Though less mentioned than his fellow directors during the nouvelle vague, Éric Rohmer is an absolute force – and a mastermind of naturalistic cinema. His influence can be felt in many films today – some of which that have helped birth a new genre, ‘mumblecore’. While his films have a driving storyline and a set outline, the improvisational nature of the way the scenes are shot, as well as the dialogue between characters, represented a new step in filmmaking. He prioritized the beauty in the supposed ‘mundanity’, often under-utilised in modern cinema – which is key to understanding the characters and their lives.

Focusing mostly on friendships and relationships from a female perspective, Rohmer wrote somewhat in an oppositional manner to his colleagues at the time, showcasing the uniqueness of both men and women (and individuals as a whole) without feeling the need to denigrate or downplay eithers experiences. Through his close friendships with the actors that he worked with (many of them with little to no experience), Rohmer would shape the characters around their personality and his somewhat idealized view of their interactions. This was a constant throughout his filmography – which attracted a smaller audience base, but one that appreciated his more realistic take on the reality of the human condition and the intricacies of relationships.

 

Another trend he stuck to throughout his career was film ‘series’ – the first being ‘The Six Moral Tales’, the second, ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ and the final, as a much older man, ‘4 Seasons’. Perhaps his finest works, they, as the name would suggest, focus on each seasons of the calendar year – using the setting as a way to tell stories which we have come to expect from Rohmer, on love, loneliness and longing. Though his films often grapple with similar questions of morality/aspects of the human experience, they feel completely unique – owed to the characters and the way they differ from each other, whilst also keeping some sort of universality that draws us to them.

The constant that binds these seasons together are the universal feelings of love, loneliness and longing, all of which that are felt individually, dually, or all together at once by Rohmer’s characters. Whether it is set on the backdrop of a slow paced small beachside town, or a rural agricultural area facing the slow creep of modern society in the form of industrial fumes, the stories come together in a way that we can relate to, even if the ever-present factors of time, money, and other obligations aren’t necessarily harped on at all by Rohmer. 

Still from 'A Tale of Autumn'

The first film in Rohmer’s 4 Seasons series surrounds a burgeoning friendship between Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) and Natacha (Florence Darel) and the familial/romantic issues that surround their lives. Similarly to another Rohmer, “4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle”, the film is based on the relationship between two female main characters – who manage to develop an incredibly strong bond in a short amount of time. 

 

Meeting by chance at a party they didn’t want to be at, Natacha fills the Rohmer stereotypical character by offering a complete stranger (Jeanne) to stay at her place that night. Within a few days, Jeanne is embroiled in Natacha’s family tensions, forcing her to act as negotiator between people who are nearly complete strangers to her.

Jeanne, our main character, is a high school philosophy teacher. She seems to navigate life through a series of unwanted social obligations, where concessions for the good of others over herself are made. This gives us an idea of who she is as a person off the bat – she lets her cousin stay as long as she wants in her house (making Jeanne essentially homeless), attends a loose friends party just to be nice, and offers to drive a complete stranger back to Paris in her car – all within the first 10 minute or so of the film. As the film progresses we get a clearer understanding of her own person philosophy, but interestingly, many parts of her life remains a mystery to the audience. As the main character, she lives, for the week or so that the movie is set over, purely within this contained universe created by Natacha and her family problems. The constant allusion to there being a lot more under the surface is what makes her both such an interesting character, but also a somewhat frustrating one. This is obviously by design from Rohmer, who essentially uses Jeanne as a way of telling the others’ stories. We know her strong convictions in her relationship with her boyfriend (who we never see or hear) and her class (who are also never seen), but they take a back seat to the problems of a person she just met a few days prior. We can only make assumptions about the fact she doesn’t want to stay at her boyfriend’s apartment, that she entertains the affections of other men or is seemingly detached from her own obligations – but that’s all we can do.

As expected, considering Jeanne’s line of work, this is one of Rohmer’s most philosophic works, where the characters weave through the positions of Kant on Transcendentalism Idealism and Plato’s writing on metaphysics – mostly during the dinner scene. While not exactly using this conversation as a way of showing the characters philosophical beliefs, Rohmer instead uses it to show the dynamic between Eve and Natacha specifically. The deeper philosophical discussion between Eve and Jeanne is masterfully written and performed to serve this purpose, Natacha is left out due to her own lack of knowledge (which Eve somewhat exposes) and there is an intense passive aggressiveness which Jeanne seems to effortlessly rise above. This is, for the audience and for Jeanne, somewhat of a turning point – we see Natacha now as much more of an “unreliable narrator”, which calls into question the potentially unearned disdain she has had for her fathers’ romantic partners. The depth of these characters, who constantly prove our predictions wrong, and who all have their own faults and shortcomings, is what makes this film so authentic.

