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Our Nights Chez Rohmer

But the actors are, finally, the story. Their youth and their physical beauty are what we are being led to contemplate. It may seem perverse (more, perhaps, for younger than for older viewers) for a director in his late eighties to engage in such an overtly erotic homage to the joys and pains of youthful love—even filtered through the ceremonies and masquerades of a late Renaissance author—but it is the physical presence of the actors that gives the story its emotional meaning. A bare recounting of the plot would not amount to more than a footnote on the secret link between Greco-Roman pastoral and the modern novel, even if such secret links—all the ways in which the past leaks into the present—are important to Rohmer. It is only because people—precisely these people, with precisely these eyes and lips and hair—are acting it out that we can be so moved by its preordained narrative turns.

When the nymph Galatea exclaims “God! How beautiful he is!” as she looks down at the sleeping Celadon, she only confirms what the camera has already proven. When Celadon in turn finds Astrea sleeping in the forest and allows himself to gaze at her exposed legs, we are permitted—or, rather, obliged—to share his gaze, the effect redoubled by a voice-over reciting d’Urfé’s description of the scene. The whole narrative is a labyrinth of ritual encounters culminating in the baring of Astrea’s breast, as if the whole point of the travails and complications of the benighted lovers were to finally give full value to that ultimate revelation and the embrace it makes inevitable. The mood in the end is at once of sexual happiness and comic exhilaration, with a punchline worthy of the Moral Tales or the Comedies and Proverbs. The sadness held in check is all in what is not shown: the passing of youth, the passing even of the rural landscapes in which youth has enacted its passions and pursuits, the disappearance of the worlds that humans create in order to have a world they can bear to live in.

The disparate elements of which Astrea and Celadon is made are not fused but rather overlaid, a series of transparencies; we see them all at once, but can easily separate them out. There is the seventeenth century of d’Urfé, whose châteaus and paintings provide décor; the fifth-century pastoral Gaul of nymphs and shepherds imagined by him on models provided by classical antiquity, and here represented by paintings depicting such episodes as the judgment of Paris and Psyche spying on the sleeping Eros; the actual trees and hillsides and rivers and clouds of the Auvergne, not background but the very matter of the movie; the actual young men and women reciting d’Urfé’s text; the omnipresent birds ceaselessly reciting their own cheeping and twittering text—and, unseen but underlying everything, the camera that records what is going on in front of it in the first years of the twenty-first century, with a blank simplicity suggesting at moments that Louis Lumière might have set up the shot at the dawn of cinema.

It is a movie haunted by time, even as it exults in breeze and sunlight. The dead words of a novel whose full text sits, mostly unread, in the Bibliothèque Nationale are brought to life out of the mouths of the young. The substance if not the subject of a film can only be the succession of present moments which it does not describe but is. If this indeed is to be Rohmer’s last film, small wonder that he feels obliged to affirm once more that presence which is distinctly what cinema, in a different way than any other art, is about—or at least what his cinema has always been about. The trees are there, the wind is there, the young are there still young; and the words, even if they were taken from an ancient and perhaps unreadable book, are there too, brought to life not simply by being spoken but by being filmed as they are being spoken.

The oddness of film is that it continually forces us to reconsider what terms like “real” and “artificial” might actually mean. In A Tale of Winter, a film that despite its almost documentary tonality is only superficially more “realistic” than Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s hapless heroine Félicie, mourning a love lost (or at least seriously misplaced) through an absurd error, is taken to see a performance of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She watches as Leontes, shown the statue of his supposedly dead wife Hermione, cries out “It’s her!”—and she dissolves in tears. On the way home her intellectual escort, thinking perhaps that the play was beyond her, apologizes condescendingly for its lack of realism. She murmurs, “I don’t like what’s realistic” (Je n’aime pas ce qui est semblable). The film then proceeds toward its own miraculous conclusion, having summed up in that cry of “It’s her!” the whole mystery of what the cinema seems at once to offer and to withhold: life caught hold of, life restored.

For all the words in his films, and for all the words he has himself written about films, his own and others’, Rohmer manages always to leave the essential unsaid. In countless utterances he has gestured away from anything that can be easily formulated: “In learning how to understand, the modern moviegoer forgot how to see.” “[Cinema] does not say things differently but says different things.” “My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse….What I say, I do not say with words.”5 In the same way, and despite the relatively high visibility of his films (the greater part of his work has been made available on DVD or video), Rohmer sometimes seems a director who hides in plain sight, a visionary masquerading as a harmless eccentric.

He seemed to have a formula; it was easy to pigeonhole his films as a series of endless discussions of, mostly, the dating problems of bourgeois French people, whether philosophy professors, hairdressers, or engineering students. His plots often revolved around the most trivial of misunderstandings between couples, the sort of devices that might once have shored up a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or for that matter Elvis Presley. (Imagine Boyfriends and Girlfriends remade with musical numbers as It Happened in Cergy-Pontoise.) Even if they weren’t condemned as “filmed theater” or “like paint drying” (Gene Hackman’s quip in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves), Rohmer’s films seemed for many to fall into the realm of more or less cozy pleasures. (Pauline Kael, while occasionally praising his craftsmanship, described his films variously as “glib,” “complacent,” “innocuous,” and “minor.”) His tendency to work variations on a theme as he moved through successive film cycles, like his predilection for a drastically restrained film grammar, fostered the notion that his work was in some way predictable—much in the self- deceptive way that his characters found their own lives predictable.

