Autumn Tale directed by Eric Rohmer A French Harvest Autumn Tale, the last inEric Rohmer's "Tales of the Four Seasons," is, like so much of thedirector's work, a film that's at once stunningly lovely on the surface andastonishing for its depths. Given that, it will be to the taste of a only smallfraction of today's audience, but that one's a fortunate fraction indeed. The film can be ponderedfrom any number of angles. It is, for example, one of Rohmer's rare movies thatfocuses on the friendship of women and on romance in middle age as opposed toyouth. Though by no means valedictory in feel, it underscores its relationshipto his past work by giving its lead roles to two wonderful actresses associatedwith earlier Rohmer films, Beatrice Romand (Claire's Knee) and MarieRiviere (Perceval, The Aviator's Wife, Summer). But whatthat stuck in my mind months after seeing Autumn Tale at last year'sNew York Film Festival was the sunlight in the film's second scene. As the scene begins, Isabelle(Riviere) pulls up to the rural home of Magali (Romand) in her Ford. These twoseem to have been best friends forever and are as different as city and country.Tall, blonde and upbeat, Isabelle lives in town with her husband and works ina bookstore. Short and saturnine, with a head of wildly frizzy hair, Magaliis a vintner and a widow whose two grown kids, a boy and a girl, have recentlyflown the coop. Her farm is in the Rhone Valley. When Isabelle arrives, Magaliis saying goodbye to Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of her son. Thewomen exchange greetings and then Rosine leaves. (Rohmer cuts to a shot of herwaving goodbye and jumping on her white bicycle. "Enjoy your bike,"Magali tells her.) But even before this moment, which introduces an extendedconversation between the two old friends, I was noticing the light. It is always a factor inRohmer films. Wherever in France they are set (and it's impossible to imaginehim making a movie anywhere but France), whether in country or city,the particular character of the light is distinct and noticeable enough to constitutea dramatic element in itself. Think of the cool lake hues of Claire's Knee,the dazzling summery whites of Pauline at the Beach, the gold-emeraldof the verdant park in The Aviator's Wife, the chilly off-season bluesand grays of A Winter's Tale; among others. Here, too, the lightis once again different; you feel it before any of the characters speaks a wordor the story begins to unfurl. It's hard and flat and dry.The light of a particular part of southern France, well above sea level, a plainwithout either a lot of moisture or the diffusing green of tall trees. It'sstrong, it makes you squint. When Isabelle's car pulls up the light iscoming from behind and Rohmer's cinematographer, Diane Baratier, does nothingto keep it from reflecting harshly, brightly off the car's roof and fenders.Its bounce makes you realize how dry the air is; you taste the dust. When the two women leavethe front of Magali's house and go to her vineyard, the light occasionally makesthem shield their eyes with their hands, and the wind whips Magali's hair inwild, frizzy whorls. Isabelle, as the film's first scene has established, wantsto buy some wine-40 bottles! Well, this is France-for her daughter's impendingwedding. So they talk of wine and other things, like agriculture and the landscape.(It is only after this scene that the film's main plot, which I don't intendto describe, commences; it concerns Isabelle's efforts to help Magali reviveher romantic life.) Isabelle says she's heardthat country people dream less than city people. Magali replies that oh, countrypeople dream all right, it's that they just dream of one thing-money. It's afine joke, evoking as it does the rueful pragmatism of the farmer, and nicelyoffsetting a slight current of romanticism detectable in Magali's own view ofwhat she does. She says she hates the word trade. She means to cultivatethe earth, not exploit it. Her chief concern is to make a Cotes du Rhone thatwill age as well as a Burgundy. As if it needs stressing, this concern for awine that ages well is repeated. The grapes are full andpurple, virtually spilling off the vine. It is autumn, harvest time approaches.Magali points out the vines of her neighbor, which are separated into neat rowswith nothing between them. That neatness requires herbicides that she doesn'twant to use, she says. Her own vineyard houses a veritable forest of weeds (whichof course are not all useless). The women inspect some of the weeds and tryto recall their names. Wild snapdragon. Corn rocket. Isabelle says this one is good in salads. Magali says, but it stinks. Isabelle says, yes it stinksbut it is good in salads. The vineyard is on a hilltopor plateau with a view for miles. Magali points out that the air is clear enoughtoday that you can see the mountain range in the distance. (Rohmer gives usa p.o.v. shot of the hazy, faraway peaks.) Then the women go to a rocky, uncultivatedhillside apart from the vineyard. Magali says to be careful, indicating a precipiceclose by. Isabelle asks if there are snakes. No, but there's another peril:briars. She gets caught and Magali slowly, carefully picks the thorns from her clothes. When I saw Autumn Talea second time recently I sat with a friend who'd also seen it before. When thelights came up, we agreed that it didn't have quite the magical lift that itdid the first time. She said, that's because you know where the story's going,and the basic metaphor is pretty obvious. Thinking back on this remark later-justas the film was again coming to seem truly magical-I interpreted it as referringto the metaphor of wine, which, yes, is pretty obvious if you take it as applyingto the characters and expressing the belief that people and love can improvewith age. But in the scene