The character of Natacha, while holding it together on the surface, faces turmoil in a lot of her life. Her distrust and sometimes far fetched accusations stem clearly from her mother’s absence, who seemingly only remains in her life as a force of negativity. While her parents’ separation is the reason for her close bond with her father, it also has created an inherent disliking for all of her father’s partners – especially his current girlfriend, Eve, who is close to Natacha in age. 

This goes so far as to leading to Natacha pushing Jeanne to pursue her own father romantically. On top of this, her relationship with her boyfriend is strained, and they see each other rarely. In the final scene of the movie – Natacha mentions through tears that “things are very tense between us”, the audience can only wonder what problems they have – though we can infer that given how open Natacha is on other personal topics, her romantic relationship must be in tatters for her to mention it so sparingly.

 

This in itself is what makes Rohmer’s characters so compelling, they are written to fit his style in a manner where they feel like real people, rather than to progress a narrative. Natacha, Jeanne, Igor and Eve all have their own lives, their own problems, and seemingly live independently to the film itself. When the film ends, we can imagine without the suspension of disbelief that they continue living in the big naturalistic Rohmer universe. This is somewhat of a rarity in this series, where the audience is kept out of the loop on a lot of what makes these characters tick – but for good reason, as Rohmer presses us to judge the characters purely off of what we see, not what we guess about other aspects of their life.

As always with Rohmer, the film rests upon questions of morality and ethics – which arise for all 4 of the focus characters who seemingly served as different archetypes. What is different from the rest of the series, is there isn’t really a conclusion to the story – many questions go unanswered but not in a way that leaves the viewer unsatisfied. While both come to terms with their inherent distrust of people and its effect on their respective romantic relationships, their own issues remain – which adds realism to the films’ premise – these aren’t problems than can be solved in a week. What is clear though is the inner turmoil of these characters and their predicaments: through their ever-present longing for love and their profound loneliness – this film starts what came to be four seasons with similar stories, told different ways.

“A Tale of Winter” takes a different approach to most of Rohmer’s other films – focusing on the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and how romantic pursuits are affected by this intense bond. This manifests in Félicie, our main character, her ability to persist in her beliefs even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds – and to persevere through longing and loneliness to find love. We are introduced to her, and her lover Charles, in a beautiful opening montage – which is a rarity for Rohmer. It tells the story of a young couple (Félicie and Charles) and their romance on the French coast, ending with Charles leaving for his planned trip to the US (who was given a misspelt address by Félicie). Five years later – as the title card states – we are now with Félicie and her young daughter, born as a result of this passionate short-lived relationship. Though the love story between Félicie and Charles is not contained to the start montage – it persists the entire film and the couples’ search for each other reminds us why Rohmer’s love stories are so genius.

Five years have passed, and Félicie and her daughter live with her mother in Paris – still holding out hope that Charles will return. As she spends her time as a hairdresser, we find that she has a relationship with two men, Maxence and Loic – who are almost polar opposites of each other, both physically and intellectually. Though these are both potential options for a step father for Élise, Félicie is very open with friends, her mother and to an extent – both Maxence and Loic – that she doesn’t hold them to nearly the esteem that she does Charles. Even in conversation with her sister while packing her and Élise’s bags to go and live with Maxence in Nevers, she holds out hope that Charles will return – “he could reappear… hope’s better than nothing”, lamenting that she doesn’t love Loic and is unsure about the move. After a few days in Nevers, the relationship ends and she returns to Paris and Loic – still quite unsatisfied in him as a partner but settling for something more stable for Élise.

Stuck in flux, Félicie’s character is handled with grace by Rohmer – who shows her undying perseverance and hope in a beautiful way. While having the common characteristics we have come to expect from a Rohmer character, she differs in many ways to characters he explores in the other films in this series – where the others generally enjoy a breezy life as young people falling in love, that part of Félicie’s story is over after the opening montage. 

This isn’t as small stakes as a new friendship or a love triangle, she is in a transitional part of her life, yes, but in a much more important way than the commonly young and care-free lovers in the Rohmer Cinematic Universe (RCU). Rohmer creates this more serious tone in a few ways – most importantly, her daughter Élise – who is at the forefront of all considerations of her life. 

