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THE FRENCH sure do like to make love a complicated, entangled affair. Or at least that's how it seems with the latest film from that wise old hand at things romantic, French filmmaker Eric Rohmer.

Rohmer's "Autumn Tale," the final film of the critically acclaimed "Tales of the Four Seasons," is all artifice. But it is so delicately and beautifully wrought and so sensitively played by a marvelous cast that the film is like a breath of real life passing fleetingly by. A complete contrivance as far as plot is concerned, the film nonetheless gently displays all the nuances of feeling that human beings habitually experience when confronted with a love interest -- or even the possibility of a love interest -- on the horizon.

With a great cast led by Marie Riviere and Alain Libolt, the film trips through an enchanting story in which most everyone is fretting over everyone else's love life. And love in Rohmer's world is an illusive and fabulously fluid thing that only occasionally settles into anything like permanence. In the particular autumn of the film, one love ends (maybe), another begins (possibly) and one endures (definitely). And then there's a marriage of young folk whose passion -- if it exists at all -- Rohmer slyly keeps out of view.

Two conflicting but equally manipulative matchmakers are at work: Isabelle (Riviere) and Rosine (Alexia Portal). Both are trying to get a man for the widowed Magali (Beatrice Romand) -- now a neurotic hermit who makes her own distinctive brand of Cote du Rhone wine. When we meet her, Magali would rather tend to "her art" -- winemaking -- than deal with anything remotely approaching romance. Rosine and Isabelle are out to change that insular attitude.

Rosine is a young beauty with a mean-spirited ambivalence about love that many grown-up filmgoers may see as merely part of the charm of youth. She has recently broken it off with Etienne (Didier Sandre), her former philosophy teacher and a man close to 20 years her senior. They're in the post-romance friendship phase, with Rosine tossing off criticism of her former lover disguised as small talk. This friendship stage is severely tested by Etienne's tendency to want to put his hands all over her.

Meanwhile, Rosine is going out with Magali's son, Leo (Stephane Darmon), whom she treats shabbily. "I'll see you Saturday?" he asks. "Theoretically, yes," she answers. She doesn't love him in the least. He's temporary, she tells Etienne, claiming that it is Magali she loves.

Rosine, whose mind works in a complex of interlocking angles, has a solution for all these complexities: She will fix up Magali with Etienne. Then, when the two live together, she can have access to the friendship of both, all free and clear of any romantic involvement -- theoretically, of course. And Leo? He's never home anyway and thinks his mother is a vampire.

While Rosine plots, the happily married Isabelle has taken out a personal ad -- against Magali's express wishes -- to scout out a man for her reclusive friend. At this point one might say the plot thickens -- except that with a Rohmer story, whatever the complexity, all remains magically transparent.

In any case, the meeting between Isabelle and Gerald (Libolt) -- who has no idea of the ruse and thinks he's face to face with a potential lover -- are among the most entrancing of the film. Libolt is an actor who knows how to make even the unbelievable believable. He is a wonder to watch. In what is in cinematic terms a near-farcical situation, he and Riviere never once let on that what they are doing is a kind of subterranean comedy. Every word and expression seems unforced and perfectly apt to a "real life" that couldn't possibly be.

Predictably, all this devilish meddling ultimately leads to a collision. But it is a collision of beauty. All the varied wiles of matchmakers, erstwhile lovers and potential lovers bounce around a bit and then slide gently into place. Nothing is exactly resolved. Romantically, some people are left hanging; others, caught in the wake of fresh potential, are left hoping. Just as in life.

Autumn Tale

Rating: **** 1/2

Eric Rohmer's final film of the critically acclaimed "Tales of the Four Seasons," with a cast including Marie Riviere, Alain Libolt, Alexia Portal, Beatrice Romand and Didier Sandre.

Rated PG, in French with English subtitles. Opens tonight at the North Park Theater.

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