Like everything else, the secret of a good wine is in the timing: the timing of the grape-picking, the fermentation, the breathing. And the timing is just right in Autumn Tale, a luminous story set in the winemaking country of France; director Eric Rohmer, in his late 70s when the film was made, clearly waited until this particular bottle had reached the proper maturity. At the center of the film is the friendship between two gracefully middle-aged women: Vineyard owner Magali (Beatrice Romand, star of the previous Rohmer gems Claire's Knee and Le Beau Mariage), blunt and compact, is currently unattached. Isabelle (Marie Rivière, from Summer), willowy and slightly ditzy, is married--and would like to see Magali happily wed. A matchmaking scheme via the personal ads leads to a gentle, amusing, yet increasingly profound romantic confusion.
At first glance, the film may seem like sun-dappled simplicity itself, but stick around for the final moments at the very tail of the end credits, and you'll appreciate the wise mingling of longing, satisfaction, and regret that have been percolating through the movie all along. Rohmer likes to make films in groups (the "Six Moral Tales" launched him onto the international film stage in the 1960s), and Autumn Tale rounds off a set devoted to the four seasons. The other films in the quartet are worthy enough, and Rohmer has the kind of adornment-free clarity that many great artists develop after a lifetime's worth of craft, but Autumn Tale is the best of the bunch: a warm, quiet masterpiece. --Robert Horton