In her book The New American Spirituality Elizabeth Lesser challenges us to learn respect for the feeling function: "Become aware and undo some of your cultural training so that you grant the moods and the messages of the heart the same respect that you give the thoughts and ideas of the mind." This romantic drama directed by Joan Chen (Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl) and written by Allison Burnett provides viewers with an opportunity to experience what the Buddhists call "a gentling of the heart."
Will (Richard Gere) is a middle-aged, very successful, and famous New York restaurateur. An unabashed womanizer, he experiments with his dates as if they were new dishes for his palette. In fact, Will believes that "food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes." This chef's heart is in the right place when it comes to cooking. But even his best friends John (Anthony LaPaglia) and Sarah (Sherry Stringfield) are taken aback at the hard-heartedness he displays toward women.
All of this changes when he first sees Charlotte (Winona Ryder) who's celebrating her twenty-second birthday with a small group of friends at his popular restaurant. Part of her allure, he realizes later, is that she's the daughter of a vivacious female friend from years ago who was tragically killed in an accident. When Will starts dating Charlotte, her lonely grandmother Dolly (Elaine Stritch) is wary of their relationship given his past history with her daughter.
The most powerful and profound love relationships are those in which our frozen hearts are defrosted and tenderized. Charlotte may be half Will's age but she has much to teach him. In one of the magic moments of the film, she asks him for his watch promising to return it when he no longer misses it. Living in the present moment is the métier of the heart even though the mind is jumping all over the place.
Charlotte helps Will to see himself as a person capable of love. Whereas previously he had been satisfied to have encounters with no strings attached, now he discovers the joy of being in a committed relationship and allowing someone else to take refuge in his presence. And best of all, Charlotte enables him to move beyond the isolating constriction of self-centeredness into a true kinship with the suffering of others.
This plays out in the story when Will's illegitimate daughter Lisa (Vera Farmiga) shows up in New York and arranges a meeting with him. With his newly discovered tenderness, Will is able to relate to her in love and reach out to the son she has brought into the world.
Joanna Macy, the Buddhist teacher, has written: "The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." We need more movies like Autumn in New York to help us cherish the feeling function.