Éric Rohmer, A Tale of Summer
Éric Rohmer, A Tale of Summer | Courtesy of Criterion

Philosophies and Ironies in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’

In Éric Rohmer’s ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’, everything exists on an elevated Expressionist plane; every detail dovetails into its hermetic philosophies and ironies.

Eric Rohmer's Tales of the Four Seasons
Eric Rohmer
13 February 2024

If film buffs dwell under the notion that France is full of breezy, scintillating conversationalists who are easy on the eyes, blame Éric Rohmer. Aside from his sideline in gorgeous historical films, he concentrated on movies about sexy people talk-talk-talking to each other. It takes care and talent to make a dialogue-based cinema cinematic; Rohmer perfected a style to pull it off.

Rohmer’s camera stages conversations artfully in open spaces or apartments, shifting the scene frequently as his characters collide in visual rondelets, combining and re-combining in new atomized groupings. With a preference for keeping all participants within the shot, Rohmer’s approach doesn’t seem stuffy, although it’s a matter of taste. There must be viewers who can’t connect with the lack of “action” in Éric Rohmer’s films, but if we concentrate on what characters say and what signals they give, we decode mysteries of human behavior, delusions, teases, and self-knowledge.

A new Criterion box, Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons, collects the 1990s quartet of films that place their characters against a context of outdoorsy seasonal settings. This was his third set of films conceived as a series, after “Six Moral Fables” (1963-1972) and the half-dozen “Comedies and Proverbs” (1981-1987). The four stories here could just as easily fit into those two series. They’re not presented in seasonal order, but in the order Rohmer made them.

A Tale of Springtime (Conte de printemps, 1990)

A Tale of Springtime presents Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) as the viewer’s anchor, the central figure who moves through a series of encounters and impressions until she arrives at a form of self-knowledge.

We first see her emerging from a high school named after singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, an iconic figure of rueful wisdom and typically French emotional contradictions. Imagine a high school named after Cole Porter or Paul Weller; perhaps only the French would do such a thing. Wait, A Tale of Springtime gets Frencher – our high school teacher specializes in philosophy! She says it’s a point of honor for her working-class kids to do well in it. I, for one, would like to believe this implicitly.

Even though Éric Rohmer makes dialogue-based films, the first several scenes in A Tale of Springtime are mysterious, dialogue-free observations of Jeanne as she begins picking up clothes in one apartment, then abruptly packs a bag (climbing on a chair to reach it on a shelf, and this will echo something at the film’s end) and drives to another apartment, where a young man surprises her by popping out in his underwear. This is another action that will be echoed in a later scene.

To make a long set-up short, Jeanne is at sixes and sevens because her mathematician boyfriend is out of town, and she doesn’t like to stay in his cluttered apartment alone. A cousin temporarily occupies her apartment. Planted on a couch at a party where she knows nobody, she meets a young piano student named Natacha (Florence Darel), of pre-Raphaelite flowing hair and almost brazen candor, and impulsively accepts Natacha’s invitation to stay the weekend with her.

While Jeanne is reserved and analytical, Natacha plays Schumann and chatters disingenuously about whatever comes into her head. She blurts that her father Igor (Hugues Quester) lives with a younger girlfriend named Eve (Eloise Bennett), whom Natacha can’t stand. When Jeanne suggests that Natacha wouldn’t like any of her divorced father’s girlfriends, Natacha assures her she hasn’t minded the previous ones and would be delighted if Jeanne hooked up with Igor. After all, she adds, Jeanne doesn’t sound overly happy about her current boyfriend.

This honesty or presumption, along with later maneuvers, put Jeanne and the viewer on guard about Natacha’s motives in hoping Igor and Jeanne would come together and banish the stuck-up Eve. Both Igor and Jeanne perceive this and end up discussing the possibility openly. It doesn’t count as much of a spoiler to say that the ending of A Tale of Springtime questions the conclusions Jeanne has jumped to, and she’s forced to examine her assumptions by the solution of a little mystery whose thread runs through the film.

Throughout the discussions, other people perceive how cool, intellectual, and together Jeanne seems, despite her protests that they don’t know her and that she has all kinds of irrational emotional responses. Her personality seems dominated by her discussion of philosophy and her analysis of abstractions such as Kant’s transcendentalism and what “a priori” means. Meanwhile, she assures us she doesn’t like abstractions.

