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A TALE OF SPRINGTIME

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Anne Teyssèdre, Florence Darel, Hugues Quester, Eloïse Bennett
Director: Eric Rohmer
Audio: French
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: MGM
Features: Trailer
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: March 5, 2002

"What my father needs is someone like you."

Film *** 1/2

European films over the years have regularly been accused of being tediously pretentious or intellectual to the point of boredom.  To some degree, this may be true.  The flaw for many of these films is that characters seem to deliver dialogues which emanate more from an auteur or writer's personal philosophy than from the natural circumstances within the films themselves.  Such films inherently lose internal validity and may as a consequence feel artificial in tone.

Even the finest directors are not entirely immune to a tendency to use the film medium as a pulpit.  Witness, for example, Charlie Chaplin's famous (but out-of-character) speech at the conclusion of his masterful The Great Dictator.  Or, among notable European directors, witness any of the later films of Federico Fellini or the more esoteric efforts by Ingmar Bergman.  There can be no doubt that these directors are all incredibly talented, but the abstractions or excesses in some of their works may render these films readily accessible to only a small portion of the movie-going audience.

Film historian Louis Giannetti once stated that "we must believe that the eloquence belongs to the character, and is not merely the writer's 'messages' dressed up as dialogue."  In other words, film audiences are willing to accept intellectual discussions but only if these conversations feel plausible in the context of the films themselves.  This principle, in essence, is what separates the films of French director Eric Rohmer from many other art-house films.

Rohmer routinely populates his films with students or artists, and many of his films feature discussions based on ideas or abstractions.  However, Rohmer avoids the potential pitfall of  preachiness by employing the language of the real world in his films.  The conversations in his films flow with the natural cadences of typical conversations, and so, they have an aura of believability, no matter what the topic of discussion.  A debate over the definition of "transcendence" would feel just as natural in a Rohmer film as would a song in a musical.

For over half a century, Rohmer has been quietly making films in this style.  With over four dozen feature-length films and short subjects to his credit, he may be among the most prolific of the French New Wave directors.  Rohmer's favorite theme has always been the intricate relationship between man and woman, and many of his best films have centered upon this theme.  Perhaps his most well-known body of work is the six contes moraux (Six Moral Tales), a series of two shorts and four feature-length films exploring human sexuality and even philosophical differences.  Starting with 1962's La Boulangère de Monceau and concluding with 1972's Chloe in the Afternoon, these films, particularly My Night at Maud's (1969), brought Rohmer to the forefront of world cinema and helped to establish his cinematic reputation as a thoughtful, clear-minded filmmaker for the post-modern era.

In 1990, Rohmer released Conte du Printemps (A Tale of Springtime).  It was the first of another series of films, this time revolving around a season of the year.  Three more films were eventually created for the series - A Tale of Summer, A Tale of Autumn, and Winter's Tale -  and collectively, these films were appropriately entitled the "Tales of the Seasons."

As the first film in the series, A Tale of Springtime visits many of Rohmer's favorite themes.  The film examines the layers of complexities within human relationships, in this case between a single father with his current girlfriend and his disapproving daughter.  As with many of Rohmer's films, it is also a film of very little action.  The title, A Tale of Springtime, connotes a sense of purity, of youth and innocence.  What love might arise during the course of the film will be one of new feelings or new emotions explored.  As such, the film is a collection of character studies, unfolded in a succession of natural conversations, with thoughts and musings that follow the flow and cadence of normal speech.

Rohmer's films commonly reflect the calm, deliberate rhythm of life.  This is the case with A Tale of Springtime as well.  His camerawork employs a simplistic but fluid style, and scenes are allowed to linger, as though to emphasize that the world of the film persists even if there is no one around or there is no perceivable action to advance the plot.  Consequently, viewers accustomed to the rapid editing of an MTV-style film may find A Tale of Springtime (and most any other Rohmer film) slow and boring, but for those willing to invest the time and patience, a Rohmer film can ultimately be quite satisfying on an emotional or thought-provoking level.

A Tale of Springtime starts out with a typical touch of realism, establishing a relaxed, authentic style that will dictate the pace of the film.  A young woman enters an apartment and wanders about, doing little more than re-arranging furniture or sorting through loose articles of clothing.  This opening sequence lasts for several minutes and contains no dialogue at all.  We are given no indication as to who this young woman is, nor do we even know whose apartment she is in.  As it turns out, the apartment belongs to her boyfriend.