This is also what ties her so closely to Charles, there isn’t just a longing for the rekindling of their romantic relationship, there is also a deep desire to introduce her daughter to her father. The setting isn’t a series of sun baked holiday houses, cafés and beachside towns – the grimy and logistically annoying (clothing wise especially) winter in Paris is a very deliberate “take this one more seriously” that we are thrown by Rohmer. When Félicie goes to work, it isn’t a segue into a chance meeting with Charles, it is to provide for her daughter. Okay so it’s serious – why does it matter at all? Mostly because it is a tool to show love in a different light to what we are used to with Rohmer characters – the love between a mother and daughter. What makes this film so touching isn’t long sappy monologues, it is moments like Félicie playing soccer with Élise or watching her ride a Merry Go Round.

 

An interesting recurring event in this film is the significance of Félicie’s rare moments by herself – with no dialogue, these scenes signify her reconciling her life’s direction and forecast a change. The first of these is in a Cathedral, in Nevers – from what we can glean, her quiet contemplation is the catalyst for her decision to leave Maxence. The next is following her return to Paris – for some time she continues her relationship with Loic, who becomes closer to Élise. While at a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s play ‘A Winters Tale’, she has another revelation, while the story of the play doesn’t necessarily mirror her own story, an important line is “It is required you do awake your faith.”, which leaves Félicie in tears. In a conversation with Loic after, he notes that the play “isn’t plausible” – to which she replies “I like what isn’t plausible”, which sums up her entire philosophy quite well. Her ‘reuniting’ with Charles is anything but plausible, but it is her faith that ties their bind – and it is her faith that stems from her religious nature as well as her “reflections” as she calls it, that gives her the courage to persevere.

In Rohmer fashion, the ending that is forecast the entire film still remains exciting and a surprise when it does occur – of course, the reuniting of Félicie and Charles (and Élise). Instead of a grand meeting where they see each other in a crowded room or he finally finds her, they meet purely by chance on a bus – and almost immediately Charles finds his role as her lover, and Élise’s father.

The faith and hope that has held Félicie together for the last 5 years pays off in a story that ties up perfectly – with an ending that couldn’t have gone better for the couple and their daughter. This film is a rarity in both the 4 Seasons Series and Rohmer’s filmography as a whole – a love story used as a device to tell the story of a mother and her daughters’ love. This is a beautiful and gripping story that, while touching on the themes of longing and loneliness that we have come to expect, sets itself apart and presents a unique take on the classic Rohmer formula. The power of love to bind two people who have almost no chance of meeting again is a powerful statement made in this film – aided heavily by the incredible performance of Charlotte Véry as Félicie. Critic Roger Ebert said of the film: “What pervades Rohmer’s work is a faith in love—or, if not love, then in the right people finding each other for the right reasons. There is sadness in his work but not gloom.”

In “A Tale of Summertime” (Conte d’été), Rohmer takes inspiration from his time as a young man, which is both a flex by him, and a commonality in his career. The story centers around a love triangle (and possibly even love square) between Gaspard, Léna and Solène. Staying in the small town of Dinard for a while, Gaspard wanders the beach and surrounding cliffs embroiling himself further and further in a hole of his own creation. Does he continue his probably ill-fated but preconceived love for Léna, pursue the newly acquainted Solène or shift his sights to Margot, a friend he made who serves as his impromptu relationship counsellor. The genius of this film is that Rohmer places the power with the women characters, subverting the audiences’ expectations and the common narrative trope of the time (and somewhat still today) where the male character has his ‘pick’ of a suite of women. While he spends his time in Dinard operating under the impression he must choose, the story isn’t nearly that simple for Gaspard – the female characters are the ones who orchestrate their relationship with him – the question isn’t ‘who does he choose?’, its ‘do any of them choose him?’

The chance meeting of Gaspard and Margot in a beachside café, and later at the beach, is the relationship which drives the entire movie. A somewhat platonic relationship by design, Rohmer places the two “drivers” of the plot close enough to where you can imagine something romantic, but your dreams (and Gaspard’s) are shot down by Margot who has a boyfriend in another country. With this friendship established, a formula for the film is laid out – more or less, he will progress his relationship with Léna or Solène in some way (often not for the better), and then return like clockwork for advice from Margot. 

Acting essentially as the neutral third party and de facto representative for the audience (who are, by design, destined to be frustrated with Gaspard), she spends a lot of time criticising both his action and inaction. Funnily enough, and realistically enough, he implements nearly none of her advice – and is worse off for it. What Rohmer does so masterfully in this film, and in his others, is subverting the ‘male hero’ trope – instead highlighting the strength and depth of his female characters. 

What was somewhat of a rarity, even in the French New Wave era, still unfortunately remains an issue in the industry, but with the genius example set by filmmakers like Rohmer and others there is a pathway towards more movies which focus on this dynamic between female characters.

