Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the 4 Seasons

WHEN ERIC ROHMER died earlier this year there was a host of tributes, much talk of his “talky” films and remarks about watching paint dry. My tribute was to watch his films again, including the ones I had not seen, and review them here, over three posts. I have a very strong attachment for some of his films, and have had one for 20 years. Before discussing his films however I should add a bit of context.

Firstly about me. Why is my opinion of value? Well, it’s not. I’m just a viewer. My taste in films obviously influences my judgment of Rohmer’s films. Heading my list of great films are two character driven epic films, The Seven Samurai and Les Enfants du Paradis. Relationship comedies follow, Annie Hall, then the frenetic Howard Hawks comedies Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, as well as Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. Then there’s a lot of 30s screwball comedy, including the work of Jean Harlow. Then come some early films of Satyajit Ray, Coline Serreau’s La Crise and then Citizen Kane. I like Costa-Gavras, Preston Sturges and Sunset Boulevard. Here’s the bottom line: I can’t watch anything by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese (all too sentimental). Obviously “talky” films seem pretty normal to me.

Then, about Rohmer. He was a writer first of all, a novelist, then a film theorist. He learnt his craft in television as a maker of documentaries. Many of his film scripts would work as plays, and I don’t know why no-one has staged My Night at Maud’s. Rohmer was a literary man, and some of his films are based on the work of other writers, such as Kleist and Chrétien de Troyes. He helped form a group that added enormous energy to French cinema, la nouvelle vague, but paradoxically he had a great admiration for some of the directors that movement swept arrogantly aside, such as Marcel Carné. In his astonishingly vivid creation of landscape and context for his films’ characters, Rohmer has always reminded me of Georges Simenon, one of the greatest 20th century French writers and a major influence on French cinema. And one of the precursors of la nouvelle vague was Jean Eustache, creator of La maman et la putain, a four hour film of conversations between Jean-Pierre Leaud and Bernadette Lafont and Françoise Lebrun which I think one of the greatest French films ever made. Rohmer was of course a good businessman, able to produce small budget/films-on-a-shoestring that made tenable his career, as did many of la nouvelle vague directors, and Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray as well. Most of all he was a moralist, someone who felt strongly that to live well one has to have values that are worthwhile, and his films are designed to make us think of those values, though presented in an unobtrusive and utterly charming way.

Great French film directors? In my view they include Marcel Carné, Coline Serreau, Jean Eustache, Alain Resnais, Rene Clement, Louis Malle, Jean Renoir, Jacques Audiard, Claude Sautet – and Eric Rohmer.

Finally, talk of literary influences and film movements should not obscure the fact that Rohmer had a command over many of the traditional elements of film making. Much has been said of his evocation of landscape, and of figures within that landscape. He is known for his mastery of set design and colour, and rarely needed an art director. He worked hard with his framing and cutting to create a natural effect, a kind of candid camera effect, that took hours and sometimes years of planning. And he was probably one of the best directors of actors ever, getting marvellous performances from inexperienced actors again and again. Because he wasn’t flamboyant or technically intrusive, as Godard was for instance, there are some who don’t notice this competence (hence the “nothing happens, people just sit around and talk” kind of comment). In fact Rohmer was technically innovative right through his career, more so than any other French director. And the this-is-not-a-film ambiance he created is just as deconstructive as Godard’s this-is-a-film approach.

So on to the films of Eric Rohmer, who asks you, not “what if an evil force was trying to control the universe and only one man could save humanity from a fate worse than death”, but “what if a group of people were able to express their thoughts and feelings, in an elegant and subtle language, how accurate would they be in describing their real situation, and what would we learn about human nature by listening to this?”

The Four Seasons
Rohmer liked to film in series, and his last one was Tales of the Four Seasons. Although filmed when Rohmer was in his 70s, these films show no falling off, and in fact include one of his best films, still using the diary cue cards that make you think it’s a home movie, and still eliciting great performances from unknown actors.

Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime) 1990
A Tale of Springtime is a slice of life about two couples in unsatisfactory relationships, and the daughter of one of them who ineptly tries to improve the situation through a bit of matchmaking. It’s extremely naturalistic, and the story has no real beginning, no resolution to the events portrayed, and no real ending. It’s just like my life in this respect, in fact, and perhaps like yours.

Many of Rohmer’s film making characteristics are here: the unobtrusive camera work, the subtle and assured use of colour, the script which deftly reveals personality traits in small actions and everyday phrases. The central character is a musician as well as a matchmaker, and music plays a part in the story, and is also played on the soundtrack, which is rare to hear in a film by Rohmer.

Where the film falls down in my opinion is with the actors. Though the script is good (but not great), and the actors present it well, none of them are Rohmer actors, which means they are not natural and at ease. I was never in doubt throughout the film I was watching a performance. While it didn’t stop me enjoying the film, I never found it involving.
Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale) 1992
A Winter’s Tale is a moving account of how a young woman comes to live the story of the Shakespeare play, with a little encouragement from Pascal. These aren’t musty cultural figures from the past for Rohmer but relevant commentators on everyday living. A cautionary tale that teaches that if you want to receive a blessing you must first be in a state of grace.

The film is built around the character of Félicie, played by Charlotte Véry. If you can fall for her, the film is absorbing: I thought her portrayal brilliant, one of the best acting jobs in any Rohmer film (if you haven’t seen a film by Rohmer, that means it’s world class). Félicie has a holiday romance that’s with the love of her life, loses touch with the man, has a daughter, and lives in Paris in an uneasy relationship with two men. She loves both men, but there’s love, and there’s love. Félicie comes to see, through chance encounters and conversations with friends, that if you want something to happen you have to believe it will. In a conclusion that cynics will deplore, she finds that miracles happen, but only to people who believe they exist.

Another atypical Rohmer film with a musical score. And, as usual, superb realisations of place, streets, apartments and shops of Nevers, Paris, with characters seemingly always on the move in trains and buses. It has part of a good performance in French of The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare as well. Félicie is inarticulate, unsure what she wants, irritating in her indecision, she makes mistakes, acts stupidly and hurts the ones who love her, but she’s a lover who keeps that love alight in her heart, and anyone who’s ever loved will surely understand what she’s going through before her epiphany.

Rohmer, now aged over 70, has produced yet another example of the Rohmer paradox: a literate, well balanced construction with characteristics of a stage play, played in superb naturalistic style by gifted actors, and filmed and edited using effectively and with great skill all the resources of cinema. For some reason his films seem difficult for viewers who accept unhesitatingly that a man can blow up a building with a hand gun, and prompt critics to apologise for pointing out his merits as a director. I think he’ll be disparaged, after the obituaries settle, but will come back as one of the masters of cinema, when his colleagues of the New Wave have all been forgotten. And because he examines you and me he’ll always be uncomfortable for viewers who want to live forever in never-never land. So be it.
Conte d’été (A Tale of Summer) 1996
A Tale of Summer looks at the other side of summer romance to the lyrical beauty that glows from the beginning of Rohmer’s previous seasonal tale, Conte d’hiver. Here a young man, on holiday in Brittany, has not one but three romances, and finds it necessary to put his song writing career first, for which his feelings for the three girls provide inspiration, because they all present him with problems he can’t solve.

Now in most films there’s a plot, and the plot is always about possession, of land, of money, of a woman. Because the story is melodramatic, it is always unrealistic. Rohmer attempts something much more ambitious in his films, to portray real feelings in real people, in all their ambiguity and state of flux.

In A Tale of Summer it’s probably this emotional current running through the gestures and actions of all the characters that is the real subject of the film, and it is shown in its ambiguity and state of constant change. It’s something we’re not comfortable with, preferring to give labels such as ‘love’, ‘friendship’ and so on to what is after all the motor that drives us through life, and is frequently unknowable and disquieting.