The woman is Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre).  She is a young high school teacher.  Her boyfriend is away for the weekend, and Jeanne elects not to spend the weekend alone at his apartment.  Having nothing better to do, she attends a wine-and-cheese party that evening at the home of a former colleague.  While there, she meets Natacha (Florence Darel), a young lycée student who finds herself alone among strangers after her date leaves unexpectedly.  The two women strike up a conversation and quickly discover that they have two traits in common - neither of them knows anyone at the party, and both find the party to be incredibly dull.  Also, since Natacha now has no ride home, and Jeanne has no place to stay (having lent her own apartment to a cousin for the weekend and having no wish to remain at her boyfriend's apartment), Natacha cheerfully offers Jeanne the spare bedroom at her apartment in exchange for a ride home.  Jeanne accepts.

Ultimately, Jeanne spends the entire weekend with Natacha, and they quickly become good friends.  They discuss all matters of subjects - their boyfriends, their interests, their philosophies on life, etc.  During the course of these myriad conversations, Natacha reveals that she is not particularly fond of her father's new girlfriend Eve (Eloïse Bennett).  And, she discerns that perhaps Jeanne is not entirely happy in her current relationship with her boyfriend, either.

In a Hollywood film, the general arc of such a the storyline would be easy to predict, but in Rohmer's film, it is nearly invisible.  In A Tale of Springtime, the plot is almost an afterthought.  Conversations in A Tale of Springtime regularly develop tangentially, and the characters frequently discuss subjects apparently to the complete exclusion of advancing the plot (Quentin Tarantino employed a similar technique in his Pulp Fiction).  It is far more interesting just to see how the friendship blossoms between Jeanne and Natacha as they sit around and discuss random matters.  The film is so casual and easy-going that it may be easy to lose track altogether of the plot!

Later in the week, Natacha invites Jeanne over for dinner.  Natacha's father (Hugues Quester) has just returned from a trip aboard and will present as well.  The following weekend, there is another rendez-vous with the father at Natacha's country home.  Is Natacha arranging these encounters between Jeanne and her father?  Or, are they merely the chance occurrences orchestrated by life's randomness?  While Natacha admits to liking Jeanne and wondering what her father thinks of Jeanne, none of Natacha's actions are directly responsible for bringing Jeanne and her father together.  Natacha even denies trying to interfere with their personal lives.  But, as with real life, there is a note of ambiguity in the events of the film which leaves them open to interpretation. 

While I have laid the essential backbone of the film's plot, it would be inaccurate to describe A Tale of Springtime as a light romantic comedy.  This is a film about true life, with characters who act and react realistically.  Conflicts are not tidily resolved in the last ten minutes of the film, nor is the audience presented with a conventionally happy ending to the strains of romantic violins.  How will Jeanne or Natacha's father respond to one another at their next encounter?  How has Jeanne's relationship with her own boyfriend been altered by the events of the last two weekends?  And where does Eve fit into the picture?  Rohmer's film offers no definitive answers but instead presents an opportunity for continual exploration and discovery.  And, in the end, that is what life is all about.

Video ***

The colors are bright and bold, and the image is very detailed and incredibly sharp.  In fact, it may be too sharp, as aliasing defects (and moiré patternings) do manifest themselves regularly.  These defects are small but noticeable; my best suggestion for viewers who find them intrusive is to soften up the image if their television allows such an option.  Other than this, the video presentation is pleasant enough, and aside from a few scratches at the beginning, the film looks fine.

Audio ** 1/2

A Tale of Springtime is presented in a French 2-channel monaural track.  It is almost entirely dialogue-driven, with essentially no music (other than brief interludes at the start and conclusion of the film).  The soundtrack is crisp and clear, and while it is nothing extraordinary, it is suitable enough.

Features 1/2 *

There are no extras, save for a worn and scratchy French trailer (without subtitles).  MGM missed an opportunity to include some trailers for other films in its international World Films Series, of which A Tale of Springtime is just one.  Oh well.

Summary:

A Tale of Springtime is a charming and relaxed story about friendships and relationships.  It is probably an acquired taste but can offer a pleasant and tranquil counter-point to the frenzied blockbusters which predominate the cineplexes nowadays.  Viewers who enjoy this film are encouraged to seek out the other three films in Rohmer's "Tales of the Seasons" series.