THE FRENCH FREQUENTLY SUFFER from a reputation for melodrama, or romanticism, but Eric Rohmer's films manage to overturn these traps by seeming to follow real people, flaws and all. Throughout his series of films based on the seasons -- of which Autumn Tale is the season finale -- he has shown simple stories of rumpled and neurotic French people in search of basic answers and good wine.

Autumn Tale is no exception. Set in the sun-washed Côte du Rhone countryside, the film follows winemaker Magali's (Béatrice Romand) passive search for love ("I want a man," she says in the delightful subtitle translation, "but I want him heaped with conditions"), and the choices made for her by the two women in her life. But the story line is not so direct; like love, it turns corners and stumbles; it lingers too long on useless images and arguments. It is the characters here, and Rohmer's fine ear for dialogue and silence, that hold one's interest. Magali, with her passionate Afro and her greasy downcast eyes, is as appealing as any Emma Woodhouse, and 10 times as fiery.

Also like love, the movie deigns to cater to convention. At first it appears as if Rohmer has casually turned the camera on in the middle of a scene, and it is up to the viewer to figure out who the characters are and what the relationship is between them. So charming is this world, however, that the viewer succumbs to it with the persistent grace of sunshine, and the plot unfolds. Isabelle (Marie Rivière), Magali's sophisticated friend, decides to place a personals ad for her, while Rosine (Alexia Portal) wants to set Magali up with a professor she herself had a fling with. These sorts of precursors to madcap happenings might be tiresome if the madcap ever arrived, but eh, bien, it does not, and the plot wears down with the unpredictability and satisfaction inherent in real-life endings.

Eric Rohmer is in the autumn of his own life, and Autumn Tale makes an excellent introduction to the work of an artist whose winter fast approaches.

Support The Stranger