• Vincent Macaigne and Maud Wyler in 2 Autumns, 3 Winters

Romantic comedies about white, college-educated thirtysomethings are a dime a dozen, which is why I had fairly low expectations for 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, despite having read Michael Castelle’s laudatory write-up on CINE-FILE over the weekend. Yet this buoyant French indie, which plays again tonight at 6 PM and tomorrow at 8:30 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center, has little of the smugness or complacency I’ve come to associate with the genre. In fact, one of its central themes is learning to accept disappointment as a basic fact of adult life—and this sense of resignation stands in marked opposition to the gentle surface tone, the conflict generating a steady nervous energy that makes the film’s 90 minutes seem to zip by.

The narrative feels especially brisk since writer-director Sébastien Betbeder has broken the story into 40 bite-sized chapters, frequently shifting perspective between the four major characters. As in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut or Milan Kundera, the plot doesn’t seem to unfold but rather accumulate through brief, witty observations. The episodic structure allows Betbeder to try out all sorts of ideas, such as fantasy sequences, philosophic interludes, and brief analyses of other movies, ranging from Four Nights of a Dreamer to Funny People. He also experiments with different shooting formats, sometimes switching between 16-millimeter film and HD video within the same scene.

This might sound like 2 Autumns has more style than substance, but I think Betbeder has invited this criticism knowingly. His protagonists, though hardly superficial, are even less distinctive than they think themselves to be. Arman and Benjamin are old chums from art school, now in their early 30s and pounding the pavement in Paris. Both have more or less given up on their creative pursuits, yet they continue to thrive on art, experiencing the passion they felt as students whenever they attend movies and gallery exhibitions. Life’s not so bad, all in all. The city is full of art, personalities, and pleasant distractions—here, one can enjoy a creative life without even having to create anything. Betbeder’s heroes are classic flaneurs, city dwellers who turn idleness into an art form—and whom the philosopher Walter Benjamin, in his unfinished Arcades Project, deemed crucial to modern urban experience.

These men come to question their way of life after circumstances force them to confront their mortality. During the first winter under observation, Arman gets stabbed in the gut when trying to save a strange woman, Amélie, from muggers; Benjamin suffers an unexpected stroke. Keeping with rom-com convention, these accidents prove blessings in disguise. Arman’s act of bravery endears him to the beautiful Amélie, and Benjamin ends up with Katia, the comely young speech therapist assigned to him at the hospital. And so, these gadabouts take steps towards conventional domestic life. Everything seems to be going well until the second winter, when all four start to wonder whether they’re settling down or simply settling.

Betbeder doesn’t present any of this stuff as heavy. His characters are privileged and know it—even when they directly address the camera and tell us about their anxieties, they do so in a modest, self-effacing way. Yet the low-key, conversational vibe doesn’t keep Betbeder from scoring some poignant insights. There’s an eloquence to his dialogue—Betbeder takes obvious pleasure in descriptive language, using it to compensate for his relatively simple imagery. The steady flow of ideas and narrative incidents makes 2 Autumns feel densely packed for a low-budget movie. Like his characters, Betbeder wants to make every observation count, to focus only on those fleeting impressions he might transform into the stuff of cinema. In Godard’s Masculine-Feminine, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character famously talks about going to the movies in hopes of seeing the one he wanted to live in. Betbeder seems to have taken that sentiment as the starting point for 2 Autumns. He concludes, optimistically, that life is always cinematic if we allow it to be.