In Sebastien Betbeder’s playfully arty “2 Autumns, 3 Winters,” three protagonists offer self-conscious riffs on their every thought and action, directly addressing the camera to describe past happenings, present happenings or what’s about to occur momentarily. Mundane actions, trite exchanges and life-altering events all undergo the same literary alchemy, creating a matter-of-fact, Woody Allen-ish sense of complicity with the viewer. Maintaining a bemused, sometimes comic distance, Betbeder traces how happenstance crystallizes into biography as his characters traverse the titular seasons, with results that will delight some and alienate others.
At age 33, Arman (Vincent Macaigne, rapidly being knighted as the new Jean-Pierre Leaud of the new New Wave), an ex-art student now working at odd jobs too “unimportant” to be dwelt upon by the director or by Armand himself, resolves to change his life, which seems to involve nothing much more than jogging in the park. There he literally runs into his future main squeeze, Melanie (Maud Wyler), though they fail to hook up again until he unwittingly rescues her from a rape attempt, getting knifed in the belly for his trouble. A subsequent near-death experience (or maybe it’s just the morphine) includes a friendly tete-a-tete with his father and a lot of fluffy white space. Amelie, moved by his unintentional heroics, comes to visit in the hospital, their relationship developing apace.
Armand is also visited by Benjamin (Bastien Bouillon), his best friend from art school. The two recount their youthful experiences in a cafe through a mix of desultory conversation, voiceover, flashbacks and excerpts from Benjamin’s — and Betbeder’s — student film. On the way back from the hospital, Benjamin experiences his own close encounter with the Grim Reaper, a stroke that leaves him fallen and unable to move, half-hidden in some bushes overnight. His casual running description of his brush with death, like Arman’s running commentary on his own stabbing, reads like an absurdist downplaying of mortality.
These constant commentaries — oncamera or off, in voiceover or direct speech, against matted-in backgrounds or else popping up unexpectedly in the middle of a scene, often switching from one mode to another or from one character to another in mid-sentence — form the essence of “2 Autumns.” Betbeder even conjures a character, Benjamin’s sister Lucie (Pauline Etienne), who communicates with her bro telepathically (with accompanying visual and audio distortion).
When Armand calls Amelie to ask her over for dinner, his invitation is a masterpiece of babbling circumlocution involving Robert Bresson’s “Four Nights of a Dreamer” and the fact that he has a fridge where he can put stuff. Indeed, Betbeder relies on Macaigne’s casually hilarious streams-of-consciousness (his description of the French version of “Survivor” is a keeper) to offset the more straightforward (and less frequent) monologues of the other two characters. Arman ultimately resigns himself to the life he had initially sought to reinvent, a particularly bittersweet turn of events in the film’s continual, quasi-ironic mediation of experience.
Betbeder and lenser Sylvain Verdet chose to shoot the film in the square Academy ratio, which, as in Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” evokes an earlier cinematic era. In this case, Betbeder and Verdet are channeling the Nouvelle Vague, an effect doubled by the frequent use of grainy 16mm stock. The film’s alternation of 16mm and HD also serves as a visual analogue for the distance between direct experience and its verbal recounting.