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WHEN ERIC ROHMER (1920-2010) died the comment on everyone’s lips seemed to be that from Arthur Penn’s Night Moves in which private eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), says: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” This was actually a way of delineating the character of Moseby, but it brings up the concept of ‘action’ in cinema in a useful way. People want to believe that action, say a car chase scene, is more cinematic than, say, a love scene, which is static. Behind that is the wish to restrict film to be the conveyor of the emotion of excitement. This probably comes about because most Hollywood films are in fact remakes of The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S Porter’s 1903 film and the first action film. But the scope of film is much broader, and covers much of human behaviour. And incredible as it may seem, we reveal most of our deepest emotions simply by talking about them, even if in an imperceptive, indirect way.
Rohmer’s films are all about the gap between the mundane things that happen to us – and falling in love is one of these – and the tragic stature these events have merely because they happen to US. When your girl tells you she doesn’t want you the invasion of the Star Troopers and the impact of the Death Star suddenly fade into insignificance, even if you tell your friends it’s alright, you didn’t really love her anyway. It’s a question of perspective. The conversations in Rohmer are the most important thing in life – to the characters having them. Listening to the conversation in an action film, by contrast, is like watching paint dry.
Anyone who doesn’t think filmed conversation can be essentially cinematic needs to watch Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. For a refinement of this, they should watch Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, where intense drama is evoked by what the characters do NOT say.
Comedies and Proverbs
After a hiatus of some years Rohmer returned to film with what he called “Comedies and Proverbs”, a series similar in some ways to the earlier “Six Moral Tales”. As one of these six, My Night at Maud’s, is ostensibly concerned with Pascal, it might be relevant to remember Pascal’s famous saying from his 1671 Les Pensées, “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point,” or, “The heart has its reasons that Reason knows nothing of.”
The films I watched (yet again) are part of an eight DVD release by England’s Arrow Films, and include conversations with Rohmer about each film which are as good as the films themselves and reason enough for buying the set. Although it is true all these films are variations on a theme, they are also mostly different to one another in style, manner and viewpoint, and the humour is by turns wry, sarcastic, satirical and burlesque. Like the novelist he is Rohmer never presents a bad character, just confused, troubled and imperceptive human beings.
The Aviator’s Wife (La femme de l’aviateur) 1981
The proverb “On ne saurait penser à rien” (You can’t think of nothing) could be interpreted “You can’t think of others when you think of yourself”.
This delicate depiction of youthful jealousy has much of its humour in its observation of how absurd it is to expect certainty in romantic love. Yet, at the age of François, the main protagonist, most likely the only real experience of love he has would have been that of parental love. It’s much more fostering than romantic love: a good parent is always there for their child. François is about to learn that falling in love is a very risky business indeed.
The age of the characters is important. The three main characters are 15, 20 and 25. Marie Rivière (Anne) was that age (24) when the film was made (she was to make 9 films with Rohmer); Philippe Marlaud (François) was 20 (he was to die the following year from burns suffered in a camping injury); Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) looks 15, but I can’t find her birthdate (she made 3 films with Rohmer). Also in the film is Fabrice Luchini, who made 6 films for Rohmer. Many of the actors here first came together for Rohmer’s 1978 film Perceval le gallois.
Paris is a main character: the environment in which people exist is just as important to Rohmer as what they say or do. Rohmer takes the viewer on an exciting and evocative travelogue of Paris streets, shops and apartments and somehow it helps make sense of the mess the characters get themselves into. Also important is the actor’s body language and facial expression: a moué, a twitch of the lips, a shrug all add to what is being expressed, give it a certain colour. Rohmer was 60 when he made the film, able to write incredibly accurate dialogue for his 20 something actors, and elicit perfect delivery from them.
The film is also a reflection on the intersection of romantic love and so-called real life. The aviator’s wife never appears, but, offstage, she controls the action. She becomes pregnant, her husband sees it is time to end his philandering ways and settle down, and breaks off with one of his girlfriends. And so the film begins. The girl, Anne (Marie Rivière), disturbed and distraught, finds the insecurity of her young lover oppressive. He, jealously watching the movements of the aviator, finds himself attracted to a young girl, only to find that she has a boyfriend. And so the plot unfolds, with the precision of Mozart’s Figaro or The School for Wives (L’école des femmes) by Molière, and also with the naturalness of a pebble thrown in a pond and sending out ripples in ever widening circles.
