Wednesday 15 May 2019

On Blu-ray - Scott Murray remembers Joan Chen's 'achingly beautiful' AUTUMN IN NEW YORK (2000)

According to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it appears I am one of the few people in the world who adores Joan Chen’s Autumn in New York. These sites rate it at 4.1/10 and 2.4/10, respectively.

The reviews I have read are also almost universally unkind. Not even those who rightly highlight films directed by women seem to have shown any fondness for this movie at all.

However, I am not actually alone in my love of this film. A few years back, it was reported that Autumn in New York was the most illegally downloaded movie in the world. Some people have great taste (though I would naturally prefer that the filmmakers got their just royalties).

Autumn in New York is the love story of Manhattan restaurateur Will Keane (Richard Gere) and young hat-designer Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder). It was written by Allison Burnett, who wrote the fabulous Feast of Love (directed by Robert Benton) and several novels and is also a director (including Ask Me Anything, from his novel, Undiscovered Gyrl).

As someone who from day one wrote endlessly about Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo and the greatness of Richard Gere, I actually like Gere more in Autumn. Even though his character in Gigolo– a male escort – is playing a part, there are times Gere is fractionally too noticeably playing a person playing a part. 

In Autumn, however, I surrender totally to the belief that he is a womanising restaurateur, greedy for experience and scared of getting too close. (If you study the Enneagram, he is the archetypical Type 7.)

Winona Ryder, Richard Gere Autumn in New York
As for Winona Ryder, she is as incandescent here as the young Audrey Hepburn, heart-breakingly mesmeric and allowing herself to appear more fragile than we have seen her before. 

That fragility is so intense that some of Charlotte’s close-ups are almost too much to bear. It is like being blinded with light – or by grace (as Schrader might say) or the existence of the divine (as Robert Bresson most certainly wouldn’t say, although every moment of every film he has ever made declares otherwise).

Both actors are perfect and I believe absolutely, as I do in so few modern romantic movies, that Will and Charlotte are actually in love. Yes, a major issue imperils that love,but I love the women’s-movie genre and I am fascinated by films where a lover dies. Because people’s lives are about falling in love and dying. 

To me, what this genre does best are stories, like here, where the doomed (usually a woman) saves the partner, as in – to name just two gems – Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield and Jean-Jacques Beneix’s 37.2o le Matin (Betty Blue). (The latter was scored by Gabriel Yared, who also scored Autumn, superbly.) 

I don’t care about the gender of the person who dies, I just love the storytelling concision. A few months of the character togetherness is enough to make the point. 

Autumn in New York is set (as the title so clearly announces) in autumnal – and snow-bound – New York. The city has never looked more gorgeous, more romantic or filled with such kindly souls. (I particularly like the sweet doorman played by Bill Raymond and an absent daughter played by Vera Farmiga.)

Autumn is Chen’s second film as a director but feels like her twentieth. How does anyone master the craft so quickly, so effortlessly? Her compositions are precise and resonant, and her DOP, Gu Changwei (Red SorghumLife on a String), supports her by capturing rare wonders of light and colour. It is achingly beautiful.

Yes, like the weather, the film’s second half turns sombre, the colours muted and the locations increasingly claustrophobic, but it also full of surprises.

When one of the lovers dies, Chen focuses not exclusively on the pain of the lover, family and friends, but also on the deep anguish of a surgeon (J. K. Simmons) who has been asked to pull off a never-before-attempted operation. The tension is as much about his triumphing – a man cursed by genius and asked only to do what others can’t – as about a precious and valued life being saved. (This unexpected and poignant shift in our focus reminds me of the great John Ford.)

I have no idea of how happily or otherwise this film was made, whether the director and writer were always eye to eye, but the collaboration feels seamless, and the understanding with the actors close to note-perfect.

Yes, the film falters slightly at the 46-minute mark (during a listless scene in the kitchen of Will’s best friend), but I would happily rate the opening 46 minutes against any other recent Hollywood romance. 

I don’t care that Autumn never consistently sings quite so perfectly again, despite mostly wonderful scenes. Perfection may be an artist’s ultimate aim, but sometimes perfection feels dead. The minor flaws here don’t impinge in any way on this story’s joys and sadnesses, or the way it merges with and enriches our own experiences of love. (And I am not even sure they are flaws; I suspect they may be more to do with me being caught up in the sadnesses of others, one trapped in a negative view of their core self, and the other battling life and a partner afraid to let go.) 

Some don’t like the film because it is an age-gap story, with Will 26 years older than Charlotte. There is nothing one can do about that, just as there is nothing I can do about feeling I have already seen enough violent Hollywood movies to last me several lifetimes. 

And, in the history of Hollywood mainstream age-gap movies, who else but Chen and Burnett have had the courage to raise absent-father and -daughter issues, to offer delicate insights into the vagaries of caring, and of need, that in no way diminish the characters or their love story.

But, as in Feast of Love, Burnett goes even further, discussing, almost subliminally, connections – soul contracts – between people and across time. The moment when the long-absent daughter places a hand on her belly as her yet-unborn child kicks (you’ll understand) is heart-stopping.

In addition to all these pleasures, some of the most touching moments involve Will and his business partner (Anthony LaPaglia, never better). What we see is how many men behave and care, but cinema too rarely recognises.

And sometimes men in fact cry. The shot of Michael Marnet (Charles Boyer) weeping at the end of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair is one of the reasons I place it as No. 3 in my all-time Top 10, and incidentally why I prefer it to An Affair to Remember, because Cary Grant can’t cry on screen. Richard Gere can.

Unlike with a film directed by say Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion, one would be challenged to argue Autumn in New York is more obviously made by a woman than Bobby Deerfield. Instead, it feels perfectly balanced between – and outside – gender. 

Autumn in New York is about two souls lucky enough to meet and be together and share moments of life, and then argue and break apart, and then come together again and, in the ecstasy of their rekindled love, face death.

Buy Autumn in New York on Amazon 

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