In terms of representation of the seasons within film, it is winter and summer that are often noted as having a particularly secure aesthetic and generic purpose. Winter rom-coms à la Love Actually and Bridget Jones allow us to kid ourselves that we’ll all fall in love against a background of snow-covered, West London townhouses, whilst the coming-of-age summer classics such as Grease and Mamma Mia do the same but with a hotter beachside backdrop. Where, then, does autumn fit in?
On closer inspection, the relevance of autumn within the rom-com genre is far more nuanced and purposeful than other seasons. Autumn acts as a transitional time period, in which characters who appear simultaneously formed and flawed are encouraged to forge new connections before the restrictions of winter set in.
In Love Story, for example, there is a scene where Oliver and Jenny discuss their future on a walk through the Harvard campus during autumn term. When Jenny references the possibility of their relationship ending after the ‘holiday’ of university ends, Oliver proposes.
In this instance, the seasonal setting of the film acts to represent its overarching conflict: between the idealism of youth and the reality of adulthood. Autumn is both protective and provocative, a crucible for the narrative’s development.
The liminality of autumn is also often displayed by filmmakers through their use of colour palettes. Wes Anderson is ultimately iconic for his strong, Van Goghian palettes seen in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where he uses rich orange and yellow tones to generate an autumnal feel that appears to simulate the flush of a sunset. This likeness of being caught in ‘golden hour’ asserts a sense of comfort and surrealism, reinforcing the story as one ground in a fleeting and precious reality – childlike imagination.
The nostalgic aspect of autumnal films is further exaggerated in their soundtracks. Regardless of genre, jazz standards are a popular choice, offering familiarity to their audiences and romantic undertones. In When Harry Met Sally, as the two titular characters stroll through New York discussing recurring sex dreams, a version of ‘Autumn in New York’ can be heard. Though an on-the-nose choice, it causes the inelegance of the conversation topic and the awkwardness of their delivery to be propelled to imperfect charm. Real life, the music asserts, is lived in autumn – it is quirky but memorable in the best of senses.
More mundane elements – such as clothing – in autumnal films also serve specific purposes. Knitwear holds a special place in the wardrobe departments’ hearts as an indicator of cooler weather and as clothing often symbolic of sentimentality based on its frequently hand-made origin. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out manipulates these associations when the killer wears a cream cable knit jumper for the majority of the film. Here, the soft, harmlessness of autumn is used to elevate the shock of the revelation.
Regardless of genre, the use of autumn within film should command as much of a following as its winter and summer counterparts. As an intermediary season, it serves as a setting that fosters characters’ challenges and development. Aesthetically and auditorily, it imbues a film with nostalgia, and offers a space for play upon the audience’s emotions and expectations. It is, in many ways, the perfect setting for films which seek to depict the reality of the aspects that make us human: complexity, contradiction and connection.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng