Thursday, 21 January 2010

Walking Talkies

Eric Rohmer, who died on the 11th January, was a director whose films could at times seem almost parodically French. They generally featured characters (usually youthful) walking, eating or simply sitting but always talking. With lengthy circumlocution, they verbally dissect and rationalise their affairs of the heart, always in reasoned and even-tempered tones, never boiling over into outbursts of passion or rage. Young women weigh up the varying merits and demerits of their several lovers; older, often married men concoct abstruse philosophical self-justifications for their infatuation with younger women. Rohmer observes these attempts of the head to rule the heart with wry generosity. There is often a significant gulf between the attempts to impose an appearance of willed choice and control over instinct and emotion and the actual outcome of events. Fate intervenes to make mock over the presumptuousness of self-absorbed characters in believing themselves in command of destiny, whether their own or others.

Rohmer’s actual name was Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, and it was as Maurice Scherer that he wrote the film criticism for which he was known before his film career took off. He ran and programmed a Cine-Club in post war Paris which attracted the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, and all of them went on to write for the highly influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer himself became editor of Cahiers in 1958, after the death of his predecessor Andre Bazin, and held the post until 1963, when he was ousted by Rivette, amongst others. Rohmer’s inherent conservatism had led him to continue favouring the classicism of traditional Hollywood fare over the New Wave and European modernist trends which were then in the ascendant (amongst critics, at least). Rohmer continued as a critic throughout his career. He wrote the first book-length study of Hitchcock in collaboration with Claude Chabrol, emphasising the themes of Catholic guilt to be found in his films. His doctoral study on the use of space (or mise en scene) in FW Murnau’s Faust was also later published in book form. From the early 70s, he also taught a film class at the Sorbonne. This experience is reflected in the interviews contained on many of the dvd releases of his films, in which his analyses are always interesting and insightful.

Rohmer had little success with his early films, and his first feature, Le Signe du Lion, which was made in the late 50s but not released until 1962, was something of a disaster. He was never really a part of the New Wave, even though its directors were his contemporaries and colleagues, and he, like them, came to film directing through being a critic at Cahiers du Cinema. His real breakthrough came with his second feature, La Collectioneuse, in 1967, well after the New Wave’s first flowering had receded into the past. This was the third film in his self-designated thematic series 6 Contes Moraux (6 Moral Tales), the first two having been shorts. There would be two further thematic series into which he grouped his films; the Comedies and Proverbs of the 80s and the Tales of Four Seasons in the 90s. There is no pressing need to see the sequences in full, the films can be enjoyed as individual works in themselves. The idea of a series linked in however tenuous a fashion allowed for the playing of variations on particular scenarios and the presentation of a range of moral dilemmas centring around the different permutations of human relationships. Critics would point to these variations as having a narrowly limited range. Fans might point to such limitations as being positive, the subtle distinctions between films opening up the possibility of comparison and fine contrast.

Jean-Claude Brialy contemplating Le Genou de Claire
The 6 Moral Tales tended to focus more on the moral quandaries of middle-aged male characters experiencing moments of temptation. At this point (in the late 60s and early 70s) Rohmer still used well-known French actors and actresses alongside the non-professionals, with the latter of whom he would work up characters based partly on their own personalities. Familiar faces such as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Francoise Fabian in Ma Nuit Chez Maud and Jean-Claude Brialy (disguised beneath a beard) in Le Genou de Claire were as near as he got to star power. By the 80s and the Comedies and Proverbs sequence, which tended to feature female protagonists, he was largely using actors and actresses who he had discovered himself.

Beatrice Romand and Marie Riviere in Conte d'Automne
Perhaps the two most emblematic Rohmer actresses are Marie Riviere and Beatrice Romand. Riviere, with her slightly downcast mien and air of emotional fragility, played characters who expressed more emotion than was usual in a Rohmer film, occasionally verging on the self-pitying. Although personally, she never loses my sympathy, some commentators have found her characters particularly grating. She is the central presence in Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray), which was filmed with a significant amount of improvisational input, a method wholly at odds with Rohmer’s usual meticulously pre-planned working techniques. She also spends much more time alone than is usual in a Rohmer film. It is a film in which loneliness is so much more keenly felt in comparison to the extreme loquaciousness and sociable babble of his other films. Beatrice Romand’s small, stocky frame, sturdy Breton (?) features and halo of black frizzy hair are instantly recognisable, and she always looks like she’s up for a good verbal scrap. The two actresses played opposite each other as friends in Conte d’Automne (An Autumn Tale) in 1998, the one scheming on behalf of the other on this occasion to find her a partner who will help her manage her wine vineyard. The two evidently have a great time together.

