Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year

Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year

Waves dancing in the wake of a ferry, the tide receding on a rocky beach, a tree-lined canal glimpsed from a speeding car, fountains splashing in sleepy courtyards. Each of the films in Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons cycle opens with a prelude that drops us with fresh immediacy into a place, and into a flow of time that carries us along like a leaf on a stream. Rohmer’s films are justly famous for their feasts of words but not always sufficiently celebrated for the pacing, rhythms, and elegant structures that give them, despite their cerebral cast, such a feeling of lightness and fluidity. They are never still. Even when characters are parked in place—lingering over a leisurely outdoor meal, say—conversations, glances, shifts of feeling and thought, are continually circulating around them like a breeze.

A current of ideas and motifs runs through Rohmer’s films, connecting and enriching them. Tales of the Four Seasons was the third of his film cycles, and it creates a beautifully balanced synthesis between the earlier two. Six Moral Tales (1963–72) established his trademark philosophical approach to matters of the heart, and introduced his method of composing films as variations on a theme, an approach that is as much musical as literary. In his second cycle, Comedies and Proverbs (1981–87), Rohmer shifted his gaze from compulsively rationalizing male protagonists with wandering eyes to women in restless transit not only between lovers but between apartments, vacation homes, and friendships.

Around 1988, he began planning a cycle that would move through the seasons (Rohmer would later refer to the spring tale as first and the winter one as fourth, though the films in the series were not made and released in that order). Times of year and times of day, nature and weather, had always been important in his films: the full moon, a snowstorm, the hushed “blue hour” just before dawn. Bringing the seasons to the foreground subtly heightens the themes of change and impermanence. Each of the four films is set over a span of a week or two during which the characters are in some state of flux and uncertainty, contemplating choices, possibilities, endings and beginnings. The seasonal settings are more than backdrops for the stories; they create complex harmonies and dissonances. Summer vacation is not carefree, new seeds are planted in autumn, and revival comes in the dead of winter. Spring brings plenty of flowers—from blossoming fruit trees to wilting tulips, plastic-wrapped bouquets, and bright window pots—but the tale is also nipped by the season’s teasing chills and blustery squalls.

Rohmer also noted that the quartet can be divided into pairs linked by rhymes, resonances, and inversions. A Tale of Springtime (1990) and A Tale of Autumn (1998) both involve female friendships, philosophy professors, couples widely separated in age, and matchmaking schemes. With their ensemble casts and intricately branching stories, they recall the Comedies and Proverbs. Meanwhile, the man who meets two women while waiting for a third in A Tale of Summer (1996) mirrors the woman vacillating between two men while pining for an absent one in A Tale of Winter (1992), and both of these indecisive protagonists hark back to the romantic hesitations of Six Moral Tales. These echoes are unstressed; when you notice them, they enrich Rohmer’s motifs and themes, but the tales’ carefully wrought and balanced structures still allow for a feeling that life, like the weather, is based on patterns and causes too complex to ever be fully predictable.

Thinking About Thoughts

A Tale of Springtime sprouts from the same premise as two Rohmer films from 1987, Boyfriends and Girlfriends and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle: a pair of young women meet by chance and become inseparable friends overnight. Here, they are a philosophy teacher and a pianist; Rohmer immersed himself in the work of Immanuel Kant and Robert Schumann as he planned the film, a story about petty quarrels, overstaying houseguests, a messy boyfriend, a missing necklace, and a disastrous Sunday in the country.

Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) meets Natacha (Florence Darel) at a party. They are a study in opposites, one rigorously analytical, self-contained, and repelled by disorder, the other emotional, unguarded, and prone to impulsive outbursts. Jeanne’s close-cropped hair and plain button-down shirts contrast with Natacha’s titian locks and ballerina style. Yet they fall into an easy intimacy, and Jeanne, temporarily displaced from her apartment, goes home with her new friend. As the visit stretches on into multiple days and then a second week, she is drawn reluctantly into the turmoil involving Natacha; her divorced father, Igor (Hugues Quester); and Igor’s much younger girlfriend, Ève (Eloïse Bennett), whom Natacha detests. She would much prefer to see her father with Jeanne.

During an excruciatingly awkward dinner, Jeanne and Ève talk philosophy, throwing around phrases like “a priori synthetic judgment.” Conversations like this can make Rohmer’s films seem intellectually daunting, but there’s no need to understand abstruse terminology in order to follow the scene. It is really about Ève’s rather pathetic need to show off her knowledge, in contrast to Jeanne’s sincere passion for “thinking about my thoughts,” and for helping her working-class students—for whom, she recognizes, being good at philosophy is a matter of pride. It is about Ève needling Natacha and Natacha rising to the bait, and Igor staying mum and safely out of it. Rohmer said that his characters “exist when they start talking,” and verbally pyrotechnic sequences like this are his equivalent of fistfights or dance numbers.

Top of page: A Tale of Winter; above: A Tale of Springtime
A Tale of Autumn
A Tale of Autumn
A Tale of Summer
A Tale of Winter

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