Gaspard, played convincingly by Melvil Poupaud as a gangling, introverted and sensitive misfit who pours his emotion into his songwriting, mets Margot, who’s an ethnologist and part time waitress. Margot is played by the wonderful Amanda Langlet from Pauline at the Beach, an actress seemingly born to act in Rohmer films but who was only in three. These two develop a friendship, which is “more important than love”, and we see it mutate slowly into love, with attendant jealousy, until it is restrained on one side by duty and on the other by diffidence. With superb irony, we see the couple don’t realise it is love until after they part at the end of the film. Instead, Gaspard is obsessed by a girl he thinks he loves but who clearly doesn’t love him, and then by another he lusts for but who demands a level of commitment he can’t rise to.

Such a neatly constructed story could be trite, and would be trite in other hands. But Rohmer as usual creates three dimensional characters, who exist in a fully realised landscape and express themselves through natural dialogue which is only a little bit more clever than you or I would use. And the dialogue is so well written, and the acting so perfect, we can see deep into the emotional wellspring of each person, deeper in fact than they can see themselves or others. I see the film as a revisit to one of Rohmer’s earliest and greatest films, My Night at Maud’s, where an unobservant man meets the love of his life and doesn’t know it. Here, such is Rohmer’s artistry, the same psychic pattern is repeated, and seems totally original.

As seems his intention for the Seasons series, Rohmer links the scenes through music, and here it is songs about seafaring, about travelling vast distances and missing those left behind. I wonder if Rohmer had in mind that one day Gaspard might sit down and make a film about Margot?

Conte d’automne (An Autumn Tale) 1998
Like a Tale of Springtime, this is another matchmaking story in which Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Rosine (Alexia Portal) try to find a partner for Magali (Béatrice Romand). If this seems a slim story to occupy 112 minutes of screen time, it is. Matters are drawn out by a series of contrivances that never delve too deeply into the participants’ feelings. In short, a relatively superficial story from Rohmer.

It is also a story of friendship between Isabelle and Magali, and two of Rohmer’s favourite actresses bring a warm tone to the ups and downs of their relationship as it is affected by the plot to find a partner for Magali. There’s always fine acting from Riviére and Romand, and Romand especially shows herself still to be one of the world’s best actresses, a magnetic presence in every scene she’s in. A well constructed if slightly too symetrical script from Rohmer, a fine picture of the French countryside, well acted by all the lead actors, yet, atypically for Rohmer, somewhat shallow, at least in comparison to his best work.

But still a comfort to watch, a film about normal people in plausible situations, a refuge from the torrent of films out of America about serial killers, vampires, superheroes, vendettas, revenge murders, corrupt cops, urban violence, psychotics, and the cult of violence that has taken over American cinema, and American society, over the last 30 years.

Experimental films
Rohmer is known for his naturalistic tales of relationships, but a third of his film output is of a completely different nature. Many of these show Rohmer pushing the conventions of cinema to their limits, and he is in this respect the most experimental of directors. Most of these non series films have not been commercially successful, but obviously were important to Rohmer in some other way.

There are the literary adaptations. Kleist’s La Marquese d’O (1976), characterised by natural lighting, the most beautiful set designs in the world, and scenes that are reminiscent of paintings by David or Ingres come to life. Rohmer, with a plot that demands ignorance of the female reproductive system, highlights the period of the story by using period acting conventions. L’Anglaise et le duc (2001) is an adaptation of Grace Elliott’s memoir about the French Revolution. For some reason Rohmer’s depiction of the terrorism practised at that time has got him labelled as ‘conservative’: he is in fact showing his usual maturity of judgment. This time the sets are even more beautiful than La Marquese d’O‘s, hand painted, and I think very great works of art in their own right. Unfortunately the natural lighting does not work, as most scenes are indoors or at night, making the ‘action’ somewhat obscure. Rohmer’s ‘Last Supper’. These two films are cinematic painting rather than conventional film dramas. Catherine de Heilbronn (1980) is from a Kleist play, and is similar in spirit to La Marquise d’O, though set in the middle ages. It was premiered on French television. I have not seen it.