 

The purpose for Gaspards’ presence in Dinard is the slight chance he will be able to meet up with Léna, who he has only seen a few times before the cameras roll in the first scene, but still seemingly moves mountains to be in the location they agreed to meet. Of course, this doesn’t actually pan out well, she is no where to be found, and Margot is staunchly opposed to any romantic interactions – what can he do other than search for someone new instead of just enjoying his time in an idyllic seaside town? He finds that new person in Solène, who is incredibly charitable – letting him stay at her uncle’s place and taking him out with her family on their boat before they all have dinner together. They even plan a trip to the nearby island of Ouessant. As expected, Léna happens to run into Gaspard on the beach and the love triangle is formed. While he does his best to string both potential suitors along, it becomes more and more apparent that they (and Margot) hold the power over him – not the other way around. Gaspard is completely beholden to the plans of Léna, and despite her clear indifference to their relationship as a whole, they eventually make plans to go on a short holiday – at the same time as his trip with Solène. During this, Solène is becoming more impatient and delivers an ultimatum – with an iconic line “Friendships serious, maybe more than love” – Gaspard accepts, but not fully. Lena’s indifference eventually grows to a distaste for Gaspard, and she leaves him – seemingly now the troubles of double booking are gone, and he can enjoy the trip with Solène, right? Wrong – his fondness for Margot boils over and the two kiss – now the trip to Ouessant could be with either Margot or Solène.

In classic Rohmer fashion, the concept of a love triangle that for any other director would be a grandiose romantic movie, is treated with a very laidback approach. We know the stakes are relatively low, and the beautiful setting has an unmistakable effect of making their problems much smaller – it is already hard to sympathise with Gaspard and his position, but it is much harder when he is walking through beautiful cliffs, beaches and forests with Amanda Langlet (Margot). The setting has another effect, it takes away basically all mentions of pressing issues in the average persons’ life (money, job, previous plans, etc.) – which opens Rohmer’s films up to criticism from some who reject the idea that we should give a shit about the problems of wealthy bourgeois 20-somethings. The story is seen by Rohmer (as he did in essentially every other film) as one which doesn’t need the distraction of these factors to progress the characters’ development. While the criticism of this formula has some legs, would it have the same laid back, idyllic and captivating effect on the audience if Gaspard spent half the movie worrying about how he is going to get enough money to eat? No, probably not. These ideas are likely a large part to why this film is held in such high esteem, mentioned often as the best in the series – the implications of the story are so that we can imagine the characters not being affected by them about two weeks after the films’ final shot.

That is essentially what we can glean that Rohmer intended with the ending, which, unlike Spring, ties the story off perfectly. After receiving a call from Léna that she was wrong to leave him and wants to go on the holiday after all, Gaspard now has an opportunity to take any of the major female characters – a love square which folds in on itself when he receives a call from his friend offering a deal on music equipment. 

Instead of addressing the potential problems that will arise from pursuing someone, he leaves Dinard on the ferry – sharing a beautiful moment with Margot where the two preserve their friendship. Though not exactly an answer to the question that hangs over the film – who will he go away with? – but this ending is all the more satisfying as Rohmer rejects the need for a tidy and predictable finish to the story. Leaning into the small stakes of the story, the characters continue their lives, better off for not of pursuing a romantic relationship any further than the three-week period the film is set over.

The quintessential Rohmer film, “A Summers Tale”, is the perfect example of the beauty of Rohmer’s storytelling. Gaspard, Léna and Solène (and even Margot, to an extent) all long for a genuine connection– the characters often lament the casual and transitory nature of their previous flings and are open about their intention to pursue something more serious. The classic ‘happy ever after’ ending where two of them fall in love and face their loneliness together isn’t there – and the story is all the better for it, realistically portraying the pitfalls in the search for love and meaning. Following the trend in the previous two films, the sometimes difficult side of relationships is brought to the forefront – without denigrating the characters or leaving the audience depressed, on the contrary, the raw and naturalistic style feels so authentic that we draw correlations to our own lives and the universal feelings of love, loneliness and longing.

The final film in the series strays from the Rohmer norm of young characters stumbling through their search for love – instead focusing on a cast of middle-aged characters who struggle with similar emotions in a more pronounced manner. At the centre of this cast is Magali – a 40-year-old winemaker who lives on her own vineyard, and her two friends Rosine and Isabelle who unbeknownst to each other (and to Magali) are hatching plots to set her up with a potential partner. Our two potential suitors are Gerald and Etienne, both lured into somewhat of a scheme by Magali’s friends, who operate in secrecy due to her firm position against dating. Without a doubt, Rohmer captures the profound sadness that is inherent with loneliness – even more so with middle aged characters who in some respects have resigned themselves to never finding love. Of course, it isn’t as simple as we first expect, and Rohmer plays off this rare subject matter to subvert our expectations time and time again during the film.