When Jeanne accidentally solves the mystery of a missing object, which isn’t an abstraction but something that happened without anyone’s intention, she gains insight into her own tendency to assign human motivations and designs to everything and, therefore, to suspect people of things. As we have seen, these suspicions can also bring about the thing we suspect. These are typically Rohmerian insights; he may have been the only filmmaker who organized films around ideas like this.

A bonus on Disc One is The Kreutzer Sonata (1956), a 45-minute film based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella. It opens with the journalist-narrator (Rohmer) having stabbed his wife (Francoise Martinelli) to death in a jealous rage and then flashes back to their anguished marriage and her affair with a rival (Jean-Claude Brialy).

The soundtrack consists of Rohmer reading passages of Tolstoy over a recording of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 (the Kreutzer Sonata) with a blues interlude at a nightclub. Shot without sound, A Tale of Springtime is edited to indicate time jumps via black film between shots. Despite the melodrama, this incarnation of The Kreutzer Sonata is an inert and clumsy film that seems made for radio. Its primary interest is the spectacle of cameos by a smiling Jean-Luc Godard (who produced the film), Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and their mentor André Bazin.

A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1992)

It’s no accident that A Tale of Winter shares a title with William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is the germination of this quartet, as Éric Rohmer explains in an interview. In the middle of the film, the heroine witnesses Shakespeare’s play and is tremendously moved by the final scene of a seeming miracle.

She attributes what happens in the play to faith and has just had a similar moment of spiritual clarity about her life in a cathedral. Faith, superstition, and reincarnation are the primary themes in Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter, which takes place over the week from Christmas to New Year’s. Although our working-class heroine isn’t well-read, she manages to articulate the philosophies of Pascal and Plato along the way, as one brainy boyfriend explains to her.

Our heroine is Felicie (Charlotte Véry), and we’re introduced to her in an unusual, idyllic, wordless sequence of brief, impressionistic scenes that are really a series of moving snapshots. She’s very much in love with a foreign summer visitor, Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche). In a star-crossed manner, he fails to give her an address or last name prior to his leaving for America, and the address she gives him is in the wrong town. She calls it a mental lapse, although a psychologist might say more. At bottom, it’s nothing more than a necessary plot device.

Five years later, she’s raising their daughter and seemingly has no hope of contacting Charles. Working as a hairdresser, she’s pulled between two boyfriends she feels lukewarm about: her married employer Maxence (Michel Voletti) and the brainy librarian Loïc (Hervé Furic). Each has a different kind of relationship with her, Maxence representing practical security and Loïc all intellect. With Loïc, Felicie hangs out with people who quote Victor Hugo and debate the nature of faith. With Maxence, she hangs out with women who need their hair done.

Felicie also has discussions with her mother (Christiane Desbois) and a skeptical sister (Rosette). Marie Rivière, a frequent Rohmer player, has a cameo on a bus, and we’ll see her again in A Tale of Autumn. Ava Loraschi is a little scene-stealer as daughter Elise, who behaves exactly like a small child and not an actress.

The Shakespeare scene occurs in the middle of A Tale of Winter‘s narrative and might be considered a spoiler, or at least a mighty foreshadowing, but it heightens the suspense and sense of magic. It’s almost a kind of rebuke to hush our mouths. “I react like a child. I don’t care about plausibility,” says Felicie to Loïc after the play, and why should we care about it after a film? As the directors states in an interview, if Shakespeare can get away with this, why not Rohmer?

The grey, wintry tones of A Tale of Winter furnish a subdued context for the quiet magic of its holidays and the story’s look at belief. Much is made of the fact that Loïc identifies as a faithful Catholic while dismissing other ideas as “superstition”. Although a contemporary story, this film has clear spiritual links to Rohmer’s exquisitely artificial films about literary classics and faith, Perceval (1978), The Marquise of O (1976), and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, 2007).