Love and cafe noir - Zouzou tempts in L'Amour L'Apres Midi
Rohmer also casts actresses from the world of music. Zouzou (real name Daniele Ciarlet), a character known as much for whom she went around with in the 60s (Brian Jones, principally) as anything, was cast in L’Amour L’Apres-Midi (Love in the Afternoon) as a free spirit tempting the middle-aged, male protagonist to stray from his normal quotidian existence. The actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, who is possessed of (or by?) a strange pop bel canto voice which seems also to inflect her speech patterns, also appeared in several films. Rohmer even tried his hand at directing a pop video in the 80s, when the form was at its height, or nadir, depending on what aesthetic cup of tea you favour. He made it for the single Bois Ton Café, by Rosette (real name Francoise Quere – what is it with the French reducing female singers to singular girlish appellations?) Whatever its merits or demerits (and let’s face it, it’s no classic), it shows that he was no highbrow elitist turning his nose up at popular culture.

Rosette says Bois Ton Cafe

La Collectioneuse, released in 1967, was the first film which Rohmer made with Les Films Du Losange, an independent production company set up the director and actor (he was in Rohmer’s 1963 short La Boulangere de Monceau) Barbet Schroeder. He was to continue making films with them until he finished his Tales of Four Seasons with Conte d’Automne in 1998, and this long term relationship with a sympathetic independent producer allowed him to make his modestly budgeted films regularly and without interference. With a degree of self-effacement, Rohmer described himself as a cineaste du Dimanche, or Sunday film maker, which might also be a reference to the small and self-contained nature of his work. It’s a description which also incorporates his no-nonsense approach to filming, with his very economical use of resources in terms of actual footage shot, partly due to his extensive pre-planning and lengthy rehearsals with the actors (perhaps another reason why he preferred to work with a less experienced cast). In this, he was greatly aided by his early working experience with the cameraman Nestor Almendros, who went on to become one of the most highly regarded and sought after cinematographers in Hollywood.

This economical attitude to film-making and relationship with a small-scale producer is very much in line with the American independent cinema of the last few decades, and he can be seen as an influential progenitor of this type of film, whether directly or indirectly. The tendency of US indie films to feature kookie and off the wall characters may simply be a reflection of the American suspicion of articulacy and self-analysis (in the movies, at least – where analysis is something you pay someone else to do for you) which seems so natural in French cinema. A direct cross-over between the two worlds (and an interesting reflection of the resultant culture clashes) can be found in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Before Sunrise and Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris, all of which are very Rohmerian.

Rohmer plays great attention to the atmospheres of setting and time (reflected in the variations in colour and light according to season and weather), which are captured in filming which takes place almost entirely on location. There is a sense that these environments, with their temporal and special specificity, affect the emotional weather of the characters who inhabit or move through them and play their part in guiding their flow of verbalised feeling. In a classic nature/nurture fashion, these characters are as much products of their surroundings as they are creatures of will. This is one reason why holidays, with their relaxed but also at times disconcerting feel of the temporary suspension of the known and familiar world, play such a large part in Rohmer’s work. Particular settings recur across films, with characters sometimes shuttling between them within the same film, as if between different states. There are the beaches and holiday houses of French coastal resorts in Conte d’ete, Pauline a la Plage and Le Rayon Vert, with a slight variant in the form of the Genevan lakeside house in Le Genou de Claire; The arid, pre-planned zones of the satellite new towns orbiting Paris in Nuits de la Pleine Lune and L’Ami de mon Amie; The many different faces and moods of Paris (where Rohmer lived) in La Femme de L’Aviateur, L’Amour L’Apres-Midi, Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune and Le Beau Mariage; And the comfortingly traditional pace of provincial and rural towns in Le Beau Mariage, and the Contes d’Automne, Printemps and Hiver.

