Autumn is a time of intense beauty but also – as anyone who’s felt a bittersweet pang as the nights draw in knows – of a poetic kind of waste that lends itself well to introspection.
In Todd Haynes’ gloriously autumnal Far from Heaven (2002), lush beauty forms a counterpoint to the film’s darker tale of repression and loss. Agnès Varda, on the other hand, positions decay as a nucleus of new life in her joyful harvest-time-set documentary The Gleaners and I (2000).
Halloween also falls in the middle of autumn, meaning horrors set among falling leaves are plentiful. The tension between beauty and death lends itself well to the genre, as do the deceptive nature of Halloween costumes, which are used to spine-tingling effect in Donnie Darko (2001) and Trick ‘r Treat (2007). There’s also something deeply comforting about hearing dark tales while you’re wrapped up safe and warm at home. It’s a mood Rian Johnson astutely channels in his seasonal murder mystery Knives Out (2019).
This list celebrates 10 of this century’s most interesting autumnal films – all of which bask in the visual glories of the season, but not without a meditative nod to life’s inevitable retreat into decay.
The Gleaners and I (2000)
Director: Agnès Varda
Firmly in the autumn of her life, French New Wave director Agnès Varda documented various kinds of gleaning (that’s collecting food left in the fields after harvest) across rural and urban France while meditating on old age, consumerism, cinema and heart-shaped potatoes.
Varda’s interviewees live off discarded food and other sundry offcasts, giving new life to the items they glean. Similarly, the filmmaker places herself in the grand tradition as a collector of stories and ideas. Embracing the freedom her handheld digital camera provides, she gives voice to the marginalised, turns ceiling mould into art, and transforms accidentally captured images (she forgot to turn her camera off) into idiosyncratic poetry through her ever-playful lens. In one scene, she films her own age-mottled hand closing around speeding trucks on the motorway. “To hold on to what’s passing by?” her voiceover asks. “No. Just for fun.” Like passing trucks, discarded TVs, leftover food and falling leaves, our possessions – even our own bodies – will eventually be left behind. But that doesn’t mean their story’s over.
American Splendor (2003)
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
American Splendor follows the trials and muted tribulations of eternally pessimistic author Harvey Pekar (dually appearing as himself, and played by Paul Giamatti) in this part-documentary, part-comic book adaptation of his life. Here, autumn hints at neither the approach of Christmas nor the melancholic romance of warmer days lost; we’re stuck somewhere at the dull end of fall. Browning leaves reflect the ailing bodies of people in the second halves of their lives; balding, a little overweight and burdened with chronic health conditions.
Years pass, but seasonally speaking we shuffle forwards and backwards mere weeks in this masterclass in cinematic ennui. As with Pekar’s comic of the same name, the ironically titled American Splendor ends up a kind of anti-bildungsroman: our protagonist remains perversely the same while the world changes around him. Much to his surprise, pockets of hope buoy him along into what he might have reluctantly called his golden years.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Director: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is no stranger to finding inspiration in seasonal hues, but it’s his 2009 stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox that takes unbridled joy in autumnal shades. Lashings of ochre and orange abound as we follow a family of foxes, led by the eponymous hero, who take full advantage of the bounties of the season. Here, autumn brings harvest and full larders, as well as omens of future hardship: the gathering stormclouds that Fox’s wife Felicity adds to her landscape paintings portend danger ahead.
Anderson stays faithful to Roald Dahl’s Mr Fox – part family-man, part conman – who sets his beady eyes on pillaging the stores of three local farmers. A prior close shave with their ilk means Mr Fox promised Felicity he’s out of the game, but like a true gambling addict he needs just one more hit. Except it never works out that way, does it?
Once upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Based on the true experiences of Ercan Kesal, one of the film’s writers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia follows a group of men as they search for a dead body on the desolate Anatolian steppe.
Time feels eternal in this vast landscape, and human life brief. In the silences, wind sends cryptic ripples through decaying leaves. Ageing men stand huddled in their coats sharing sad stories, while parochial villages play host to generations of families where the young and beautiful will eventually fade like those before them. Ceylan brings this entwined sense of life and loss home in multiple virtuoso scenes, not least the closing image of a young boy kicking a football while his deceased father is mid-autopsy. Among all this death, there’s an unbreakable will to live – it’s just a sad fact of life that this child will end up on the same cold metal table as his father.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director: Thomas Alfredson
“We’re not so very different, you and I. We both spend our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time to recognise there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?” says the greying George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to former apprentice Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). He knows he’s given the best years of his life to a system that hollowed him out and left him empty – they all have – and it’s too late now. It’s a line that carries across more or less verbatim from John Le Carré’s novel of the same name to the 1979 BBC adaptation to Thomas Alfredson’s 2011 version, which is as much about espionage as it is about the quiet disappointments of people in their later years.
