January 17, 2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010
On Jan 11 one of the finest of the French New Wave directors (who began his career, as a number of them did, writing on film for Cahier du Cinema) died at the age of 89. His last film was completed two years before. Every film he made from 1981 (Le Beau Mariage) to 2007 (Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon) is one more argument against Quentin Tarantino's contention that filmmakers almost never produce first rate movies after the age of 60. So are the later films of Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette, in fact among genuinely distinguished directors who survived past 60 and remained active, there are easily as many exceptions to as confirmations of this very rough rule of thumb. (Mounting evidence suggests Tarantino's best-before year may have been his fortieth or even his thirty fifth.)

The obit I read in the Globe and Mail (taken off the wires from the Manchester Guardian) has this to say about his first film and its promise for his career:

"Le Signe du Lion, completed in 1959 after one false start and a handful of shorts, fitted comfortably into the New Wave formula of Parisian life, with its tale of a student musician, tempted nto debt by a promised inheritance, who lapses into abject destitution after the legacy turns out to be a hoax.
"In retrospect, one can clearly see in it the seeds of Rohmer's later work. Showing little interest in plot or action, Rohmer concentrates on showing how Paris itself becomes an objective correlative to the hero's state of mind, gradually metamorphosing from a welcoming city into a bleak stone desert as he realizes that the friends from whom he might hope to borrow are all away for the vacation."

I'm very grateful, given its shoddy character, that this was the only synopsis of a Rohmer film attempted. Key point in rebuttal: Pierre (Jess Hahn) doesn't discover the inheritance was a hoax; he learns his aged relative changed her will when she heard that he'd run into debt and a dissipated life and--I expect most crucially for her--began neglecting his music in anticipation of a huge legacy that would free him from any obligation to work, develop talent or follow a determinate course of any kind. Only on the quite unfounded assumption that the inheritance is a hoax can you get by with the preposterous notion that Rohmer, in this film or any of those that follow, shows little interest in plot or action. If you add inaction as action's dynamic counterpoint, with choice as the fulcrum that balances the two, you understand the importance of his seamlessly intricate plots as revelations of character. They're there in all his stories, and they aren't hard to find unless you begin with the persuasion that plot OR character must predominate in the telling of any story: but in the most satisfying ones they always collaborate as equal partners.)