Back at the beach - Conte d'Ete
Rohmer also made several historical films, whose literary provenance was foregrounded by a theatrical artificiality which serves to set them apart from the rest of his oeuvre as much as the period settings. The Marquise of O from 1976 goes as far as to use the German language in order to stay true to its novelistic source in an 1808 work by Heinrich von Kleist. Its concern with social attitudes and relationships negotiated through extended scenes of dialogue link it with Rohmer’s films set in the contemporary world, but the preoccupation with perceived honour and propriety as being an essential corollary to social standing conjures up a particular historical mindset. This is startlingly evident in the way the monstrous, unseen act which is the abyss at the heart of the story (the rape and impregnation of an unconscious woman) is circumvented by an evasive dance of manners designed to uphold the honour of all involved. A young Bruno Ganz is the initially dazzlingly romantic figure of the general who descends like a scouring angel to protect the Marquise’s honour, only to violate it and thus undermine such notions of gallant romanticism. He is a much chastened figure in the rest of the film, stripped of all heroic glamour as he seeks to make reparation for his sins with painstaking (and painful) insistence. The film also departs from Rohmer’s modern tales, as do his other historical works, in that it takes place almost entirely in interior settings.

Perceval Le Gallois was adapted from Chretien de Troyes’ medieval French romance telling of the Arthurian tales and was not a great success critically or commercially at the time (it was released in 1979), perhaps due to its deliberately stagebound air of artificiality (it would be interesting to compare it with Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac from the same era, which is a gruellingly realistic version of the myths). This may have prompted Rohmer to return to the modern world, as his next film started off the Comedies and Proverbs sequence and the 80s and 90s period which saw him at the height of his popularity. More recently he returned to literary historicism after the completion of the Tales of Four Seasons sequence. With mildly controversial consequences (although given that the doctrinaire left had never, and had never been likely to like his work, this was probably of little concern to him) he made a film set during the French Revolution in which the heroine was a Scottish aristocrat. The Lady and the Duke (L’Anglaise et le Duc) from 2001 again took a literary work as its source, this time a memoir of the revolutionary period by one Lady Grace Elliot with the self-explanatory title Journal of my Life During the French Revolution. The film focuses on her relationship with the moderate republican the Duke of Orleans and is taken up with conversations between the two as they observe the progress of events and seek to navigate their way through treacherous political waters, before finally plotting their escape when their eventual fate becomes self-evident. Rohmer’s last film, released last year, was the Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astre et de Celadon) which was a classical pastoral romance based on an early 17th century work by one Honore d’Urfe.

Fuseli's Nightmare sans imp - Die Marquise von O
The backgrounds of the exteriors in The Lady and the Duke are digital reproductions of illustrations of the time against which characters and other figures are seen to move. The effect is reminiscent of a modern-day magic lantern show and is again self-consciously artificial. It also shows that Rohmer was influenced by pictorial as well as literary antecedents. There are several direct references to works of art in his films, perhaps most strikingly in his restaging of Henri Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare in Die Marquise von O. The absence of the malevolently hunched imp suggests the absence of any supernatural agency involved in the Marquise’s predicament. Paintings are found hung from or pinned onto walls in several of the contemporary films, and Rohmer always draws attention to them in his interviews on the dvds of the films in question. They usually have some analogous link with the characters with whom they are associated, offering an oblique commentary on their personality or appearance. The Matisse painting on the wall in Pauline a la Plage is one example and makes for a good poster.

Matisse on the wall
Rohmer’s films can be divisive. Not so much in a love them or hate them way, rather love them or feel complete indifference towards them. Many simply can’t see the point in sitting and watching people talk endlessly about potential courses of action. The films exist on a plane of intellectual contemplation rather than action, and as such could be seen as inherently unfilmic according to some criteria. This could also make them a refreshing change from the more visceral pleasures generally offered up in the cinema, of course. Left wing critics tended to object to the self-absorption of the generally well-off characters and the lack of any engagement with social issues. True enough, but a critical approach which seems to demand that the films be something which they never set out to be in the first place, and to concern themselves with issues Rohmer evidently has no interest in addressing. Like complaining that a chicken doesn’t produce very good beef. But for those who enjoy the to and fro of a hearty philosophical discourse which is intellectually engaging even whilst at its most self-deluding, and who revel in the sensual pleasures of Frenchness in general (seen here in all of its most appealing, and some of its mildly irritating aspects), the films are a delight. And with all those many, many words, they are a great linguistic learning tool if you’re trying to pick up a bit of the old lingua franca.

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