It is a rare thing to find a film like the latest work of Eric Rohmer, where the protagonists talk about the knowledge of God and the leap of faith, discuss reincarnation and abortion, where they go into churches to pray, and where the heroine thinks her partner ought to go to Mass, because it is Sunday and he is a believer.
I should probably make it clear from the start that this film was neither solicited nor financed by religious authorities, but was created by a film writer who, while making no mystery of his Catholicism, has never paraded it.
A Tale of Winter is a masterpiece of subtlety, of precision in dialogue and photography. It handles people and situations with understanding, and if the people happen to talk about Pascal and Plotinus, there is never a sense of heaviness, discernible sometimes in Rohmer’s previous film, A Summer’s Tale, where references to Kant were a bit ponderous at times.
The setting remains simple and homey, but we do not get the feeling that it was all thrown together in haste, as with some other of his works. To be honest, since 1982, friends of Rohmer and his films have defended them, cost what it may, largely on the basis of the admiration lavished on his previous films. Even so, the six films made during this ten-year period, especially My Soul’s Friend (1987), were far superior to the average motion picture production. But we still looked for more strength in Rohmer, and waited for the moment when he would discover the form that renders his style incomparable. It has happened.
The plot of A Tale of Winter is at once easy to describe. During a certain summer, Felicie has known a perfect, fulfilling love, which has left her bedazzled. These first scenes in the film, treated in rapid sequence, lend a sense of modesty to the nakedness of the characters sunbathing in the sand of a modern Eden. We soon learn that this Adam and Eve are a cook and a beautician, immediately anchoring the romantic figures in a respectable real-ism, even with a touch of humor thrown in.
Then at once a grain of Pascalian sand falls into their perfect happiness. Under the stress of their separation at a railway station, Felicie, by giving Charles her address, confuses Levallois, where she lives, with Courbevoie. In both cities of the outer suburbs of Paris, as in each of the thirty-five thousand communes of France, there is a rue Victor-Hugo. As for Charles, he is leaving for a few months in the United States, and has no address. As is the way with many modern young people, Charles and Felicie do not know each other’s last names.
Four years later we meet Felicie again, with her little girl, Charles’s child. Nothing else remains of Charles, for Felicie, but a photo taken during the famous holiday. She is living with her mother, who takes care of the child, and she vacillates between two men: Maxence, a hairdresser whose dream is to make Felicie the manager of his beauty salon, and Loic, a young man in charge of the municipal library.
We learn that Loic has his degree in philosophy and is both a Breton and a practicing Catholic. He is the would-be Pygmalion for this intelligent, but uneducated girl.
Actually, Felicie cannot choose to live with either one of these men, for she is awaiting Charles’s return, however improbable. Her family and friends are unanimous in telling her that she has idealized both the man who disappeared and his passing love, which has left her nothing but her adorable little girl. In the end, Felicie, too, begins to doubt.
It is here that Felicie agrees to work with Maxence in his beauty salon. At first all goes well. Maxence shows her all the places of interest in the town, even the shrine where lies the body of Bernadette Soubirous, the seer of Lourdes. Later wounded by an unfortunate yet insignificant remark of Maxence, Felicie returns to Paris as fast as she had left. Felicie then turns to believer, she is preoccupied with the Loic; she wants to be friends with him, but, to the young man’s despair, nothing more.
It is through her friendship with Loic, however, that we learn of a certain religious dimension to Felicie’s continued hope in Charles’s return. Felicie reveals to Loic that once, having entered a church by chance, she had prayed, “but not to God,” for she had “some difficulties with him.” The young woman describes this experience as an encounter with herself, a sense of identity such as she had felt with Charles. She prays for Charles’s return, and she asks Loic, since he is a believer, to pray for this intention as well.
After a scene at the theater, where Loic and Felicie go to see Shakespeare’s A Tale of Winter, there follows the sudden and unexpected meeting with Charles, who has the happiness to discover that his wife and daughter await him.
The family is reunited in a happy ending as in any Shakespearean or classical comedy. Although we can doubt that the remainder of their lives will be notably different in its daily routine, we can only hope that after such a period of expectation that their unexpected reunion has left them prepared for an enduring love and the children it will bring.
It is Felicie’s personality that gives spiritual coherence to the film. Her name is surely no accident. It evokes happiness, as do Felicity, Beata, or Beatrix. The young woman has embarked upon a rediscovery of happiness, sprung from a summer encounter that she experienced as a loving ecstasy. Although herself not a meaninglessness generated by her beloved’s absence. In spite of her impulsive decisions, she shows amazingly sound judgment on many levels. When asked whether she was ever tempted to terminate her pregnancy, her answer betrays an intimate understanding of the natural order.
Felicie constantly affirms her need for clarity: clarity in her relationships with the men, clarity in her relationship with God. Indeed, she herself speaks clearly even when she is acting imprudently, feeling her way by instinct. There is in this personality, for whom Rohmer has a great tenderness, a rectitude that enables her to pass through trials and obscurity; to use a theological term, she possesses a kind of infused knowledge.
Rohmer’s film thus parallels Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Hermione, the spouse calumniated by King Leontes, arises from death as the music awakens the statue of her which they have come to admire in the chapel. We learn that Hermione has been kept alive in order to rediscover her lost daughter. Critics have often given a Christian interpretation to this scene and to the play, and so make it a parable of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Could we go further and suggest that there is a theology of the Immaculate Conception in Rohmer’s film? Why else would Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Mary’s apparition under this title, find a place in this film? In an interview, Rohmer perhaps answers this question. He describes Felicie’s personality in these words: “She has an innate knowledge, a more spontaneous reaction than do masculine personalities.” The journalist, who knows his author, then adds: “This thing that is natural . . . could you call it grace?” Rohmer responds: “I have not gone so far. But nothing can stop you from doing so.”
Eric Rohmer does not present himself as a theologian, but nothing can stop us from thinking him one.