Not long after seeing Le Signe du Lion I looked it up in one of those omnibus film studies under the letter 'L'. I discovered to my astonishment that the reviewer thought it a remarkable debut, marred by a too-pat happy ending. What film had the reviewer been seeing? What happens in the last scene of Le Signe du Lion is that, casually betraying the man who's kept him alive at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, Pierre rides happily and furiously off on a suddenly cresting wave toward almost certain catastrophe. These are not points made obscurely or oversubtly; they will occur spontaneously to any reviewer who simply pays attention, which I'll grant you a well firmed body of assumption and resultant theory makes it almost impossible to do.
The only other fable of despair that I know of in Rohmer is Les Nuit de la Pleine Lune (1984) (though a case could be made for La Collectioneuse, which certainly is engagingly grim). It’s perhaps characteristic of Rohmer’s work as it can be seen to develop over a long, rigorously planned-out career, that his lead this time is female. (The leads in Six Contes Moraux are all male; in Comedies et Proverbes all female with the interesting variation that Pauline a la Plage has two female leads of equal prominence, as does Quatre Aventure de Reinette et Mirabelle; I’ve seen only trois of the Quatre Saisons group, and the count is 2 females to 1 male; I’d have thought according to previously established pattern that the lead in the fourth, Conte d’Hivre, would be male, but the synopsis suggests this is another story centred on a woman. Odd shift of emphasis, but he had his reasons I suppose.)
Equally characteristic is the difference between Les Nuit. . .’s Louise (Pascale Ogier) and Pierre. Rohmer’s male leads all tend to be in a state of drift until a clear choice presents itself. (In one of the subtlest, Conte d’Ete ,Gaspard’s choice grows progressively clearer, but never quite clear to him, and so he misses it: which is bittersweet but not tragic because there’s no sense his character is firmed enough that he will always fail to recognize what life precariously offers.) His women most often have to deal with forced choices; ones they try to will into being or ones connived at for them by close female friends. (Women connive at choices for male friends also, which they go along with, insofar as they do, as part of their tendency to drift: leave choices to others.)
Beatrice Romand played Sabine in Le Beau Mariage (1981), who tries to break the cycle of drift in her life by breaking up with her married boyfriend (a wise move) and entering upon a campaign to meet and marry—not live with, never merely that again—an eligible man she can love through life, at the earliest possible opportunity. Nothing goes right with the man she fixes on because she’s driven by compulsion, not free choice. When the skein of her plans and expectations has thoroughly unravelled, a moment of warm eye contact with a stranger on a train suggests hmm. . . real possibilities if she can let feeling grow in its own natural soil.
In Conte d’Automne the same actress plays Magali, who meets a man at a party on her friend’s estate, for which she’s supplied the wine, a recent bottling she’s particularly proud of from her own vineyard. There’s a sudden, fierce mutual attraction—complicated and almost derailed when she senses her friend has connived at this chance meeting (and for devious intricacy this connivance was a beaut). She breaks off the evening with him rather than explode—likes him too much to be altogether angry, doesn’t trust herself to maintain a false calm. When they meet again—neither by contrivance nor entirely by chance—later that same evening, she’s had it out with her friend, regained composure—once again they get along famously. A forced choice for once takes on the aspect of a natural choice after all.
Delphine in Le Rayon Vert is perhaps the most perplexed of Rohmer’s heroes or heroines, simultaneously in a state of aimless drift and making forcible, abrupt choices that puzzle others and frustrate herself. The pain she experiences on this account, coupled with her ferocious sincerity, is tremendously affecting. Ultimately she decides to resolve her perplexities by a lightning test of her perceptiveness, and make her answer to a proposition that would change the course of her life depend on whether her eyes can detect a natural appearance that vanishes almost as it’s seen. (A similar test illuminates The Blue Minute, premier des quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle.)
If men tend to evade serious choices by drifting, women by trying to force choices that cut across the grain, which for that reason usually fail wholly or partially, it’s perhaps not surprising that the woman who comes nearest to duplicating Pierre’s appalling fate is the one who forces a choice and has it succeed, catastrophically—Louise in Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune.
It’s obvious why no one has taken the ending of Les Nuits . . . as happy, artificially or otherwise: Louise’s world has fallen apart, she’s at the lowest ebb of fortune’s wheel and, trying to retrieve herself, makes a choice more desperate dthan the one that began her descent. I suppose I can see how, on a superficial reading, the sudden restoration of a huge fortune to a man so careless that his first act on hearing of it is to desert and betray a man who saved his life is a happy ending, if the man he betrays reads to you (as he does to the reviewer I cited) as local colour, not a human being, and if the pervious inheritor of this fortune, a psychological match for Pierre, died in an auto smashup which is why Pierre has been reinstated as heir—all that might read as an artificially happy ending on the shallow consumerist principles that dominate the box office, hence the consciousness of reviewers, if dark portents for the future are declared strictly out of bounds. (The number of betrayals that slide by as inconsequential in a typical hero(ine)’s progress to a happy ending would be a study in themselves; as would the varied strategies for muffling and obscuring the time stamp for expiry of any happily ever after. Brecht didn’t call this style of storytelling illusionist for nothing.)
There are dimensions within and beyond dimensions in Rohmer’s films. To keep this within reasonable length I’ve limited myself to a few words on the characteristic pattern of his plots, what it suggests about his ideas of human character, limiting myself to skeletal outlines without, I hope, violating too much the complexity with which these are worked out in practice by his consistent method. Beyond that I’ll happily enough write elucidations at greater length on individual movies from time to time, as the mood strikes, giving myself room to touch on the intimate tangle of his subplots and secondary characters, any of which—almost any individual scene taken in isolation—would reward study at much greater length than this, but as a writer with my own work to get on with, I prefer to leave that study to the busy workings of my subconscious, to be dredged up impromptu perhaps, where appropriate, in conversation with fellow cineastes at tony parties should I ever arrive at a position where I’m invited.

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