These are real people, and if you cannot feel for them – then: “you can’t think of nothing”. Watching other people can tell us a lot about ourselves, especially when guided by such a master dramatist and wise observer as Rohmer, who knows that watching others grow up helps us attain a certain maturity ourselves.
A Good Marriage (Le beau mariage) 1982
The proverb is from La Fontaine: Can any of us refrain/from building castles in Spain? The comedy is that in fulfilling our dreams we first have to adapt them to reality, and this is the story of someone who doesn’t.
Unlike many of Rohmer’s films this one is a comedy of manners, and the acting is mannered, not naturalistic. Instead of eavesdropping on characters who seem to be speaking their thoughts aloud, here we have actors delivering epigrams and bon mots sometimes facing an angle between the character they are ostensibly addressing and the camera, as though commenting to us about their own motivations.
A young woman, Sabine, (Béatrice Romand, an actress from Algeria who appeared in 6 of Rohmer’s films) tires of being the other woman and decides to marry. Unlike other women however, she does not choose among suitors, but arbitrarily selects a man. There are plenty of candidates, she feels, and none of them will be able to resist her. Of course she selects a man just like herself, and he has decided NOT to have a relationship, and to complicate matters, she falls in love with him.
As Sabine moves between her pied-à-terre, her mother’s house, her workplace, her friend’s studio, we see the various milieux she inhabits, and some of the class advantages of a good marriage that could have affected her but don’t. Her decision is solely an act of will. But can one person decide on an action that involves two? Obviously not, and this makes Sabine an absurd figure, a type rather than a character. The acting is a tour de force from Romand: you may not like this girl, but you are forced to live in her absurd world for the duration of the film.
Comedy is tragedy that happens to others, tragedy is comedy that happens to us.
Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la plage) 1983
The proverb is: he who speaks too much bites his own tongue. The comedy is that EVERYONE here speaks too much (as though Rohmer is satirising his critics, who all say his films are too much based on conversation – and say so at length) except the teenager Pauline, who can still listen.
Fourteen year old Pauline (Amanda Langlet) gets a lesson in love from the adults around her on vacation at the beach resort of Granville. Teased by her cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle) about boyfriends, Pauline meets a boy, finds him easy to talk to, they find each other physically attractive – voilà, she has a boyfriend! Meanwhile the adults around her behave in a convoluted and more and more ridiculous way as they negotiate their own relationships. Marion has divorced her husband, and declares she wants a man whom she can burn for. She meets an old flame, Pierre (Pascal Greggory, here cast as the hopeless lover as he was so memorably in Zulawski’s over-the-top La fidélité). Pierre burns for Marion, but that doesn’t work for her. Instead she’s attracted by Henri (Féodor Atkine), another divorcé who is now cautiously playing the field. Could it be that Marion just wants exciting sex, and Henri desperately wants to fall in love but is too scared to do so? Every one of them is hopelessly out of touch with their feelings, and Pauline watches and wonders.
How long will it be before Pauline herself starts making relationship mistakes and develops the misconceptions that prevent people from enjoying the simple things of life, like love.
In the commentary Rohmer reveals he is a frustrated novelist (“why make a film if you can write”) and that his films mainly come from notes for novels he wrote long ago.
Full Moon in Paris (Les nuits de la pleine lune) 1984
The proverb is: He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.
The story of a man who wants a secure relationship and ends up with two women, and a woman who wants freedom within a relationship and ends up with a broken heart, this is the most schematic of the Comedies and Proverbs, and the least comedic. Despite superb acting from Pascale Ogier (who died the same year of a heart attack) and Fabrice Luchini, I was never able to believe in these characters, who seem to exist only so Rohmer can examine the gamut between trust and independence, security and personal fulfillment, within a romantic relationship. It hardly needs demonstrating that trust is the most delicate component in a relationship (taking your partner for granted is the usual substitute), nor that possession and ownership is no substitute for commitment, though much more obvious. Every point that Rohmer makes in the film is a valid one; but I wish the characters had a life of their own, or at least evoked the sparkling wit of the earlier films in the series.
The Green Ray/Summer (Le rayon vert) 1986
The proverb: Ah for the days/that set our hearts ablaze
With a musical theme contributed by Rohmer, and dialogue contributed by Marie Rivière and her family as well as other actors, this is a further step away from the comedy of the first three films in the series. It is in fact one of the most romantic movies I’ve seen, perhaps one of the most romantic movies ever made.
