"Existential cool" is a hard mood to pull off, because it can so easily veer into enervation, or self-parody. Or in the case of Autumn, a lot of both. Writer-director Ra'up McGee—an American in Paris, working through his Jean-Pierre Melville jones—sets Autumn in the sparsely populated realm of professional killers, who spend more time knocking each other off and brooding about it then they do engaging any civilian targets. McGee knows all the Gallic art-pulp clichés, and he photographs them handsomely, from assassin Laurent Lucas doing a hit in a leaf-strewn forest, to the hushed, blue-tinted kitchen where crime boss Michel Aumont makes an omelet. Going by look alone, Autumn is handsomer than any of the movies it's ripping off.
But it doesn't help McGee's case that Melville has had a recent revival in American arthouses, making Autumn less a heartfelt homage to a revered French filmmaker than a direct, pale competitor to movies that audiences can see right now, on DVD and in theaters. It's easy to see what directors like Melville or Jacques Becker have over McGee: For one, their characters don't talk so damn much. The killers of Autumn jabber away at each other, whether they're chewing on an apple and boasting, "After killing, I used to have to wait an hour before I could eat," or tenderly touching a little boy's cheek and saying, "Every day I wake up frightened, just like you." The film's ponderousness and pretension aren't inherent faults, except when they lead to scenes like the one where Aumont plays a highly metaphorical game of bocce and tells Lucas before a roll, "I have a choice. I can get myself closer, or knock you away."
The one bit of artsy business that McGee pulls off well is the recurring image of snapshots, serving as a kind of map to who these people were and who they're becoming. When Lucas visits old friend Irène Jacob—a decision that sets the movie's hard-to-follow, ultimately irrelevant plot in motion—they look through an old photo album, which McGee presents in a series of beautiful dissolves, set to a rich symphonic score. It's a nice moment that adds to the wistful, autumnal tone. If only McGee had resisted trying to tie those images of the past to the present, and having Lucas and Jacob's childhood relationship be the key to why they've become both hunters and hunted. It's hard enough to care about why these people are striking fashion-model poses and shooting at each other without having to think about their poor, bruised inner children.