How, and why, do we relate to other people? A curious observer, Éric Rohmer, charted the ground between self awareness and self obsession in a series of films marked by insightful dialog, skilled acting and outstanding cinematography. They are unlike any other, characterised by both humour and compassion.
Rohmer wanted to explore his characters’ emotions, and was not content with letting them tell us, but had to add a social and geographical context to give some depth, often ironical, to what they say. In this development of his art he shows himself a master of framing, lighting and mise en scène.
A moment’s reflection makes us aware how unnatural all this is, that people don’t normally act in this way, talking about their feelings at the drop of a hat as they so often do in Rohmer’s films. In his relationship comedies Rohmer has been as experimental as in his other work, as in Percival for instance, with its papier-mâché landscapes and rhymed couplets. Rohmer has given us a new genre in cinema: artificial naturalism.
Éric Rohmer (1920-2010), writer, designer and film director, made 34 feature films (including his TV work) as well as many short films and, significantly, drafts for a number of short stories and novels. For me he is chiefly the director of three series of films called respectively, Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Seasons. These were the films I revisited now, watching them for the fourth time and reviewing the best of them. They do not need to be seen as part of a series. In fact, some of them are variations on films in other series.
There are some critical commonplaces, largely misleading, made about Rohmer’s films and perhaps it will be best to get them out of the way before discussing the films I saw.
The New Wave
Firstly, it is always mentioned that Rohmer was part of the New Wave. The New Wave, Nouvelle Vague, is a film critics’ construct made to describe the films of a group of French film makers in the early 1960s. It was never a movement, its film makers had little in common, and each went their own way.
Talking about the New Wave only confuses people about what its directors did. Éric Rohmer made low budget, documentary feel, on location films, and would have had there been no New Wave. True, Rohmer, who was an academic at the start of his career, then became a film journalist and wrote film theory. Then he made films for educational TV before launching a new career as a film maker. I think Rohmer’s documentary experience more important to his later feature films than any New Wave theory.
Rohmer was a writer. In one of his interviews he says in effect: why make films if you can write novels? Many of his series films were based on attempts he made to write stories and novels in the 1940s, when he was in his 20s (perhaps why his films are about people of that age). Many of his non series films were based on literary works. So a context of literature is more helpful in assessing Rohmer’s work than it is with most other film makers. I’d suggest Molière, perhaps Wilde, or the stories of Mansfield, or Hemingway.
Rohmer was interested in character. Why we act the way we do, not how, was his study. For Rohmer the real mystery of life was the human emotions, and he shrewdly gauged that much movement and drama originated from our ignorance of what we feel. His approach is always ironic and quite often satirical or humorous.
The cinematic context to appreciate his films could be the work of film makers like Yasujiro Ozu and Satyajit Ray I think, film makers often derided as ‘slow’ (and certainly more serious than Rohmer). Ozu charts the gap between social custom and individual needs, Ray shows the emotions that are usually not expressed. Rohmer examines the space between what we say and what we feel.
For this reason Rohmer’s films are based on conversation. This alarms some people. Conversation means slow, perhaps boring. Well I don’t know about yours or mine, but go back to the literary context. Are the plays of Wilde or Congreve boring? Rohmer’s series films are all comedies. The three big markets in film, America, Hong Kong and India, are primarily for action film. But assessing a film of Éric Rohmer’s as a failed action film would be stupid. Nevertheless, people often do it. Like, everybody dies in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so it’s horror, right? It’s about time people looked at what Rohmer does, not at what he doesn’t.
Six Moral Tales
Six tales of people who follow a predetermined plan in life rather than their more spontaneous feelings, and suffer the consequences. It’s nothing to do with ‘morality’. Adherence to principle can hide fear and insecurity, as well as a lot of ignorance. The idea came from an unpublished book of short stories written by Rohmer in the 1940s.
