Rohmer’s Fresh Dating Game; Passion Skips a Generation

Éric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale is probably the best relief for our summer of moviegoing discontents, but it strikes me that I am not doing full justice to Mr. Rohmer’s achievement if I hail it for what it is not: gross, stupid, vulgar, sleazy, pornographically violent and childishly obscene. Autumn Tale , the final installment in Mr. Rohmer’s series, “Tales of the Four Seasons,” takes this 79-year-old French ironic moralist into hitherto uncharted emotional and romantic realms of middle-aged longing for love and companionship without the loss of one’s pride and privacy. It is a high-wire act without a net, and Mr. Rohmer pulls it off without a slip. This could be regarded as the crowning valedictory event of a 50-year career in filmmaking if the writer-director had not, happily, rejected the idea of retiring.

Magali (Béatrice Romand), a45-year-oldwidowand wine maker, is the intended beneficiary of a manhunt by her best friend, Isabelle (Marie Rivière), a comfortably married bookseller with more than a little time on her hands. Magali’s son and daughter have flown the coop and her vineyard for romantic liaisons elsewhere in the Rhône region. Magali’s only other friend is Rosine (Alexia Portal), her son’s hot-and-cold girlfriend. After Rosine has confided to Magali that she has had an affair with Étienne (Didier Sandre), her philosophy professor, Magali strangely tells Isabelle that she adores Rosine and feels that she is much too good and bright for her devil-may-care son, Léo. Sealing this bond of exclusively female friendship, Rosine tells Léo that she loves Magali more than she loves him. Can one imagine such a situation in an American movie?

As for Étienne, Rosine meets clandestinely and platonically with him, until one day she refuses to continue seeing him until he marries an older but still desirable woman, specifically the ever unsuspecting Magali, who is too stubborn and demanding to participate in another matrimonial steeplechase. Isabelle, also playing matchmaker, has placed a carefully worded personal ad seeking an eligible middle-aged male interested in marriage.

In the frenzied background are the preparations for the marriage of Isabelle’s daughter, and for the reception afterward on Isabelle’s large estate, the eventual venue for Magali’s “accidental” meeting with the two suitors, unknown to her and to each other. This could be the set up for a madcap Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) farce, but there is too much life-and-death gravity in Mr. Rohmer’s characters for mindless chaos to intrude.

Alain Libolt as Gérald, the man who answers the ad thinking he is courting one woman (Isabelle posing as Magali) when he is actually being screened for another, gives the picture’s revelatory performance with a discreet mixture of charm, sincerity, dignity, seriousness, intelligence and an almost but not quite comical ability to adapt to surprises and necessary compromises. The cream of the jest is that Gérald, the right man for Magali, has also aroused jealously envious feelings in the supposedly coolheaded and manipulative Isabelle, who has played the role of Magali’s benevolent friend much too effectively.

Mr. Rohmer’s sharpest departure in Autumn Tale from his traditional modus operandi of finding brand-new performers for each of his movies is in recasting his two middle-aged women co-protagonists with Marie Rivière as Isabelle and Béatrice Romand as Magali. In their younger days, Ms. Rivière played the stormy romantic leads in La Femme de l’Aviateur (1980) and Le Rayon Vert (1986). Ms. Romand was unforgettably poignant as the rejected adolescent in Claire’s Knee (1970), and unforgettably insufferable as a fantasy-driven, husband-hungry female predator pursuing and persecuting an unwilling male candidate of her own choosing in Le Beau Mariage (1982).

Though Ms. Rivière and Ms. Romand do not play their youthful characters grown older in Autumn Tale , their iconic aging still resonates for those of us who have followed Mr. Rohmer’s career religiously, and perhaps even for Mr. Rohmer himself. He may have felt more comfortable dealing with this unfamiliar age group (for him) if he could draw upon his past experiences with both actresses when they were young. Hence, Ms. Rivière is still a bit wacky and presumptuous, and Ms. Romand is still a bit vulnerable and quixotic, in their more mature incarnations. The point is that Autumn Tale is not a good movie merely because so many other current movies are bad. It is a good movie, period. See it, please.

