich Rohmer’s motifs and themes.”  The patterns exist, but not nearly to the point of usurping or dominating any given film’s individuality.  (There is no narrative throughline or re-occurring characters from one film to the next).

Rohmer avoids casting most of his films with popular stars, and the Four Seasons series is no exception.  In A Tale of Autumn, a middle-aged woman, played by The Aviator’s Wife and The Green Ray star Marie Rivière, carries out an elaborate ruse to play matchmaker for her good friend, a hardworking winery owner (Béatrice Romand).  

The actresses bring a spry, witty, but entirely believable rapport to the film.  Because of their performances, we have no trouble believing that they could remain strong friends despite one going to ridiculous lengths of deception for the other’s ultimate benefit.

By design, the prior film in the series is not at all so lighthearted.  A Tale of Summer does have a certain go-with-the-flow naturalism about it, though even that eventually becomes a source of tension.  Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a self-serious guitar-slinging student of mathematics, finds himself juggling three potential girlfriends during a would-be relaxing getaway to majestic seaside Dinard in the northwest of France.  Via their presence alone, each girl makes her case not only for his affection (and not all are aware of the competition) but also the viewer’s.  

Although Gaspard himself is something of a boat anchor amid the beautiful setting and appealing female characters.  These include Margot, a radiant but resigned waitress played by Amanda Langlet, the sensual singer Solène played by Gwenaëlle Simon, and Léna, his late-arriving girlfriend of uncertain commitment played by Aurelia Nolin.  The most dramatic of relatable indecisive farces ensues.  Apparently, in his own college years, Rohmer knew this situation.

A Tale of Winter_1.jpg

A Tale of Winter stars Charlotte Véry, absolutely carrying this film as Félice, a single mom of a very young child conceived with Charles, the long-lost love of her life.  Five years prior when Félice and Charles hastily parted ways, she screwed up majorly by accidentally giving him her wrong address.  Consequently, they lost touch over the years.  

That past is prologue.  Most of the film is about Félice making a reluctant go of it with two other men, Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Loïc (Hervé Furic).  Each smart and successful in his chosen field, Loïc’s and Maxence’s biggest sin is not being Charles.  Rohmer really goes for broke with this one, imbuing a twist to this otherwise somewhat mundane slice of life.    

A Tale of Winter also, though, goes more meta than any of its set mates, insofar as midway into the story, Félice is emotionally affected by a performance of the film’s namesake, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  In this, we witness how art and story can in fact inform and even impact one’s immediate life.  It’s a cunning move by Rohmer to steer this film, so replete with its cluttered homes, bundled-up denizens, and whirring public transportation, in such a (dare I say) fanciful direction.  Subtle, subtle, subtle, as always and throughout…  But yes… fanciful.

Finally, in this newest-to-oldest rundown, is the one that started it all, A Tale of Springtime.  While Rohmer obviously took liberties with the order of the seasons in terms of which film was made when, there is a perfect logic to spring being the first.  

A striking Anne Teyssèdre plays Jeanne, a relatively new teacher of philosophy who happens to be single.  Her new friend Natacha (Florence Darel) takes it upon herself to try to hook her up with her father, Igor (Hugues Quester).  While Igor and Jeanne probably wouldn’t make a bad couple, Natacha’s motivation seems to have more to do with her distain for his current girlfriend, Ève (Eloïse Bennett).  It may be my own least of the four, although all are worthwhile.

Housed in an appropriately simple box adorned with images of swaths of colorful paint (brilliantly rendered by illustration artist Polly Dedman), each of the four films occupies its own Blu-ray disc.  Each disc offers, in addition to its feature presentation, an audio recording excerpt (each excerpt generally no longer than thirteen minutes) with Rohmer discussing that specific film, and one other extra of some sort (not counting the trailers).  

Accompanying A Tale of Springtime is Rohmer’s 1956 short film The Kreutzer Sonata (La Sonate à Kreutzer), a 50-minute piece that stars the filmmaker as a frighteningly frustrated man in a passionless relationship.  The black-and-white film points to the French New Wave tenet of authentic locations (in this case Paris and even the Cahiers du Cinéma offices, readily stocked with the future movement’s iconic directors, then at work at their day job.  Jean-Luc Godard produced the tense and ultimately dark piece, turning up in it now and again in his trademark shades. 

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The disc for the third film, 1996’s A Tale of Summer, also contains the 97-minute The Making of A Tale of Summer (2005).  In this assembly of fly-on-the-wall footage by Françoise Etchegaray and Jean-André Fieschi, we experience the mundane drudgery of filmmaking alongside of the tight knit “family” atmosphere that the director prefers at this phase of his career.    