A Tale of Summer (Conte d’été, 1996)

A Tale of Winter opened briefly with a summer holiday on France’s Breton coast, while A Tale of Summer is the whole nine yards, or at least the end of July and beginning of August. Both films open with shots of the ocean from behind a boat, a beautiful retrospection. Another similarity is that A Tale of Summer opens with several dialogue-free minutes as our protagonist, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), arrives in his room and wanders the beaches.

He meets Margot (Amanda Langlet), a frank and down-to-earth waitress, who goes walking and talking with him for several days. They’re each in the middle of long-distance relationships. Both in their 20s, they get along well, but Gaspard’s insularity and self-deprecation (which Margot correctly diagnoses as a form of pride) mark him out to Margot as a peculiar case. She enjoys hearing of his romantic frustrations with a girlfriend whom he has little reason to see again since it’s not certain she will show up.

By far the most outdoorsy and youthful film of the quartet, A Tale of Summer presents Gaspard as the enigma who doesn’t seem to know what he wants and is willing to hedge bets and make multiple dates with women, whereupon he becomes confused and discouraged at the web he’s woven. He amuses Margot because her degree in ethnology makes her interested in everyone’s behavior, and she especially likes local folklore and song.

Although she sometimes loses patience with him and is clearly attracted to him, Margot resists Gaspard’s desultory advances and encourages him to pursue something with her acquaintance Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon). Solène calls herself “exigent” because she insists on certain rules. In one of the loveliest sequences, Solène responds to a song written by Gaspard about a pirate’s daughter. He’d written it for his absent girlfriend, but since Solène likes it, he gives it to her. Gaspard’s musical creativity redeems him from being too self-involved a clod.

The twist is that, to our surprise and Gaspard’s, the hoped-for girlfriend shows up, having returned from a trip to Spain. She’s Lena (Aurelia Nolin), even more self-absorbed and immature in her affairs and excuses than Gaspard. Perhaps they’re made for each other, or at least to strangle each other. She’s beautiful and mercurial enough to get away with murder, and the other women aren’t much impressed with her.

The light, even flimsy drollery that passes for this film builds to a dilemma in which Gaspard, while being convinced that women don’t like him, has dates with too many. When saved by a deus ex machina, he gratefully seizes it but then regards himself as fate’s plaything. Margot, at one point, compares him to Hamlet, wondering at his “to be or not to be”.

Margot, the only one to whom he’s told the truth, points out that he’s found what he was looking for and asks him to think about it. Unlike Jeanne in A Tale of Springtime, who also declares that she doesn’t like “what ifs”, Gaspard seems successful in avoiding any epiphanies about himself. As Rohmer states in an interview, Gaspard is the central character whose POV suffuses every scene, but he’s seen from the outside, opaquely, as an anthropological specimen. We know him in relation to the other women, but we can’t trust what he says about himself.

A Tale of Summer is a breezy vacation movie of a type Rohmer has made before, for example Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la plage, 1983), starring Langlet in a younger and flightier role. The way Rohmer’s summer vacation movies echo each other is part of the pleasure, and they link to other makers of French vacation movies, such as Jacques Rozier and François Ozon.

A Tale of Autumn (Conte d’automne, 1998)

A Tale of Autumn is the entry most like a French farce of romantic mix-ups and well-laid schemes that go awry, though handled sedately and serenely instead of frantically. It’s an autumn tale not only in its time of year but in its emphasis on people who face solitude in middle age. It’s the only film of the quartet with no central character who anchors every scene; instead, it rambles freely among several who concoct schemes for each other.

The three important schemers are women. Actually, the widowed and radiant Magali (Béatrice Romand) has no schemes and avoids any effort to know people or mix with strangers. A lonely workaholic who devotes her attention to cultivating her vineyard (or her own garden, like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide), she practically must be kidnapped to attend the wedding of a friend’s daughter. The sun-drenched shots of her farm, her grapes, and the countryside rival anything in A Tale of Summer for natural beauty.

The schemers are Magali’s two closest friends. The two friends don’t know each other, but they each like Magali so much that they scheme independently to hook her up with appropriate matches. Magali has a prickly, unpredictable, almost hermit-like nature, like a porcupine, but she gives us reason to believe she might be open to ending her loneliness. To modify a philosophy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, if she isn’t born to romantic greatness and doesn’t work to achieve it, her friends will have to thrust it upon her.