Rosine, the girlfriend of Magali’s son, has a burgeoning affair with her older professor Etienne – who, unbeknownst to him, she is luring purely as a means of gauging whether he would be a good match for Magali. One day working in the field, she takes some pictures of Magali and viola, the plan is set in motion. Although preaching his desire to have a ‘serious’ relationship, Etienne is at first somewhat against the idea that he has been seduced purely for advertising means – but he is intrigued by the potential with Magali. At the same time, long time friend of Magali, Isabelle, is using more traditional means of conducting a search – newspaper ads. Through this, she meets Gerald – who is a widower like Magali – and goes on a few dates with him to see if he is suited for her. Funnily enough, both Rosine and Isabelle are in committed relationships, but seemingly go behind everyone’s backs (including their significant others) to conduct their experiment.

Like ‘A Tale of Winter’, this is one of the more touching films in the series – in a few ways. For Magali, there is a sense that the world is passing her by, in a vicious cycle that both begets and prolongs loneliness, she throws herself into her work on the vineyard and rejects the idea that she should start dating. Béatrice Romand (who plays Magali) masterfully walks this line that many of us see in ourselves – even when she tells her friends she isn’t interested in dating and doesn’t feel lonely, we can see that she is, and does. 

It is clear too that her only child growing up and moving away has an effect on her – which draws her closer to Rosine, partly so she has stronger connection to her son’s life. What we are presented with by Rohmer and Romand is a character teetering on the edge in some aspects, and secure in others – the in-between is what we admire and find endearing about her. 

Alongside this, Rohmer’s genius when it comes to writing friendships is on full show in this film – the fact that her two close friends take time to undertake such a bizarre experiment purely on their own accord is the gripping part of the film. Deep down we hope we all have friends like Rosine and Isabelle in our lives – who are willing to border on infidelity and essentially put their own lives in hold to find their friend a lover.

 

The plans of Magali’s friends both coincide unintentionally at Isabelle’s daughter’s wedding – where both Etienne and Gerald have been prepped on making their first impression. Fortunately or unfortunately, Etienne is out of the game almost immediately when he continues his search for younger women and becomes infatuated with one at the party – much to Magali’s distaste. But eventually through tension which emanates from the screen, Gerald and Magali slowly make their way towards each other and talk about their shared loved for wine. Rohmer manages to make a scene between two middle aged people feel as awkward and as clumsy as it does for the teenagers in his films, which makes it more touching as they skip over words or interrupt each other. Through this authentic lens, we feel like a fly on the wall in a burgeoning relationship between these two people that we have been waiting the entire film to meet – but that is almost cut to pieces when Magali walks in on him and Isabelle hugging (unbeknownst to them) and assumes that they are having an affair. What follows is a very awkward car ride from Gerald – where Magali demands to be let out at a nearby train station.

An interesting move from Rohmer in this film is his use of setting to mirror the story of Magali – as well as to use it as a device to describe her growing anxieties. Trading the common settings of arrondissements or seaside towns for the rural area of the south in the Rhone Valley. The characters don’t walk through winding Paris streets, they walk amongst vineyards or vine covered cobblestone alleyways. But the ‘rural’ nature of the setting is under attack from the creeping encroachment of urban facilities – in the distance from Magali’s farm she sees a nuclear power plant that is constantly emitting steam. Characters bring it up throughout the film in discontent, and there is a real feeling that the days of not enjoying a horizon uninterrupted by the ‘modern France’ are coming to an end. In many ways this is a pretty obvious metaphor for Magali’s own life – even if she doesn’t admit it, her time is in some way running out too. By isolating herself in her work, her genuine desire for love is unfulfilled, and it is only through near divine intervention from her friends that she meets someone new. Rohmer’s decision to mirror the setting and the character is interesting because it isn’t so heavy handed that the film loses its charm – but is noted just enough for the audience to basically be lightly slapped in the face by the metaphor.

 

The film ends in a touching way, with the misunderstanding between Magali and Gerald cleared up – they meet in a tender moment with Isabelle and awkwardly laugh like the Rohmer characters we have come to love. Funnily enough the final scene of the film doesn’t feature either Magali, Gerald or Etienne – as Isabelle, her husband and the other wedding guests dance together in front of a live band. A touching final scene to cap off what is probably the most emotionally gripping of the entire series.