In The Making of A Tale of Summer, shooting crew appears so small that everyone and their equipment could fit into a large van.  This dynamic is discussed at length in the new featurette Four Collaborators, a supplement found on the disc for A Tale of Winter.  That interview program, recorded at Rohmer’s house in Tulle, France, features cinematographer Diane Baratier, producer Françoise Etchegaray, sound engineer Pascal Ribier, and editor Mary Stephen sharing their generally fond (never saccharine) memories of working on the “Four Seasons” films.  

Their stories corroborate, revealing Rohmer himself to be largely free of ego.  In The Making of A Tale of Summer, we witness the noticeably aged rail-thin director dragging the camera dolly, putting sunblock on actors, clearing the frame of trash, manning the clapper board, and even cutting a rug with his cast during a club scene.  

He, like the Four Seasons films themselves, may not look like much, but really moves.  Clearly, Rohmer led by example.  No job was too small or too petty for any member of the crew.  When his characters were supposed to be having fun, he made a point of allowing himself to have fun.

The fourth disc, which houses 1998’s A Tale of Autumn, also has a Rohmer short film as its central bonus feature.  It is the thirteen-minute television piece, A Farmer in Montfaucon (Fermière à Montfaucon; 1968), which showcases the day-to-day life and times of Monique Sendron.  

Sendron, in her voiceover narration, tells us that she considers herself not a farmer but a farmer’s wife, isolated and away from society.  Her loneliness is the central theme of the surprisingly fascinating short.  Its presentation here is quite visually impressive in terms of color and restoration.  The same is also true of the four central features.  

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In the best way, we come away with questions…. Via this series, what is Rohmer saying about the actual seasons?  And in so doing, what is he saying about life and its cycles?  Absent of bigger, undeniably universal things like snowstorms and heatwaves and (re)birth and death, the filmmaker’s take on the four predetermined quarters of any given trip around the sun is, like his definition of Moral Tales and Proverbs and Comedies, not what we might think.

According to the last included audio interview excerpt with Rohmer, the series is actually about love, fate, and even faith.  These are connections that are sometimes muted to the point of being imperceptible but are strongly present all the same.  

In one of the provided audio interviews, Rohmer mentions “the transcendental thoughts” of seminal philosopher Immanuel Kant as an influence.  Kant (1724–1804) promoted an idea of human autonomy amid transcendental idealism, which at times seems to boil down to, “life is what you make it.”  How well Rohmer understood Kant (or how well anyone understands Kant) is a pointlessly debatable unknown.  

The point that Rohmer considered his characters in a tremendously deep but also modular, rather Hitchcockian sense is what we’re left with.  Or perhaps that’s a beginning point for anyone so inclined to deconstruct The Tales of the Four Seasons further.  

With these kinds of leads, one could be there all year.  In any case, however one opts to receive the ideas, outcomes, and attitudes of these films, Criterion has done another very honorable job.  To quote the first words uttered in the final film of the series, “This is really good.”

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•           New 2K digital restorations, supervised by cinematographer Diane Baratier and Laurent Schérer, director Eric Rohmer’s son, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks

•           New interview program recorded at Rohmer’s house in Tulle, France, featuring Baratier, producer Françoise Etchegaray, sound engineer Pascal Ribier, and editor Mary Stephen

•           Excerpts of radio interviews with Rohmer conducted by film critics Michel Ciment and Serge Daney

•           Documentary from 2005 on the making of A Tale of Summer, by Etchegaray and Jean-André Fieschi

•           Two short films directed by Rohmer: A Farmer in Montfaucon (1968) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1956)

•           Trailer

•           New English subtitle translations

•           PLUS: An essay by film critic Imogen Sara Smith 

•           New cover by Polly Dedman

A Tale of Springtime

  • Éric Rohmer
  • Éric Rohmer
  • Anne Teyssèdre
  • Hugues Quester
  • Florence Darel

A Tale of Winter

  • Éric Rohmer
  • Éric Rohmer
  • Charlotte Véry
  • Frédéric van den Driessche
  • Michel Voletti

A Summer's Tale

  • Éric Rohmer
  • Éric Rohmer
  • Melvil Poupaud
  • Amanda Langlet
  • Gwenaëlle Simon

Autumn Tale

  • Éric Rohmer
  • Éric Rohmer
  • Marie Rivière
  • Béatrice Romand
  • Alain Libolt
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Blu-rayCriterion CollectionEric RohmerFrench filmÉric RohmerAnne TeyssèdreHugues QuesterFlorence DarelComedyDramaRomanceCharlotte VéryFrédéric van den DriesscheMichel VolettiMelvil PoupaudAmanda LangletGwenaëlle SimonMarie RivièreBéatrice RomandAlain Libolt

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