Perceval le gallois (1978) is a faithful adaptation of a 12th century poem by Chrétien de Troyes. Spoken and sung in verse, in the incomplete form of the original (presumed left unfinished at Chrétien’s death) and accompanied by music of the period played on authentic instruments, it is presented in a style more familiar from opera than cinema. Non naturalistic sets, colours reminiscent of medieval painting and with a similar lack of perspective, it will be unsettling to the Rambo crowd, but riveting for anyone interested in the myth of Arthur, the Grail legend, and medieval music and poetry. Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (2007), Rohmer’s last film, made when he was 86, is an adaptation of a novel by Honoré d’Urfé: both are an exposition of a now unfashionable genre, pastoral, a highly stylised and artificial treatment of romantic love featuring nymphs and shepherds in a she-loves-me, she-spurns-me, we-are-reconciled cycle that now looks idiotic. It does give Rohmer a chance to celebrate the undefiled countryside, one of his great loves. I have not seen it.

Rohmer revisits recent French history in Triple Agent (2004), about White and Red Russian agents in Paris during the German occupation. Scrupulously accurate, though with some details added for Rohmer’s own purpose, and given a documentary feel by the inclusion of newsreel footage, it is a film about the erosion of trust, the impossibility but necessity of political choice, and the degree to which we control those choices or not, seen through an examination of the effects of political involvement on a marriage. L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (1993) is a comedy about local politics which treats of matters not that different to those that agitate my local council and cause a storm of controversy, revealing that everyone has an opinion but nobody knows what to do. An expression of Rohmer’s concern for conservation. Interesting to see Rohmer examining politics with the same penetration he brings to bear on personal politics.

Closer still to Rohmer’s trademark comedy drama is Le signe du lion (1959), his first feature. Here an expatriate American loses a fortune in Paris and survives as a hanger-on in rich society, trying to compose music but not getting very far. The camera follows Jess as he wanders around Paris trying to survive. Very audaciously ‘new wave’ as it was, your reception of the movie depends on how you like Paris. 4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (1987) is just as the title says. I find it very similar to his Comedies and Proverbs, but far more humorous, with a humor I just can’t appreciate. The same goes for Rendez-vous in Paris (1995), which I saw years ago but was not able to re-view for this survey. Three tales of almost love, set in Paris, the star of the film (as in so many Rohmer films).
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In a 50 year period Rohmer produced 24 feature films, and the remarkable thing about his films is how watchable most are. In writing my review I looked at what other people had to say about the films, and found that there were many who went to print to say how they disliked and despised Rohmer’s films. Some even said he was incompetent, though this comment wasn’t made by a film maker. Some said he just made the same film again and again (but, hey, Porkys 10 is OK, and here comes Freddy for the umpteenth time and that’s OK. By the way, have you noticed that everything by Mozart sounds the same? So unoriginal, some composers. Now, Megadeath…) Let’s say that there is space in film for all tastes, and perhaps Rohmer just surprised some viewers who had limited experience of the variety possible in film making. Among those who liked Rohmer’s films I noted there were those who singled out the films I found least interesting as his best, and those who disparaged and disliked the films I thought the best. That’s the way it goes.

Despite what anyone says, I would not like to be without the tragedies of lost opportunities, My Night at Maud’s, Love in the Afternoon and A Summer’s Tale, nor the tender comedies of foibles such as A Good Marriage and The Aviator’s Wife, nor the inspiring comedy of A Winter’s Tale, nor the lyrical romanticism of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend or The Green Ray. All these films exhibit insight and compassion, and it would be a pity if the unobtrusiveness of their achievement caused them to be overlooked for films more strident and pyrotechnical. How many other directors have made eight films that can plausibly be called great?

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Facts courtesy IMDB. Please inform post author of any violation.

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3 thoughts on “Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the 4 Seasons

  1. Re Conte de Printemps: you don’t rate the actors as highly as Rohmer evidently did. He called Anne Teyssedre the most irreplaceable of all his lead actors (c’est peut-être la moins interchangeable). I agree with him!
    Thanks for your reviews of the great man.

    1. I spoke relatively Bruce. Conte de Printemps is an Eric Rohmer film and its acting comparable only to that in other Rohmer films. Only compare Summer. I’m so glad you disagree with my judgement: that way more Rohmer films are given the appreciation they all deserve.

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