just described(which on a purely functional level introduces the friendship of Isabelle andMagali and tells us various things about each woman individually), Rohmer isalso speaking, I think, about the nature and value of cinema. Here, the metaphorstarts to build its meaning from the kernels of sensory experience; the tip-offis that remark about the plant that stinks but is good in salads. Rohmer's art stems fromtwo 19th-century sources, both concerned with precision and comprehensivenessof expression: novels of psychological realism such as Flaubert's, and paintingthat's alive with sensory data like that of the impressionists. Is the cinema,as the inheritor of these sources, therefore bound to the word and the image?Not really, Rohmer answers: It implicitly struggles toward a complete engagementwith all of nature, through evocations of all five senses. Thus that paradoxicalplant suggests smell and taste. Touch comes in Magali's handling of thegrapes and, especially, those briars. Sound is the wind, the car's creak, dogsbarking in the distance. And sight is not only what the camera shows us, butthe intentness of conscious looking, as toward those hazy mountains. The key point beneath thisrhetorical lyricism lies in cinema's particular orientation toward the real.Andre Bazin, whose theorizing is perhaps most closely reflected in Rohmer'sfilms (with Godard's running second), said, in effect: The real world exists;cinema's genius lies in being able literally (i.e., physically) to record it;in so doing, film allows us to contemplate the real in a way that unmediatedexperience generally doesn't, a way that encourages us to understand, appreciateand ultimately reconcile ourselves with the natural world. This, in fact, iswhat Rohmer celebrates: cinema's unique ability to connect us imaginativelywith the sensations of actual sun on the face, dust on the tongue, sweatyskin and so on. That capacity, Bazin says,comes from the fact that the filmed image has its own physical reality; thoughimmaterial when projected onto a screen, it is a thing itself and thereforehonors the sensory thingness of what it depicts. In this, although thetwo appear so similar, film is the opposite of television (and computer) imagery,which is never material but electronic. If cinema invites a harmony betweenthe viewer and the natural order, tv helps replace the natural with the artificial.It is to reality as pesticides are to the vineyard: an improvement that threatensthe fundamental transformation and erasure of what it nominally improves. As Rohmer rehearses themhere, these theoretical matters have some very precise political ramifications.Indeed, the scene I've described poetically recapitulates arguments the Frenchhave put forward in the GATT talks and similar forums. They believe that cultureand agriculture-and what better example than French wine, standing in for cinemaor not-both spring from very specific, very rooted human and natural ecologiesthat need protecting against the changes inexorably enforced by mandates of"free trade" and other purely economic forces. Such appeals to ideasof nature, balance, restraint, quality of life and local control have, of course,proved largely futile against global capital's bulldozer. So it is with film itself,shortly to be replaced (for purely economic reasons) by big-screen tv in multiplexeseverywhere, whether you like it or not. I'm sorry I haven't said more aboutthe warm and droll middle-aged love story that is at the heart of AutumnTale. Rohmer's film is very beautiful, on a par with the best work of thissupremely civilized artist, now in his 80th year. But more than that, it isfilm, in the most concrete and most refined senses; in other words, a strikingrepresentative of a vanishing breed. Reeling Ancient Greece had its Homericepics, America has its westerns by John Ford: tales that tell how a whole peoplegot that way, staged against landscapes that are fantastically mythic yet utterlyreal, full of battles and heroes any kid would love to emulate. As a group, consideringthe felicitous conjunction of genre and crusty, no-bullshit auteur, they begto be considered the best and most characteristically American movies of thesound era (though they include silents too), our very own, multipart celluloidepic. They are certainly among the most enjoyable, which is why there's so muchappeal in the idea of spending the next five weekends at the American Museumof the Moving Image, where "John Ford, Western Poet" runs July 10-Aug.8. The series encompasses 20films including Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Directed by John Ford,and Ford's four surviving silent westerns, Straight Shooting, HellBent, The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men (all with live musicalaccompaniment), as well as his 25-minute segment of How the West Was Won. The sound features spanthe Manifest Destiny lyricism of Stagecoach and Wagon Master throughthe great cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbonand Rio Grande to the brooding, late-career revisionism of SergeantRutledge and Cheyenne Autumn. Along the way are detours into theRevolutionary War (Drums Along the Mohawk), the Civil War (The HorseSoldiers) and biblical allegory (Three Godfathers). Finally, there's my choicefor Ford's best film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (with John Wayne,Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin as the baddest bad guy on the range), as well asthe film that gets that title from other, mistaken critics, The Searchers.Actually, these films are as much opposite sides of the same coin as are Hitchcock'ssimilarly complementary Rear Window and Vertigo (which, like TheSearchers, grabs critics who think "obsessive, personal" automaticallyequals "best"). And here, too, the answer's the same: See 'em both.