While there’s a fair share of television series that perpetually scream autumn — Friday Night Lights, Gilmore Girls, and Twin Peaks, to name a few — there’s correspondingly an array of films exploring the season’s multifacetedness.
Like the changing of the leaves, the leading relationship in When Harry Met Sally is gradually evolving and, in Juno, the protagonist is forced to face the consequence of what should’ve been some carefree summer fun. Exploring the gradual loss of natural daylight, Twilight’s blue tint adds ambience to its moody Pacific Northwest setting, while Prisoners’ bleak surroundings amidst the abduction of two young girls evoke feelings of desperation as time is running out.
Although these films feature a variety of autumnal backdrops, above all else, they entertain certain themes one might associate with autumn, including its eeriness, the complexity of familial relationships, the importance of garments, and the reminder that time is precious.
Xavier Dolan’s Hitchcockian Tom at the Farm is an ominous, slow-burning psychodrama that uses its autumnal secluded countryside setting to its advantage. When Tom (Dolan) travels to pay his respects to his deceased lover Guillaume’s family, he’s quickly drawn into a disturbing game helmed by the brother. In a pivotal scene, Tom runs through a massive cornfield, filled with the horror of not knowing how to escape from it or the one chasing him. As he finds himself in a clearing, anxiously trying to figure out where the threat will appear, the claustrophobic rows of vegetation seem to be closing in on him. With the colour of his dirty blonde hair mirroring his surroundings, it’s eerily silent — until it’s not. During the majority of the film, Dolan, who is no stranger to communicating meaning through the change of aspect ratios, uses a 1.85:1 ratio. However, when Guillaume’s manipulative brother catches up to Tom, the screen gets narrower the more violent the action gets. Eventually reaching a 2.35:1 ratio, this creative choice amplifies Tom realising the urgent danger of his situation.
Even though people regularly tell lies for the sake of others, often in a caring attempt to spare them from something that could hurt them, in Good Bye, Lenin! a lie is essentially what keeps the protagonist’s mother alive. In October 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alex’s (Daniel Brühl) mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) — a loyal socialist party member — falls into a coma after a heart attack. When she awakens eight months later, doctors say any jarring event could result in another possibly fatal attack, which prompts her son to attempt to conceal the recent societal changes. Though Alex initially lies to protect his mother, to some extent, he also does it to protect himself from the unfamiliar new world. Wrapped up in the sweet comfort of nostalgia, Alex keeps one foot in the known and one in the unknown as he tries to deliver a reunification that harbours less pain and erasure of personal memories, some of which are tied to specific brands and products. His country might never have existed, but it’s one he thinks his mother deserves.
As evident in Good Bye, Lenin!, few relationships carry as much complexity as the one between parent and child. While expectations within it might differ depending on culture, the duty children might feel towards their parents against their own aspirations creates conflicts that feel universal. Another filmmaker exploring this was Yasujirō Ozu, whose final film An Autumn Afternoon follows a father’s encouragement of his daughter’s marriage, even though he would feel unhappy about her departure from their home. The patriarch understands that he has a duty toward his daughter, and even though he will face loneliness, it hurts to know that it’s a fate that might also await his daughter. A sophisticated exploration of ageing, loneliness, and familial responsibility, An Autumn Afternoon underlines the idea that regardless of the outcome, it’s inevitable that in certain parent-child relationships, someone will end up hurting.
Similarly to Ozu, Richard Linklater regularly portrays the passing of time and its impact on the characters featured in his films. Framed by a selection of parties and the countdown to the start of classes, Everybody Wants Some!! follows a group of college baseball players in 1980s Texas. Without any noteworthy conflicts, the film spends most of its runtime simply taking its time enjoying its characters and setting. The perception of time is a peculiar thing. While all days are technically the same length, some days feel like they fly by, while others feel like forever. Nonetheless, time passes, as time always does. Everybody Wants Some!! is a joyously romantic idea of college, and how even though everything learned in class might fade with time, every foolish thing carried out with friends will last forever.
Truth be told, autumn has rarely looked as stunning as it does in Fantastic Mr. Fox. A beautiful display of burnt oranges, golden yellows, and rich browns, the stop-motion animation is a touching adventure for all ages. After returning to his old farm-raiding days, the titular character Mr Fox (George Clooney) is forced to help his family and community survive the retaliation of the local farmers. Equal parts heist film, familial drama, and a coming-of-age tale, with a touch of a midlife crisis, Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more than its charming exterior. A prominent theme lingering throughout the film is the inner conflict between animal nature and domestication — between the wild and civilised — and how juxtaposing elements of what one is and should be is a difficult balancing act that rarely satisfies both sides.
