Review: Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons

I regret to say I have not spent the last year getting into the best shape of my life or launching a new side-hustle or doing any other monumental work some have managed to make happen in the midst of a pandemic. That’s not to say I haven’t picked up a new hobby or two. I’ve certainly cooked at home more than ever, and I’ve upgraded many kitchen gadgets and tools to make that work both easier and more enjoyable. And I also started a program I’ve wanted to prioritize for quite some time: I’ve begun taking French lessons in earnest. Through the Chicago branch of Alliance Français, a cultural institute of the French Embassy, I’ve been taking weekly Zoom French classes since September, slowly leveling up my conversational French and gaining confidence in speaking the language as much as I understand it.

Turns out, a new restoration of French New Wave trailblazer Eric Rohmer’s four-part film series Tales of the Four Seasons, now streaming via virtual cinemas (including through Music Box Theatre and Music Box Direct) is not only a bucolic and contemplative journey into every type of relationship—romantic, platonic, familial, etc.—it’s also a really wonderful way to see how well your rudimentary French is progressing, seeing how all Rohmer’s characters really do is talk. Through each of the four films, each set in one of the four seasons, new characters in new (and sometimes slightly silly) circumstances explore the twists and turns of whatever latest relationship drama they’ve caused or find themselves in. If you’ve never experienced a Rohmer film or if you prefer cinema where things! happen!, the incessant dialogue (some may go so far as to say navel-gazing) may get tiring before too long. But if, like me, you find settling in with strangers for a couple of hours and listening to their observations, insights and perspectives as they navigate a given moment in their lives something quite fascinating, these four films make for quite an enjoyable journey.

A Tale of Winter – Image courtesy of Janus Films

Released from 1990 to 1998, the series arrived as Rohmer’s career was winding down (he died in 2010); after the final film in the series, Autumn Tale, he would only make three more feature films. Over thirty years after the first, A Tale of Springtime, was released, the lot of them feel more like period pieces than ever, all landlines and typewriters and a refreshing lack of anything even resembling social media. Instead, these are four distinct films, each with their own unrelated characters and storylines, that do what Rohmer always did best: talk their way through the moment. There is no time for—or apparent interest in—internal monologues here; if they think it, they say it, and it’s delicious.

For reasons unknown to me, the four Seasons films weren’t released in, you know, seasonal order; nor do they all follow a consistent naming convention but (like a true Rohmer character), I may be overthinking it. The first, A Tale of Springtime (1990), stars Anne Teyssèdre as Jeanne, a teacher letting out her Parisian flat to her cousin who is still there when she tries to return; attending a party later that night, she strikes up a conversation with a younger woman, Natacha (Florence Darel), who insists she come and stay at the apartment her father, Igor (Hugues Quester) rents for her. She does, and of course Natacha’s father returns unexpectedly; he’s dating a woman Natacha’s age, and soon a plan is hatched to set up Jeanne and Igor, who clearly belong together (at least as far as Natacha is concerned). Set mostly indoors, A Tale of Springtime is never claustrophobic, and the dichotomy of a teenager and an older (not old!) single woman discussing their parallel and similar frustrations with love, men and life remains as interesting as ever.

In A Tale of Winter (1992), Charlotte Véry is Félicie, who we first meet in a brief prologue that includes a fling with a man she completely falls for and must part ways with at the end of the summer holiday. Fast forward five (and a half?) years to a blustery French winter, and Félicie is a single mother working as a stylist and dating the salon’s owner, Maxence (Michel Voletti), an ambitious guy who swears he’s left his wife for good this time and want to move away with Félicie and her daughter to start a new life. She’s also seeing Loïc (Hervé Furic), a kind but quiet librarian who wants very much to build a life with her. But between them both, Félicie is still far more in love with Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche), her daughter’s father, and dreams of crossing paths with him again. On the one hand, Félicie’s apparent lack of empathy for what she’s putting both men though could be misconstrued as selfishness; but Rohmer is careful to give her the space to really process all that she’s confused about, making the film’s perhaps predictable resolution all the sweeter.

A Summer's Tale
A Summer’s Tale – Image courtesy of Janus Films

Released in 1996, A Summer’s Tale is the only of the four films to have a male protagonist in Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, who remains a working French actor, often appearing in François Ozon films these days), a young university student taking a holiday on the beach after a friend offers him a place to stay. He’s waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, but she’s flighty and hard to get ahold of (remember, pre-mobile phone days!) and in the meantime, he befriends a pretty waitress, Margot (Amanda Langlet) at the café nearby, and the two go on long, scenic walks along the bright, sunny beaches. He’s also introduced to Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), a knock-out who surprises him by actually being interested in him. Soon, this painfully shy student who laments than he’ll never truly fall in love has more options than he knows what to do with. A Summer’s Tale is easily the most beautiful of the four films; try not to feel transported to the dreamy French coast as Gaspard and the women in his life flirt and fight and flirt some more.

And finally, Autumn Tale (1998) may be the best known of the Seasons series, starring a Rohmer regular, Béatrice Romand, as Magali, and Marie Rivière as Isabelle, lifelong friends who find themselves at very different moments in their romantic lives as they approach late adulthood. Magali, who lives on the vineyard she owns where she’s taken up making organic wine, is recently widowed and Isabelle, happily married with a grown daughter now about to get married herself, thinks its time her friend get back on the market. As Magali hems and haws at the prospect, Isabelle takes the liberty of placing a personal ad in the paper and personally vetting the respondents, posing as Magali. It’s all far less mad-cap than it sounds, as Isabelle truly does mean well and Magali is too preoccupied with her work to make the effort herself. There’s a subplot about Magali’s college-aged son and his girlfriend, Rosine (Alexia Portal), a young woman she becomes fond of, and some of the film’s best moments are when she and Magali bond at the wedding reception. But it’s the friendship between the two older women, Isabelle and Magali, that is at the heart of Autumn Tale, a story about putting oneself out there, being open to the unknown and making space for someone new.

All four films in Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons are now streaming via virtual cinemas, including through Music Box Theatre and Music Box Direct.