The married Isabelle (Marie Rivière) indulges in an extravagant and roundabout plot involving lonely-hearts ads, through which she meets a likely prospect in Gérald (Alain Libolt). Naturally, he believes Isabelle is the lonely heart in question, and she temporarily strings him along. Besides its echoes in Shakespeare’s star-crossed romantic comedies, A Tale of Autumn‘s plot chimes with French classics, such as the way Cyrano de Bergerac uses a substitute to woo his Roxanne.

The other schemer is the extraordinarily beautiful and carefree student Rosine (Alexia Portal), who is dating Magali’s son as a “stopgap”. She likes her boyfriend’s mom much more than she likes her boyfriend, and it occurs to her that Magali might be a match for Rosine’s ex-lover, a much older Etienne (Didier Sandre) – a philosophy professor! He’s willing to meet Magali but still carries a torch for Rosine. With painful sophistry, Rosine says this will resolve all their problems.

Such is the set-up for the comically suspenseful sequence at the wedding, where the viewer watches events cross and swing from working to not working as we wonder which scheme will succeed. Or will both go down in flames? While these machinations have the potential to be silly and are certainly well-worn, they entertain and convince us because the characters are likable and because they ultimately have enough faith in each other to tell the truth or guess it.

More importantly, everyone is motivated by wishes for the happiness of others. We might think, “They shouldn’t do that,” but they mostly act out of love and consideration rather than selfishness. Perhaps A Tale of Autumn is less a love story than a friendship story, although the thread of erotic potential binds the schemes.

Comparing the themes and behaviors in all Tales of the Four Seasons, perhaps the most prominent organizing principle is a dialectic between what some characters call fate or destiny and the individual’s imposition of will to manipulate events. The characters live inside their own heads and respond to the world in their own ways, interpreting everything to suit themselves.

Magali wants a partner but is too afraid and preoccupied to search for herself. Gaspard thinks that what happens to him is fate and discounts his responsibility in orchestrating events. Jeanne analyzes her propensity for irrational responses and realizes that sometimes, things happen without a will. Felicie firmly believes that belief itself is necessary for the universe to arrange things. The world’s truth encompasses all these possibilities as the Earth spins through its seasons.

A bonus on Criterion’s Disc Four is Fermière à Montfaucon (1967), which translates literally as “woman farmer in Montfaucon”. This brief, straightforward, color documentary records the tasks of a woman who works a farm with her husband, as narrated by herself. Its relevance to Magali in A Tale of Autumn is obvious and tells us Éric Rohmer was already interested 30 years earlier in the work of women who harvest the land.

The booklet in Criterion’s box of Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons includes an essay by film writer Imogen Sara Smith that’s a model of illumination. She observes that sequences of verbal pyrotechnics are Rohmer’s “equivalent of fistfights or dance numbers”. Also worth quoting:

“It is not quite true to say that Rohmer’s films do not judge their characters. In a sense, they do nothing else, lucidly cataloging people’s rationalizations, self-deceptions, and insensitive lapses. But his films also go far beyond mere tolerance for human foibles. The wellspring of Rohmer’s art is his fascination with how people think, with the impossible yet irresistible quest to understand ourselves and others…

“In order to isolate and study the subject, Rohmer, like a scientist conducting an experiment, eliminates the noise. He sets aside many of the things that impinge on our lives – like money, politics, sickness, and death – creating a fantastic yet strangely lifelike world. He filmed in real streets, landscapes, and buildings with a graceful, unforced attention to the details of living spaces and everyday behavior, creating environments so deceptively ordinary that it’s easy to ignore what is unreal about them.”

In other words, Rohmer’s world is as artificial as any of his classicist models, whether Shakespeare’s plays or Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood. Everything exists on an elevated Expressionist plane; every detail dovetails into its hermetic philosophies and ironies. It’s true that people don’t talk like this, not even in France, any more than in iambic pentameter or in the scintillation of screwball comedy. I’ve referred to the extravagant artifice of Rohmer’s historical films, whose unreality can take your breath away, but his more trademarked comedies and quandaries are equally constructed and fabulous. Once you realize that, these tales of the four seasons will carry you away.