Joan Chen's vision of Manhattan splinters gorgeously, a brilliant diamond of romantic decor and shameless swoon. Autumn in New York seems lost in time, a sketch-simple exemplar of an anachronistic genre -- the shameless, extravagant melodrama, or "woman's picture." Drawing on what may seem archaically extravagant plot turns, Chen does well by a style of melodrama practiced best by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, with movies such as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Movies simplify and exaggerate, or they captivate through mystery and ambiguity. Here the doomed lovers swan through a gorgeously concrete city, in a story of striking simplicity.
Glass and reflection refract the moods of two unlikely lovers, and New York is shown as a place of stone, cut glass and jangled hearts. Manhattan is Chen's visual aphorism for the May-October romance enacted by Winona Ryder and Richard Gere. While the script is studded with telling lines and a believable dance of flirting banter, confessions of need and shortcoming, it is also so simple in its contours as to seem almost inconsequential to the unromantic eye. (That is, most men -- Autumn in New York may have benefited by MGM's choice to withhold the film from the reviews of middle-age, white male critics last week.)
The story is simple: Restaurateur Will Keane meets young girl, Charlotte Fielding, on her 21st birthday in his eatery. Ever the womanizer, he pulls a romantic stunt to awe her. They fall in bed. The next morning, he tells her there's no future in their pairing: she says she knows; she's dying. Ah! Love Story! But to paraphrase that film's famous phrase, melodrama means never having to say you're sorry, unless it is to prostrate yourself and beg for mercy for your endless litany of flaws and abuses. (Gere's Will, who behaves badly, gets a couple of those scenes.)
Yet Autumn in New York is precisely what it should be: a simple, even blunt, romantic melodrama. In Italian, with subtitles, it would be embraced, making arthouse millions for Miramax. As a fervent non-resident idolater of New York City, I can only say there is hardly a frame that does not confect a dreamy-dream Manhattan. Even in the invented decors, like the hardly glimpsed restaurant or Will's Greenwich Village penthouse, everything is precise and telling. Mark Friedberg's production design is nourishing, never grandiloquent, yet bursting with detail, matching Gu Changwei's in-close camera style. You could live in this life -- or at least freeze-frame an evening away.
And on the street of this lapidary, thriving, fairy-book Manhattan, there is Gu's smoky, honeyed light, and glimpses of reflected light, or a scrap of muslin tickling out a window into the breeze. His light, at dusky sunset, holds a silvery solidity. But that is the mood. The movie also actually gets down to the gulf of a May-October romance. Take, for instance, Charlotte's awed, giggly gawks to herself as she responds to Will on the phone, while the entire time, he's making an omelet we are shown only at scene's end, a plate-perfect presentation for only himself.
There's a crisp, forthright character to the banter that sparks their mutual seduction. There is Charlotte's line that is the simple essence of flirtation or romance or the exchange of eyelines between two people who like that the other is looking at them: "What should we do, Will, with this moment that we're in?" Then there are the voices of reason, the Greek chorus, as such stories must have: Here it's Will's disapproving partner (Anthony LaPaglia). But Charlotte is taken by Will's efforts: "You did all of that so you could get hold of me and muss me up?"
This portrait of Richard, unabashedly gray, acknowledges the ticking-clock gulf between the pair, and the plot forces it repeatedly. He can play at Cary Grant as she tickles at Audrey Hepburn, yet the joy of the movie comes from the sheer presence of city and swoon. A scene: They walk through Central Park. There is only the sound of an enchanted glade, not that of an urban oasis bounded by unceasing noise.
Autumn in New York is wistful about second chances and second-second chances -- and the willingness to make oneself naked and available to them. But I found the performances graceful and eager, watching the "nowness" of an instant between them. The contrivances of bold melodrama allow us a way into romance's instants, where every moment counts.