A TALE OF WINTER (Eric Rohmer, 1992)

One of his “Tales of the Seasons,” Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver is just as wonderful as his Le beau mariage (1981), the best romantic comedy of the 1980s. Of course, in this genre one expects a lot from Rohmer, the artist who wrote and directed Claire’s Knee (1970). But one of A Tale of Winter’s predecessors in the seasonal cycle, A Tale of Springtime (1989), although shrewd, inclined me to think that, nearly seventy then, Rohmer had had his day. What pleasant chastisement now; for Rohmer’s Winter is a beautiful match for Shakespeare’s own Winter’s Tale, to which it deftly refers.

The central character is Félicié (Charlotte Véry, most felicitous), who makes passionate love with Charles, a cook. A “stupid slip,” though, finds her giving this terrific lover the wrong address for contacting her, and somehow, too, Charles fails to give Félicié any mail drop address for contacting him before leaving the country. Five years later, Félicié is raising their daughter, Elise, and holding onto her one photograph of Charles and her memory of him. Meanwhile, she has two lovers: Loic, a cozy librarian, and Maxence, a “man’s man.” Félicié works as a beautician for Maxence, who is a hairdresser. All the while, Charles remains the high standard against which she measures both Loic and Maxence and her love for them. Why two men? By not choosing one of them over the other Félicié is thus able to preserve for the absent Charles a position in her life of romantic preeminence.

But now Félicié must choose. Maxence has decided to leave Paris for his home town, Nevers. Shall she accompany him or stay in Paris with Loic? Leaving Loic behind, she goes with Maxence. This choice of hers, however, will not hold. After experiencing a “lucid” moment in a church, Félicié returns to Paris. She even takes up again with Loic—though in friendship rather than passion. One night the two attend a performance of The Winter’s Tale, from which (wrongly!) Félicié concludes that Hermione is brought back to life by faith. This in turn leads her to anticipate Charles’s miraculous reappearance. Then one day, sitting opposite her and Elise on a bus . . . .

Engaging the dilemma of romantic choice, Rohmer shows how we sometimes pseudopsychologically justify choices we in fact are most reluctant to make and feel uncertain about. For instance, Félicié tells Loic that she is going with Maxence to Nevers because she is less likely there than in Paris to chance across Charles. This makes sense; but the explanation doesn’t fit Félicié’s true feelings. A kind person, Félicié surely is trying to reject Loic in the gentlest way possible. But she is doing something else besides. By her tortuous rationale Félicié is also trying to convince herself that her choice—Maxence over Loic—is the correct one. Indeed, Rohmer punctures with sly, breathless irony the very notion that Félicié’s move will help remove whatever impediment Charles poses to her giving up the ghost of her one perfect sexual encounter. Rohmer’s is a brush of wit that those familiar with French cinema must savor. For it is to Nevers that Félicié is moving: in film, a town synonymous with abiding memory of lost love—a symbolical inheritance from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Rohmer’s point here, surely, is that, whether Félicié actually runs into him, her memory of Charles will continue to haunt her.

Coupled with its rationalization, Félicié’s choice of Maxence over Loic contains and thus discloses her very uncertainty over it. Félicié doesn’t even precisely “own” the choice; for her decision to accompany Maxence is in fact forced by his decision to leave Paris. (Indeed, Maxence’s decision is partly motivated by his desire to force this decision of hers.) And this remove from responsibility for her own choice enables Félicié to pass on to him some of her responsibility for her making this choice—a helpful outcome only because she wasn’t sure of her decision in the first place. Nor is this the only “out” Félicié allows herself; for she can withdraw her decision at any time—which in fact she does when she leaves Maxence and returns to Paris.

Nor is this the first time she has “arranged” things, unconsciously, to provide herself with such an “out.” Félicié’s “slip” of giving Charles a wrong address: isn’t this also an unconscious way of giving herself a door out of a relationship in order to keep from becoming bound to an uncertain choice or decision of hers? It is, therefore, the first in a series of romantic dodges, self-deceptions and equivocations.

Nor is Félicié the only character so rattled by responsibility in romance. What about Loic and Maxence? Are they really as sure as they seem of their choice of Félicié? By implying the contrary Rohmer perfectly captures the essence of romantic anxiety here as well; for each of these honorable, honest men tries (as is our human wont) to insist into existence the great relationship with Félicié that neither has but each desires. They also are working hard at convincing themselves that they have made the right choice.

We all know about the one who slipped away. Charles’s convenient absence doubtless facilitates Félicié’s paramount commitment to him. In other words, her one (now) absolutely certain choice benefits from her not actually having to deal with the man himself! But Rohmer (bless him) does let us know, even though she herself may not quite know, just why Félicié so persistently prefers Charles to the two men at her fingertips. It is the great sex they had—a point Rohmer underscores by dramatic selection; although it’s plain that Loic and Maxence are her lovers, the film shows Félicié making love only with Charles. This “hiding” of her sex with the others also becomes a means by which Rohmer suggests one of his film’s principal themes. Rohmer’s dialogues in A Tale of Winter sparkle with self-analysis and references to Plato and Pascal. (Who else but Rohmer gives us such talk in films?) While surely expressing the French love of ideas (not to mention the sheer verbal generosity of the French), all their intellectual conversation allows these characters to sidestep and hide from themselves their sexual motives. And this theme nicely returns the film to its other major theme; for isn’t the concealment of sexual priorities—from oneself; from others—an important factor in human uncertainty in matters of the heart such as commitment?

What a delightfully complex view of human nature Rohmer gives us here—one that holds up a mirror to our most secretive and vulnerable feelings, our motives, our sheltering rationalizations. With the help of his color cinematographer, Luc Pages, Rohmer has given the film a somber, wintry look that deepens the humor to the bone while also evoking the tentativeness, the uncertainties, of his appealing characters as they half-hide from themselves and one another in subtly underlit surroundings. What a collaboration between artist and audience this becomes. We must search out what Rohmer has made plain to see.

Like Shakespeare, Rohmer finds sexual love a grand—a necessary—subject. And, like Le beau mariage, his Tale of Winter is a blissful descent into its ambiguous depths.

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