My Night at Maud’s (1969) 10
One of my favourite movies, Maud takes the premise of the series, that of a man preoccupied with his philosophical viewpoint who then humiliates a young woman who loves him, and turns it into a sublime exploration of the intersection of fate, chance and morality. For the first time Rohmer uses experienced actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian, who add enormous depth to the characters. Jean-Louis is a Catholic, now looking for structure in his life; Maud is a woman whose passions have only bought her bad luck. But when they meet a love affair is not what Jean-Louis wants, but a marriage, and the film is the story of what might have been, for Maud has offered him much more than marriage. This is one of those films, like Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, which brilliantly succeeds in doing what you would swear a film could never do, turning a serious enquiry in philosophy into a deeply moving story of how people behave, while coherently discussing its abstract points of view. The Marxist Vidal believes in Pascal’s wager: the divorcée Maud believes in honesty of feeling; and the Catholic Jean-Louis in conforming his life to his faith. Circumstances have made it possible that only one of these people is right in their beliefs, but which one?
Love in the Afternoon (1972) 9
The struggle between emotions and principles, one we all experience. Rohmer takes a fresh look at the dilemma. Can a man love two women at the same time, without one of them suffering? Frédéric is an irresolute soul who needs the structure of work and marriage in his life. The afternoons are often free, and Frédéric drifts uncomfortably, dreaming of seducing the women passers by but knowing he never will. His old acquaintance Chloé is the opposite, a free spirit who rolls with the punches life gives her, but is gradually becoming despondent. Can these two help one another? In a funny kind of way they do. But how can you confine love to an afternoon? The film’s unanswered question is, what happens to Chloé? Bernard Verley give a suitably confused and contradictory performance, and Zouzou shines as the icon she was at the time the film was made. As for love in the afternoon, was it just a mutual fantasy? You can’t answer that unless you see the film at least twice and let its subtleties unfold.
Comedies and Proverbs
Rohmer created a group of films in the 1980s in which a young woman as protagonist declares her faith in that ideal, perfect relationship, and gets into all kinds of trouble as a result. Others’ emotional demands, loneliness, self deceit and obsessiveness are examined with insight and humour. The films get better each time I watch them.
The Aviator’s Wife (1981) 10
A miraculous study of jealousy and freedom that reminded me of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise in the vibrant delicacy of treatment. The form is so well balanced and the acting is perfect from Marie Rivière, Philippe Marlaud and Anne-Laure Meury. This fourth viewing I thought more of it and saw more in it than ever before.
The Green Ray (1986) 9
A magical romance about integrity, loneliness and faith, largely improvised dialog from Marie Rivière and her family members, a superb performance from Rivière. Cameos from Béatrice Romand and Rosette. I was up and down with this one, but on my fourth viewing it really was magic. I’ve not seen a film like it.
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (1987) 9
A reprise of the Green Ray in which a lonely girl holds out for the right person. Succeeds through the perfect acting of Emmanuelle Chaulet, Eric Viellard and Sophie Renoir and a cameo from Anne-Laure Meury. Most girls will know what the film’s title means. If you and the people you know don’t act like the characters in this film something’s wrong. For me it all seemed familiar.
Pauline at the Beach (1983) 8.5
Three couples, two of adults and one of mid teens, negotiate relationships. The adults lie and deceive even themselves. It is much easier for the young, who look on and wonder. Perfect dialog, witty and perceptive, marred by a few passages of monologue. Stars the wonderful Amanda Langlet, as well as Arielle Dombasie, Pascal Greggory, Féodor Atkine, Simon de La Brosse and Rosette. Gets funnier with each reviewing.
A Good Marriage (1982) 8
A lovely comedy about a woman who resolves to get married without consulting her intended spouse. She picks on someone who is just as independent as she, and is foiled. The action is slowed by several passages of insightful yet awkward monologue. With the superb Béatrice Romand, Arielle Dombasie, André Dussollier and Sophie Renoir. Not tragic, with the resilient Romand, but a tragicomedy, absurd but moving.
Full Moon in Paris (1984) 8
A luminous performance from Pascale Ogier as a woman who wants not to be bound too closely in a relationship and thinks that only shows her confidence in its stability. Her lover thinks otherwise and goes elsewhere. I found it profound and affecting, though slowed by passages of monologue. Ogier shows her character’s ignorance, idealism and heartbreak.