Generation Gasp

Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic , from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, based on a short story by Mr. Kureishi, is a film that absorbed me as I was watching it, even when I did not fully understand all its details and nuances.

First of all, I am not sure if the milieu is Anglo-Pakistani or Anglo-Indian. Om Puri plays the central point-of-view role of Parvez, a taxi driver who has spent 25 years in the industrial north of England and who does a great deal of business ferrying prostitutes and their clients, often watching in the rearview mirror as they consummate their carnal transactions. Parvez, however, does not seem to be contaminated by his sleazy surroundings. On the contrary, he is introduced as a strong family man with a seemingly submissive wife named Minoo (Gopi Desai) and a seemingly obedient teenage student son named Farid (Akbar Kurtha).

The film begins with a satirically keyed scene in the home of a British police commissioner, whose daughter is engaged to Farid. The expressions of pained politeness on the faces of the commissioner and his wife foreshadow the son’s rejection of the culturally degrading engagement, and his embrace of Muslim fundamentalism and its cultlike followers as a way of establishing his identity in an alien environment. But the treatment at first is comic rather than melodramatic.

Eventually, all hell breaks loose in the streets, and Parvez is caught in the melee, torn between the demands of his family and his puritanical co-religionists, and the deep love he comes to feel for an incredibly beautiful and sensitive prostitute named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). Their relationship is compromised by the arrival of a pleasure-seeking German businessman named Schitz (Stellan Skarsgard) mispelled as “Shits” on the airport welcoming placard improvised by Parvez for one of the few easy laughs in the film.

Schitz compels Parvez to pimp for him in procuring the services of the willing Bettina, but this only fuels the passion between her and Parvez to the point that he is abandoned by his scandalized wife and son. He remains in the end as in the beginning, a man resolutely in the middle: tolerant, generous and unexpectedly romantic. Mr. Puri, Ms. Griffiths and Mr. Skarsgard charismatically transcend a strange slackness in the motivational construction of the film to make My Son the Fanatic an engaging entertainment.

Your Plot’s Breaking Up

Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You , from Mr. Wagner’s novel and screenplay, is about as morbid a movie as you are likely to see this year in any language, much less the wittily ceremonial Los Angeles dialect of death fashioned by a novelist filmmaker with genuine talent, with a cast of admirably serious non-box-office actors willing to dive into the H.I.V.-V.I.P. pit of contemporary Hollywood.

I was particularly impressed by Frank Langella’s relaxed charm as a cancer-ridden patriarch, and Elizabeth Perkins as a devastatingly ironic casualty of H.I.V. Andrew McCarthy is less effective in what I kept thinking of as the Eric Stoltz part, while Buck Henry, Amanda Donohoe, Rosanna Arquette, Salome Jens, Gina Gershon and Laraine Newman play all the other major parts with splendid efficiency and iconic evocativeness. The movie is less depressing than any detailed synopsis of the plot would suggest, and I recommend Mr. Wagner’s film to any moviegoer truly looking for something different.

Still, Mr. Wagner might ponder the fact that Thanatos can be worshipped on the printed page more painlessly than on the screen. It may seem more realistic or more adult to confront the sleeping monsters of the human condition head-on, particularly in the AIDS-saturated environment Mr. Wagner is exploring in his highly praised novel and newly released film. Unfortunately, he has neglected to provide an adequate dramatic framework for the catastrophes and impending catastrophes he visits upon his characters. But at least he has provided more than a few moments of richly earned gallows humor and graveyard gallantry. There is also an interesting anti-assimilationist subtext in the preoccupation with ancient Jewish cleaning-of-the-dead rituals.

But as with My Son the Fanatic , I was not confident that I fully understood what was morally and culturally afoot in I’m Losing You , a clever play on the words used increasingly by cell-phone users in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, one sees so many movies in this business, that one comes to value lucidity over ambiguity and, even more, clarity over obfuscation.