This is the story of Delphine (Marie Rivière), a young woman in a state of desolation, who feels abandoned by friends and lover alike, and how she comes to know her own feelings at last. In a remarkable performance by Rivière, Delphine is played warts and all, with her difficulties, her diffidence and her self pity, but in such a way we can also see the extreme honesty she brings to her self consideration and the appraisal of the people about her, and the charm this honesty gives her.
It is a story also of fruitless journeys, as Delphine resolutely sets out on a holiday, accompanied only by her sense of being abandoned. But behind the holiday resorts she visits and flees is the play of primal forces of nature, to which Rohmer suggests we all must respond: the snow left behind in a glacial sheet, the wind storm in the mountains, the sun on the sea at the beaches, the tempestuous surge of the waves, and the bounteous gifts of the fruits and flowers of spring.
This is the film above all his others where you feel Rohmer has used a candid camera, hidden away from the non actors, who all speak as though they are not on film. Only when you realise this is pre-eminently the case with Marie Rivière, who is on screen most of the time, can you appreciate the subtlety and skill with which Rohmer directs the film. The green ray? Forget the scientific explanation. It’s when something reaches out and touches you, when you go with the flow, it’s god talking, it’s magic. It’s joy. A film as light as a pavlova, as delicate and well judged as a pirouette, a rare attempt to show some of the insubstantial shadows with whom we dance our lives away.
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (L’ami de mon amie) 1987
The proverb: the friend of my friend is my friend (too). The ‘friend’ was ‘enemy’ in the original saying (my enemy’s enemy is my friend), and Rohmer draws attention to the permutations of this kind of relationship: ally, rival, companion, confidant, friend and supplanter.
As always, the environment is a character in its own right, and in this film it’s a new, bland, beautifully laid out garden suburb of Paris (without the garden). The predominant colour is white, and it symbolises sterility. Blanche (another name for white), whose quest for love is examined in the film (beautifully played by Emmanuelle Chaulet) stands for a dilemma common in modern city living: she has everything, except love and emotional fulfillment.
The film is very much a variation of the previous film in the series, The Green Ray, as shy and lonely Blanche hangs back from committing herself to a man until she finds the one she really wants. Her ‘friend’ Lea (Sophie Renoir, descendant of the famous painter) – only young women have friendships of this nature – takes the opposite approach: she goes with the best choice of the moment rather than be alone.
The film charts with amazing credibility the growing attraction between Blanche and her friend Lea’s boyfriend Fabien (Eric Viellard), which perhaps too conveniently is helped by Lea’s promiscuity and attraction to another man. It is a romance pure and simple, and is enormously charming. Blanche is perhaps a bit gentler than Delphine in The Green Ray, and very lovable.
The sparkling comedy of the first three films was followed by the heartbreak (tragedy is too strong a word) of the fourth, and the series ends with two enchanting romances. For me the two Marie Rivière films were the standout contribution in the series. (The Arrow set also contains The Marquise of O, an excursion into the archaeology of theatre which reproduces an 18th century novella in the style of 19th century melodrama, filmed in natural lighting and with unnatural gestures and exclamations from the cast, and possibly the best set design and frame composition of all time. Requires an ignorance of the female reproductive system to be enjoyed thoroughly).
One appreciates after a series of films by Rohmer the unobtrusive camera work, the medium shots, the long takes and the always insightful dialogue, and realises just how hysterical Hollywood films are, with their loud soundtracks, fast cuts and short takes, melodramatic dialogue and over acting. But then, Rohmer has something to say. Not everybody does, in the rush to part the audience from its money.
Films can be divided into three main and overlapping categories: action, fantasy and drama. The first are for those obsessed with machines, characterised by stylised violence achieved through special effects and similar in practice to going to the circus or a ball game. The second are for those suffering from frustrated or thwarted emotions, characterised by melodrama and wish fulfillment, a bit like going to Coney Island. The third are for those interested in how human beings function, and what makes up their own behaviour, and are based on traditional media such as literature and the theatre. People are always being misled by the fact that all three are referred to as ‘films’: it is extremely rare for the same person to like all three types. Most often a viewer will disqualify at least one of the types as ‘bad’, or even as not film at all.
Rohmer’s films: perfectly executed observations about trivialities or profound insights into human nature? Which is greater, the novels of Jane Austen or War and Peace? A fugue by Bach or the Choral Symphony by Beethoven? Hint: what is the sound of one hand clapping?
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Facts courtesy IMDB. Please inform post author of any violation.