Rohmer was born in 1920—he is the eldest of that extraordinary generation of French filmmakers that encompasses Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Alexandre Astruc, Agnès Varda, Maurice Pialat, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Louis Malle, and Francois Truffaut—but he came to filmmaking late, after earlier careers as a provincial high school teacher, a failed novelist, a film critic (and, for a time, editor of Cahiers du Cinéma). At Cahiers he reverted continually to the directors who had marked him most profoundly: Griffith, F.W. Murnau, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, and Roberto Rossellini (whose Stromboli he described as “my Road to Damascus”).

With Claude Chabrol he wrote a study of Alfred Hitchcock, brilliant and endlessly suggestive, notorious in its day for attributing to the director themes that then seemed grandiose, such as ” le transfert de culpabilité” and ” la tentation de la déchéance.6 He was nearly forty when he made his first feature in 1959—the greatly underrated and sadly hard-to-see The Sign of the Lion, a small masterpiece about, precisely, la tentation de la déchéance. After its total commercial failure he worked as a writer and director of educational TV programs while proceeding slowly with his six-film project the Moral Tales, based on his own unpublished stories, of which he said, “If eventually I did turn them into films, it was because I had not succeeded in writing them.”7

The unexpected success of La Collectionneuse in 1966, followed the next year by the international sensation of My Night at Maud’s, finally gave him the chance to work more regularly; but that regularity was only possible because he made an art of economy. “Often in my films,” he has remarked, “the practical and financial choices dovetail quite well with the artistic choices”—choices including the employment of direct sound and natural settings, the absence of special effects, elaborate musical scores, or (except for his literary adaptations) period costuming, and above all the use of small casts of relatively little-known actors enacting stories devoid of complicated action sequences, stories in which the characters, often and at length, talk.

The characters—and this was another trait that made it easy to put Rohmer in a category off by himself—were of a sort that most films ignored or marginalized: they were, in various ways and to various degrees, self-absorbed, self-deluding, caught up in self-defeating habits, petulant, defensive, shy to the point of passive aggression: people who, encountered in life, might be dull or irritating, but who were just as much the heroes of their own lives—and of their films—as the characters portrayed by Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman. If they lacked glamour, they made up for it with the intensity of their absorption in their own problems. Neither inflating them nor condescending to them, Rohmer simply lured the spectator into becoming implicated in their doings, or more precisely their tellings. The spectator might find the experience either uncomfortably like sitting in a restaurant next to a couple whose conversation is full of gaffes and awkward pauses, or uncomfortably like looking into a mirror.

It was like watching people directing movies of their own lives, and led unavoidably to a contemplation of what one’s own life might look like if filmed in a similar fashion. There was no need to make up stories because people made them up themselves. Each life was a story, riveting to its protagonist, marked by scenes of emotional outpouring and violent confrontation which, exposed on the screen, were reduced to the tiniest of dimensions. A brief outburst such as the moment in The Aviator’s Wife when the hero’s older girlfriend broke away from him and ran into the midst of some parked cars felt, in a Rohmerian context, shockingly violent.

Likewise, in the same movie, a series of random encounters and pursuits on a bus and in a park assumed the dimensions of a Hitchcockian chase film in miniature. The characters framed the world around themselves: human action left to itself appeared to provide its own mise-en-scène, while all the time being observed by a godlike camera indifferently registering contradictions and distinctions. Not that Rohmer really believed in leaving things to chance—it was only that chance had a way of coming to the assistance of his already thoroughly meditated schemes, like the unsolicited gusts of wind that play such an exuberant part in Astrea and Celadon.

If there is a paradox in his work, it is the uncanny harmony between an ideal of total control and an aptitude for spontaneous improvisation and chance discovery. Seen in one perspective, his films are tart, sharp, exact, measured, limited, obsessive, the work of a logician, a pedagogue. In another light—or rather in the same light, but from another angle—they are open, airy, rapt, meditative, fundamentally mysterious. A young man (in Boyfriends and Girlfriends) recounts a banal fantasy of meeting a girl in the forest; the camera pans, in a rudimentary fashion that makes formal mastery indistinguishable from amateurism, across a cluster of trees, and you almost have the impression that Rohmer made the whole movie so that he could do that shot—except that the impression is not isolated. Such moments occur constantly. The supposed triviality of the situations in his films is the best concealment he could ever have devised for himself.

Taken one at a time, each of his films seems to show with perfect clarity what it is about; we could almost write a book on the kitchens and bedrooms and cafés and offices in which his characters (whom we come to know almost too well) pass their time. Yet seen as a whole—and it is a body of work that insists on being seen as a whole—they exert a lingering sense of open-ended fascination, as if perhaps they were about something altogether different from what we imagined while caught up in the moment-to-moment doings of Frédéric or Delphine or Félicie. Returning to the same film, we find always that it is never the same film twice; and it is never the same detail—whether a shrug or a turn of the head or a reflection in a shop window or an ever-so-slight forward glide of the camera—that suddenly takes on devastating immediacy. Film being film, the immediacy persists. These are windows that remain open, offering elusive but ineffaceable glimpses of the life within.

  1. 5

    Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, pp. 29, 73, and 80.

  2. 6

    Roughly, “transference of guilt” and “temptation of disgrace.”

  3. 7

    Eric Rohmer, preface to Six Moral Tales, translated by Sabine D’Estrée (Viking, 1980).

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