As part of our coverage of TIFF’s “first retrospective in 20 years dedicated to the French New Wave master, whose films find the elusive nexus of sparkling wit, philosophical profundity, and erotic obsession.” You can find more info here (programmer’s essay): http://tiff.net/summer2016-cinematheque/dangerous-liaisons-the-films-of-eric-rohmer
And full schedule here: http://tiff.net/summer2016-cinematheque/dangerous-liaisons-the-films-of-eric-rohmer
When you get interested in film, one of the first things that comes to mind (as with books), is the inherent despair that you’ll never get to see all of the greatest films you want to see in a lifetime. There’s just not enough time. In fact, there’s not enough exposure for most films out there, and if you’re a film critic, you get exposed to an overwhelming amount of film.
Thus, it’s with no great surprise that I found myself enthralled under a bunch of Éric Rohmer films for the first time this past week. With many to write about I have chosen Claire’s Knee, My Night At Maud’s, and Pauline At The Beach as the films I will talk about in this piece.
I have a problem with Rohmer films.
“I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” – Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby in Night Moves (as I read on wiki)
Ok, it’s not that, although I can see where Moseby is coming from. Scenes in Rohmer’s films are replete with dialogue and scenes of people taking in the every day. It’s part realism and part analysis of tight scenes on very intricate interactions between characters. The dialogue in Rohmer’s films is the essence of the story and not necessarily the situations or the plots of the films themselves. There’s plenty in his films for someone to roll their eyes at though. Let’s see: the idea of banality of politics and philosophical discussions about the upper class by artists who holiday in exotic locales and hang out with fellow artists, for one. I can point out the times I’ve seen older men creep upon younger women “coming of age” in his films. The truth is, you can see through the situations in Rohmer’s films and find the meat in the gestures and interactions of his characters and the empowerment of the young women in his films.
Take Claire’s Knee, for example. It is the story of a diplomat/intellectual Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) who goes on holiday before he gets married. He meets up with an author, Aurora (Aurora Cornu) who proposes he entice, not seduce, her landlady’s teenage daughter Laura (Béatrice Romand) for the sake of a story and/or experiment. Laura partially fall in lust with Jérôme while he platonically talks of love and attachment with her. Then towards the end of his vacation, he encounters Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), Laura’s slightly older stepsister. While Claire is on a ladder, he spies her knee. He says to Aurora later with pure fascination:
“Every woman has her most vulnerable point. For some, it’s the nape of the neck, the waist, the hands. For Claire, in that position, in that light, it was her knee.”
He becomes obsessed with Claire as an enigma of his desires, a goal, and condenses his desire for her in tapping into her vulnerability.
At some point he does get to touch her knee (oh what a moment it is), but the knee is really besides the point. The two young girls, Laura and Claire, have the world at their feet because of their beauty and the power of their youth. They hold their own in very adult situations and conversations. Rohmer found the teenage girl, as a character, mysterious and level headed in her agency. Claire and Laura see right through Jérôme’s advances. It’s the same thing I saw in Pauline At The Beach.
I kind of hated everyone in Pauline At The Beach except for the titular character. It is the tale of fifteen year old, Pauline (Amanda Langlet) who vacations in Granville with her soon-to-be divorced aunt, Marion (Arielle Dombasle). There Marion, who I found lacked maturity in these situations, encounters an old flame, Pierre (Pascal Greggory). Pierre is still in love with her, but Marion refuses his advances. She falls for a Sylvain (Simone de La Brosse) who is older, cultured, and much more experienced than Pierre. To dissuade Pierre she tells him to go after Pauline, to give her some experience in the language of love. Pauline, meanwhile, has fallen for a local boy. She finds him down to earth and without the tired complications that the adults have around her.
At one point in the film, Sylvain comes on to Pauline as she sleeps. She kicks him hard when she wakes up and laughs at his predictability. Why of course this old man was going to come on to her! She finds all adults around her full of intricate storylines, all not knowing what they want out of life, especially out of love. I found this the most meaningful and honest part of the film, aside from the intellectual lectures about what an ideal woman should be.
In both films, Claire’s Knee and Pauline At The Beach, the men in the films look for the unusual looking woman who is ideal because she keeps their men guessing and provoke passion because of their elusiveness. In turn, the young women in the film call bullshit on the pedestal they and their older counterparts have been placed on. They reject the elder men, maybe as forms of older forms of love and seduction. The young women of these films seek directness, honesty, and find reason within that.
I found Rohmer to be at his strongest and probably purest form in My Night At Maud’s. In it we find Jean-Louis ( Jean-Louis Trintignant who many might remember from Amour – the film that got me back into writing about film), a very Catholic man who reconnects with an old friend by the name of Vidal (Antoine Vitez) who’s a Marxist. Vidal invites Jean-Louis to meet a lover of his, Maude (Françoise Fabian). Maude is a woman who is bigger than life and because of this Jean-Louise becomes smitten. However, he is looking for someone, an ideal woman, he can marry, specifically a Catholic with all the qualities he hungers for himself.
While Jean-Louis, can come across as just another one of Rohmer’s failed and idealized intellectuals, what I found was that it didn’t matter that while I watching this film present day, there are many that think like Jean-Louis still. Jean-Louis is obsessed with his hatred for Pascal’s theories of probability, he also uses them to experiment with his own life. He falls for a girl, Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), in church. While he understands that fate or probability have placed Maud as a prospect, he believes he is destined to be Françoise. It’s this entanglement and its consequences fascinate Jean-Louis and motivate him far more than love itself.
“For a Communist, Pascal’s wager is very relevant today. Personally, I very much doubt that history has any meaning. Yet I wager that it has, so I’m in a Pascalian situation. Hypothesis A: Society and politics are meaningless. Hypothesis B: History has meaning. I’m not at all sure B is more likely to be true than A. More likely the reverse. Let’s even suppose B has a 10% chance of being true and A has 80%. Nevertheless I have no choice but to opt for B, because only the hypothesis that history has meaning allows me to go on living. Suppose I bet on A, and B was true, despite the lesser odds. I’d have thrown away my life. So I must choose B to justify my life and actions. There’s an 80% chance I’m wrong but that doesn’t matter.” – Jean-Louis in My Night At Maud’s
Meanwhile, Maud constantly questions him and his intentions. She goes beyond the scope of Pascal and presents her own form of femininity in a single sentence:
“I’m a terrible exhibitionist. It just comes over me.”
Maud presents herself as fully flawed, never satisfied, and constantly looking for true passion in the loves of her life. While she falls for Jean-Louis and sees stability in him, she is fully aware of her own search for a love that is just as flawed and unbalanced as she is.
My love for Rohmer’s technique does not lie in his dialogue or the way he frames his films, although there is much to be said about that. Rather, my love for Rohmer’s films is his appreciation for the woman who is constantly idealized and praised/preyed upon, and her agency beyond that male-framed bubble.
- Claire’s Knee: Rohmer’s Women
By Molly Haskell: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/438-claire-s-knee-rohmer-s-women
- A conversation with Marie Rivière … Eric Rohmer’s intelligent adoration of women: https://52frenchfilms.org/2015/05/26/a-conversation-with-marie-riviere-eric-rohmers-intelligent-adoration-of-women/
- Rohmer the Classicist, Calmly Dissecting Desire http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/movies/13rohmer.html?_r=0