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Over the past three decades, cinema has shown us a force of nature more resolute and intimidating than the various crocodiles, sharks, and witches that have assaulted movie screens this summer: the Eric Rohmer heroine. Intelligent and resourceful, if sometimes myopic, this woman is inexorable in her quest for romance, whether for herself or for a friend. Rohmer’s latest film features two such women, and, because both have designs on the same pal, a Hollywood marketing wiz might well have titled the movie Double Team. True to his gentler nature and modest designs, however, Rohmer has called it Autumn Tale.

Rohmer has arranged most of his films into one of three series, and this is the last in his current tetralogy, “Tales of the Four Seasons.” The methodical Rohmer revisits many of his favorite themes and situations. Yet the 79-year-old writer-director still restlessly seeks new realms within his well-traveled territory. This is the first of his works to contemplate the romantic life of middle-aged women—a shift Rohmer emphasizes by bringing back two actresses who have appeared in several of his films. Although the director has employed relatively few performers more than once, Marie Riviere has appeared in three Rohmer features, Beatrice Romand in five; at the time of her first, 1970’s Claire’s Knee, Romand was so young that she was cast as the bratty younger sister, although she went on to play the designing young woman in 1982’s Le Beau Mariage.

In Autumn Tale, Romand is Magali, a widowed empty-nester who runs her late father’s vineyard in the Rhone valley. At the insistence of her best friend, small-town bookseller Isabelle (Rivie#re), Magali concedes that she’d like to meet a new man, but she has no intention of varying her routine to do so. When she rejects the notion of a personal ad, Isabelle places one for her, even going so far as to meet the most promising candidate, dapper salesman Ge#rald (Alain Libolt), for a few lunch dates before revealing that she is acting as the unknowing Magali’s surrogate.

Audacious as it is, this gambit is less brazen than the one devised by Magali’s young friend Rosine (Alexia Portal). Rosine is the diffident girlfriend of Magali’s son Leo (Ste#phane Darmon), who attends college in a nearby town. Rosine admits that her relationship with the drab Leo is merely a temporary measure as she adjusts to life after the more passionate affair she recently ended with an older man, her former teacher Etienne (Didier Sandre). Rosine is very fond of Magali, but when she decides to introduce her to Etienne it’s only partially for Magali’s happiness; the younger woman has also decided that she can’t be friends with Etienne again after he’s settled down with a woman close to his own age. (His actual interest in doing so can be judged by the fact that he only agrees to consider the idea in order to please the vivacious young Rosine.)

That this sun-dappled, languidly southern tale actually transpires in fall is disclosed by Magali’s imminent grape harvest, a metaphor for well-seasoned men and women that’s unusually didactic for Rohmer. The scenario’s other primal event is the wedding of Isabelle’s daughter, a minor character whose nuptials serve as the occasion for Magali to meet Ge#rald—and Etienne. Rohmer regulars can anticipate the potential for well-mannered, overly analytical complications, although the presence of the hotheaded Magali raises the possibility of an unusually fiery finale. As always, Rohmer balances stylized plot and dialogue with naturalistic settings and real emotions, with results that are as bracingly cinematic as those of any car-crashing, bombs-busting action flick.

In outline, the plot suggests farce, as does Rohmer’s long-customary opposition of romantically conniving women and gently thunderstruck men. (Gerald, Etienne, and Leo all have quietly hilarious moments when the full extent of Isabelle or Rosine’s conspiracy is finally revealed to them.) Yet Rohmer’s generosity toward his characters provides warmth where lesser directors might have opted for fury, humanity where lesser writers might have provided for burlesque. The director hardly needed to have Magali and Isabelle explicitly articulate the case for the well-aged vintage; his own career makes the point much more elegantly.

Jonathan Kaplan’s first directing gigs were for Roger Corman, who used to produce babes-behind-bars flicks that were unburdened by redeeming social value. But Kaplan’s babes-behind-bars Brokedown Palace, inspired by the horror stories producer Adam Fields heard on the international backpackers’ circuit, is nothing so amusingly lurid. You can tell just how vivid an experience it’s going to be when newly graduated Ohio high school buddies Alice Marano (Claire Danes) and Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale) check into a $6-a-night Bangkok guesthouse and find nothing more objectionable than a lone cockroach.

A sort of Midnight Express for My So-Called Life fans, Brokedown Palace is well-meaning and not especially glib. Still, for a parable of self-discovery and redemption in one of the world’s less agreeable penitentiary systems, it is exceptionally mild. It’s unlikely that any prison movie has ever made being sent to the Hole seem less dreadful. Indeed, the film’s ambiguously multiculti trip-hop score (Tricky, PJ Harvey, Joi, Delerium, Asian Dub Foundation) almost succeeds in making Thai prison life seem chic.

Alice and Darlene are sent to the titular slammer after being busted with what looks to be one of the largest stashes of heroin ever confiscated at Bangkok’s airport. Exactly which of the young women is responsible is part of the mystery. Alice has long been the naughty one, her brashness and duplicity associated with an upbringing so downscale that her dad is played by perennially seedy X-man John Doe. (It’s Alice who plots the trip to Thailand, getting Darlene to tell her parents they’re headed for Hawaii.) But upscale Darlene is the more romantic of the two, and thus more likely to have been snowed by smooth-talking Aussie drug smuggler Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), who invited the young women to Hong Kong—on a flight he wouldn’t be taking. Figuring out exactly what happened falls to the legal team of “Yankee Hank” Greene (Bill Pullman) and his Thai spouse, Yon (Jacqueline Kim). One guy who knows something is flamboyant Bangkok-based DEA agent Roy Knox (Lou Diamond Phillips in yet another supporting role fashioned from pure ham).

Scripted by David Arata from a story by him and Fields, Brokedown Palace is a cautionary tale and fictionalized expose. (The movie is so critical of the Thai police and courts that the filmmakers had to shoot in the Philippines.) What it’s not is an expressive psychological drama. After supervising Bonnie Bedelia in Heart Like a Wheel, Jodie Foster in The Accused, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field, Kaplan has a reputation as a skilled director of actresses. But here Danes is merely plucky, and Beckinsale (who hasn’t had a great part since Cold Comfort Farm) has never been blander. Beckinsale has called the film “a kind of love story,” but the intensity of the friends’ bond is not palpable.

Neither, for that matter, is the bedlam of Bangkok. The film fails to conjure the city’s bouquet of sweat, incense, exhaust fumes, and peanut sauce, and the prison sequences are hardly the most pungent cinematic evocation of existence in a Third World pen. If Brokedown Palace convinces one naive American tourist not to head to the airport with smack in her backpack, it will have done its job. Still, aspects of the movie’s story are so courtly that they would be more plausibly set in a Victorian convent than a Thai prison. CP