Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Apology to Eric Rohmer

Reading the movie pages of magazines last year I often reflected that the French directors of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) were a long-lived bunch. New films by Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda and the late Eric Rohmer, who passed away this week at the age of 89, had come out within the past couple of years, and Jean-Luc Godard is supposed to have a new film on the way. I don't rank any of them among my favorite directors, but I had favorite films from all of them that I rated quite highly -- except for Rohmer. At the time of his death, I'd only seen one of his films, The Lady and the Duke. I found that an entertaining trifle noteworthy for its sympathetically reactionary viewpoint and Rohmer's use of CGI to add some period artistry to his scenes. Some time before, I had tried to watch Perceval Le Gallois, but I don't think I lasted ten minutes. The film's pseudo-naive theatricality turned me off, which may reflect more on me and my tastes at the time than on Rohmer. As a movie historian I knew that in Rohmer a major figure had died, and there are plenty of blogs to say so, but I had nothing to say. I felt a little embarrassed by that. I did an obit for Art Clokey and not for Eric Rohmer. So to make up for my omission, I decided to watch another Rohmer movie. The Albany Public Library gave me two choices: 1. The Romance of Astree and Celadon, his last film, an evocation of ancient Greece that looked like Perceval territory to me, and 2. Chloe in the Afternoon, a self-contained film in his "Six Moral Tales" series. So...

CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (L'Amour l'apres-midi, 1972)

I can't really tell you anything about the "Six Moral Tales" except that this is the last of them. It consists of a prologue, a first act that actually comprises most of the film, and a half-hour second act. A voiceover identifies the main character and narrator of the film as Frederic, a young lawyer with a wife and daughter, with another baby on the way. We meet his partner and their secretaries and we learn that Frederic's the kind of guy who likes to be among people but not necessarily with them. He enjoys crowds. He goes shopping in department stores to escape the afternoon tedium of the office. He says he loves Helene, his wife, and while we don't necessarily doubt him he exhibits an odd sort of alienation that craves the anonymity and generality of crowds. That happens to be a kind of alienation I can identify with, so Rohmer has my interest for now.

Frederic feels that the anonymity of the public sphere enables him to ogle women and fantasize about them without crossing any border of intimacy that would make it cheating. What harm can there be in daydreaming of dalliances with ladies you'll probably never speak to or never even see again? These fantasies are pretty sweeping and detailed. Frederic imagines himself in possession of an amulet that gives him power over women. He stands on a picturesque Paris corner like a master vampire, the amulet around his neck, bending almost every woman he encounters to his will. This idea alone is the stuff of full-length sex comedies, but Rohmer lets the idea drop once he's established that his hero fantasizes about a conquering transgressive will that, as we'll see, he doesn't really possess.

Frederic works the amulet. A big hat and bigger more colorful lapels would probably be helpful.

Act One introduces a woman from Frederic's past, the Chloe of the film's American title. They were never lovers from what we see, but Chloe was apparently bad news for one of Frederic's friends who attempted suicide during their relationship. She's aggressive and brusque and back from years abroad. At different times she wants Frederic to hire her or help her find a job, to help her close on a new apartment, or to screw her. She's one of those almost stereotypical French persons who are philosophically articulate on the subject of adultery and its normalcy in human nature. She's not out to break up Frederic's marriage, but feels that he, like anyone, is entitled to cheat for the sake of variety. Polygamy or polyamory is her ideal.

At first she seems to come on too strong for Frederic's taste, but when she goes away for a while he finds himself missing her demanding attention. Protesting his love for Helene all the while, he heads to the border of transgression until at the climax of Act Two he's in Chloe's apartment contemplating her naked, inviting form -- and then he runs like hell. The situation has become too intimate to serve as fantasy, but it gives him an intimation of the real root of his alienated immersion in the multitude. It may be as simple as a reluctant recoil from the intensity of the emotional intimacy of marriage, a failing he strives to correct as the film closes.

One film is insufficient evidence for me to declare any director a master, so I'll content myself with saying I liked L'Amour l'apres-midi quite a bit. It's a modest movie filmed in naturalist mode apart from the occasional jarring jump cut and the irresistible temptation of an overhead shot of a spiraling staircase in Chloe's apartment building. The modesty extends to standard-frame imagery and a drab look (despite some ace cinematographers, but perhaps because of a bad Fox Lorber DVD transfer) inevitably enlivened by location work on the streets of Paris. It may be that as a director Rohmer was a great writer, be he gets good performances from his actors, Bernard and Francoise Verley as the couple and Zouzou as Chloe.

The illusion of intimacy in crowds is comforting to many a city dweller, Rohmer suggests.

I guess it's simplest to say that Rohmer was part of the humane tradition of cinema. He's a director for people who want an empathetic experience from movies, or insights into human nature and human relationships. As a rule I still tend more toward a spectacular or sensationalist aesthetic sense for which empathy isn't always the highest priority, so I doubt that Rohmer will ever become one of my favorite directors. But I felt that I owed it to history this week to verify for myself that he had the talent and insight others claim for him, and on the strength of this film, at least, I think that history will vindicate him.

Bonus: If you want more images from Chloe, check out Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter for an extensive photo set.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Actually, we did lose one proponent of this great film movement at a young age and that was Francois Truffaut, who passes on in his early 50's. And there is still another member up there in age, Claude Chabrol.
Samuel, I would give PERCEVAL another shot, as I looked at it a second time, and had a reversal of opinion. The Gaiwan/Damsel of the Small Sleeves episode is amazing, but the entire Old French approach here is stunning. The film may have indeed reflected your "taste at the time." Excellent segment approach here to CHLOE, the last of the 'Moral Tales' where there is of course that erotic underpinning and the witty verbal passages. My favorite is the one where Frederic describes his love for the crowds of Paris as equally his passion for the sea. As I recall, the language he used to describe this was beautifully metaphorical.

Wonderful testimonial here Samuel, and very nice choice.