Even though it arrives annually, autumn’s fluctuating temperatures always feel like a surprise. While many characters master the art of layering, their clothing also carries meaning. This is evident in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, where the outer garments worn by Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) mirror his change of heart. When viewers first encounter him, he wears a stiff tailored jacket underlining his rigidness, but after his failed rainy proposal, he starts using softer fabrics and different cuts. Towards the end, when walking through the misty field in the early morning, he wears his coat undone with its sides fluttering against him, now fully susceptible to giving in and shedding his protective layers.
In the technicolour dream All That Heaven Allows, about the social complications following a romance between affluent widow Cary (Jane Wyman) and her younger gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), the working man’s wardrobe of plaid flannel, wool jackets, and corduroys underlines that he’s a man used to manual labour. His prioritisation lies in durability and practicality, not prestige. Compare this mentality to that of the spoiled Ransom (Chris Evans) from the whodunit murder mystery Knives Out. He owns expensive items, yet he doesn’t value them — an attitude few can afford to entertain.
With the backdrop of a New England autumn, Knives Out features a scene-stealer — specifically, an Aran-style sweater — that turned viral before the film was widely accessible. Worn by Ransom, its off-white colour is fitting for a man who has never had to work hard or prioritise practicality over style. Moreover, its visible holes underline his indifference to someone else’s work for his benefit. During his earlier appearances on screen, Ransom keeps the sweater concealed, along with his true self. However, when manipulating his late father’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) into a confession, these layers are seemingly gone. Using the knitted garment to emphasise his homeliness, he uses it to create a faux-safe environment for the unassuming nurse.
The trail of melancholy that lingers heavy in the air through the transitions found within autumn all act as a reminder of not solely the fragility of time, but the fragility of human life and bodies. The Straight Story, referred to by David Lynch himself as his most experimental film, is based on the true story of Alvin Straight’s 1994 journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. After learning that his distant brother may not recover from a recent stroke, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) is determined to make things right before it’s too late, even if it means only moving at 8 kilometres an hour. Shot in chronological order along Straight’s actual route, there’s something magical in knowing that the changes Lynch captured in the Midwestern landscape mirror the gradual changes Straight himself experienced during his six weeks on the road. With the thematic intertwining of man and machine, both now a shadow of their former vigorous selves, to explore the fragility of life, The Straight Story ultimately accentuates that it’s the remaining life that matters, not what is lost through the years.
A vastly different yet complementary examination of this theme derives from Chloé Zhao’s The Rider. Seamlessly blending fact and fiction — the film uses exclusively non-professional Lakota actors from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, most of whom are portraying versions of themselves — the film asks what a cowboy becomes when he no longer can ride. Shot in the Badlands of South Dakota, the film uses its majestic landscape to highlight the coexisting alienation and freedom it evokes in protagonist Brady (Brady Jandreau), a young cowboy and saddle bronc rider at a crossroads in life after an injury leaves him unable to compete.
Besides being an intimate portrayal of masculinity, The Rider is a film about struggling to regain control of one’s fate, a difficult struggle since being a cowboy is deeply rooted in personal identity. Thus, Brady isn’t solely searching for something to occupy his days with, but something to feel aligned with. Every day he risks his life purely out of desperation to keep his identity — after all, that version of himself is all he has grown up to know — because his newly conflicted state lacks a sense of belonging. Zhao’s film respects the entire human experience, both its struggles and its eventual glimmers of hope, when trying to explore and differentiate between being alive and fully living.
Arguably the most poetic of seasons, autumn is a reminder that nothing lasts forever and all people can do is try to enjoy fleeting moments while they still can. While the aforementioned films collectively cover various interpretations of autumn, it’s possibly An Autumn Afternoon — specifically, its Japanese title — that most poignantly explains why this season aligns so strongly with the most human of emotions. The title refers to the sanma fish, a highly renowned autumnal food in Japanese cuisine. Even though its intestines are bitter, many still choose not to gut the fish, claiming that its bitterness — balanced by accompanying condiments — is part of its enjoyment.
A beautiful interpretation of life itself, the film’s title celebrates the significance of participating in the whole spectrum of life — even though its maze of darkness will bring hurt and pain like nothing else, its rewards will make it all worthwhile. These films all capture the multifacetedness of autumn, echoing its beautiful, perplexing, and delicate changes while acting as a reminder that even though experiences may intersect, no two people experience the season — or life — the same way.