Filmed over three months from October to December, Alfredson’s Cold War yarn predominantly takes place in a London that’s uniformly drab with rain-slick streets under leaden skies. Though grey predominates, autumnal shades appear in orange upholstery, wall coverings and shirt ties, as well as browning leaves falling delicately on a corpse. There are many stories about how the system crushes those outside it; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy speaks eloquently of how it ruins those inside it.
The Hunt (2012)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
November. Rural Denmark. The nights are drawing in, hunting season is finished and the menfolk of a close-knit village are celebrating. With Christmas on the way, it’s a time for hunkering down and relaxing – and, after a tough year, things are looking up for Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a recently divorced schoolteacher. In a stark reminder that misfortune respects neither time nor season, a young girl in his class falsely accuses him of sexual abuse, and in the blink of an eye he finds himself at the centre of mass hysteria.
Suddenly, those yellowing leaves and misty forests that provided a cozy contrast to snug interiors appear as cold and unyielding as his former friends’ gaze. But time is healing, or so they say. We end the film a year on, with Lucas acquitted and welcomed back into the community. It’s the first day of the hunt: a calm, windless late afternoon with an eerily gorgeous light gilding the forest. Pathetic fallacy is hard to gauge. Does this otherworldly stillness mean peace or the eye of the storm? If Lucas has learned anything, it’s that autumn is not a time for rest.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Director: Peter Strickland
A woman cycles through a meadow flanked by trees just kissed by the colours of autumn. Flickering yellows and reds fill the screen while the Emmanuelle-esque opening credits include a tongue-in-cheek credit for ‘Perfume by Je Suis Gizella’, hinting at the heady world into which we’re soon to be plunged. It’s a love story about Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) – two women in a sadomasochistic relationship – but more than that it’s about the erotic tussle between decadence and restraint.
As he did with his 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland eschews straightforward narrative in favour of something that has more in common with experimental film. Stan Brakhage influences come in the form of flickering moth wings, their symmetry providing an obvious visual metaphor, while pinned versions nod to Cynthia and Evelyn’s carefully scripted routine. This is a world of sensual artifice; of mahogany and silk, chittering insects, the creak of leather boots on wood. The autumnal backdrop suitably reflects an over-ripeness that’s poised on the brink of decay.
It Follows (2014)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Films that roll through the seasons lull us into thinking life is cyclical; an endless parade of death and regeneration. Not so – life is linear, and there’s only one possible end to the journey. Such is the subtext of David Robert Mitchell’s remarkably accomplished second feature, which brings us into a surreal world where teenagers navigate a very specific kind of horror: a malignant, shapeshifting being that slowly yet relentlessly pursues its victim. Having sex passes the curse on to the unlucky partner, but only for as long as the new target lives – once they perish, it goes back down the line.
Visually, anachronisms and illogically changing seasons keep us unnervingly in transition (the film’s verdant backdrop changes from early to late autumn scene-by-scene) while providing a vertiginous sense of time passing. We may be watching people in the early summers of their lives, but death with its infinite faces lurks just ahead.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
For those in captivity the outside world and its passing seasons are doled out in meagre slices, through small windows placed (if you’re lucky) outwards rather than up. Unfortunately for Ma (Brie Larson) and her six-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – captives who’ve been locked away in Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) garden shed for seven years – a grimy skylight is their sole connection with the outside world.
For Jack, it’s the only connection he’s ever known, and when Ma tries to link images seen on a television screen with life outside, he wails in disbelief. After all, a featureless rectangle that routinely changes from blue to black to shades of grey hardly provides much in the way of supporting evidence. That is until a lone autumnal leaf lands on their little window – proof that trees, and possibly more, exist. Later, during an escape mission, Jack leaps from Old Nick’s truck and collapses on the sodden floor, overwhelmed. A fallen leaf provides another vital connective thread – this time, back to the shed where his mother is waiting for freedom.
The Rider (2017)
Director: Chloé Zhao
If there’s a single image in Chloé Zhao’s The Rider that serves as a metaphor for conditional possibility, it’s that of Brady (played by real horseman Brady Jandreau) riding across the sun-parched Dakota Badlands. The vast landscape of golden grass and thundery skies speaks of freedom but also of a claustrophobic kind of emptiness. For a young rodeo star recovering from a brain injury, riding is an act that paradoxically brings both danger and a vital connection with something larger than himself.
Zhao brings her trademark journalistic focus to her character study of the forgotten and downtrodden. This is a hyper-masculine world of bottled-up emotions and limited options, where being a cowboy is deeply rooted in personal identity. Counterpoints against a career that will most likely kill Brady come from his father and candidly honest sister (played by real-life father and sister Tim and Lilly Jandreau), who provide some of the film’s most touching moments. As the harsh midwestern summer mellows into autumn, our protagonist learns that shedding needn’t be an act of loss.
10 great films set during the autumn
With the nights drawing in and leaves falling from the trees, settle in with our 10-strong harvest of great autumnal movies.
By Sam Wigley
Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema
Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Try for free
Originally published: 22 September 2022