Tales of the Four Seasons
Four tales of people who refuse a proffered relationship for something more ideal but also more distant. There is on occasion a choice between several partners to be made, and each choice represents different values and levels of compromise.
Tale of Summer (1996) 9.5
A tale of what might have been, a seventh ‘Moral Tale’. Gaspard is a young man obsessed with music and a song writing career who is infatuated with a girl, Lena, mainly because she treats him so casually. On a summer holiday he meets two other girls, Margot and Solene, and the situation gets more and more tricky, till he has to run away from the three of them. Melvil Poupaud as Gaspard is just introverted enough, just shyly charming enough, for it to be plausible girls would be intrigued by him. But the film belongs to Amanda Langlet as Margot, whose friendship blossoms unconsciously into love. Rohmer’s dialog for Margot and Gaspard is the equal of Satyajit Ray’s for Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu and Sharmila Tagore as Aparna in Apu Sansar, and that’s saying something.The look on Margot’s face as she waves goodbye at the end of the film reveals all. Thoughts of her more suitable fiancé are forgotten. The song Santiano is featured on the soundtrack, a 1961 hit for Hughes Aufray: “I am leaving for months, leaving Margot/Hoist and ho, Santiano/In thinking about it, I had a heavy heart/Rounding the lights of Saint Malo”, and the singer hopes to return one day with a gold ring for Margot’s finger. A perceptive look at how relationships are formed and why they are often transient. The acting, as always with Rohmer, is marvellous, and the sets and exteriors evocative. I really felt on holiday, and that anything could happen feeling was prevalent.
Tale of Winter (1992) 8
A story of a summer romance that went wrong, and a young woman’s faith she would see her lover again no matter how unlikely that might be. It has a wonderful performance by Charlotte Véry as Félicie. Rohmer dares to show our human nature is made up of contradictions. Félicie’s three lovers have downbeat parts which slows the film while Félicie talks too much about her feelings. There is an extended parallel with the plot of Shakespeare’s play: Félicie is responsible for Charles’ absence by giving him a wrong address, is solaced by his photograph (a statue in the play) which comes to life when Félicie meets Charles again after a five year absence. Her faith has made her whole.
Rohmer rarely employed a set designer for his films. He preferred to decorate the sets himself, often with a dominant colour he considered symbolic of the film’s theme. On a film’s set the exteriors are also sets, and these are a very important part of each of his films. Although part of the documentary thesis of Rohmer’s cinema, the environment is always itself a character, the human characters’ actions influenced by where they are. Rohmer was an environmentalist, not only feeling strongly that humans should not damage their environment, but that they were an expression of it. In many of his films Rohmer is able to document Paris as few others have. You have to look at landscape, and decor colours, to understand fully what Rohmer is trying to say in each of his films.
No-one can watch one of Rohmer’s films without being aware of the skill of his actors. Rohmer rarely used experienced, known actors, preferring to take bit players and novices, because they responded more easily to his suggestions, ‘blank slates’ for him to use to create the highly idiosyncratic characters at the heart of his films. Many acted for the first time in a Rohmer film. In one of his greatest achievements, Rohmer was able to get these young players to act naturally in front of the camera, often in medium close up and on first take, and have the audience convinced they were in some way talking to them. As a result you have the extraordinary situation of a cast of unknowns giving some of the best performances in cinema.
We watch Rohmer’s films because of these great performances, more than we do because of his perceptive scriptwriting. Audiences are unlikely to forget Françoise Fabian, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Zouzou, Marie Rivière, Philippe Marlaud, Emmanuelle Chaulet, Amanda Langlet, Béatrice Romand, Charlotte Véry or Pascale Ogier.
Here’s a film maker who has made six films I’d put on my top 100 list of great films (my rating, this viewing, on the title line). I sympathise with Martin Scorsese who was once asked by a film critic to contribute a list of his 10 favourite films to a book on cinema: after he had listed 200, and was going on, Scorsese had to be begged to stop. I’ve got about 200 films on my top 100, and about 50 of them are number one. But I’ve made room for My Night at Maud’s, Love in the Afternoon, The Aviator’s Wife, The Green Ray, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and A Tale of Summer. I’ve watched them all at least four times and hope to watch them again.
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