Criterion Sunday 348: L’Amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972)

At a certain level I think this may be one of my favourite of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Like a lot of them, it focuses on a male protagonist wrestling with his feelings towards other women, that exquisitely pitched level of emotional detachment from his own life allowing these fantasies of being another man doing the things that the other men do, intersecting with his own moral compass. Sometimes the men in Rohmer’s films just seem awful, sometimes they are vacuous, and then there’s Frédéric (Bernard Verley) here. He’s a natural enough actor, and not unattractive, but he has a very familiar quality, a rather pathetic demeanour, for while he loves his wife he fantasises about other women, and when Chloé (Zouzou) breezes into his office to pick up a friendship abandoned after university, he naturally starts to drift towards this idea of himself as a ladies’ man which the rest of his body seems to utterly resist. It creates a constant frisson of awkwardness that makes his interactions with Chloé hard to watch as a result, because he is so visibly struggling with himself; it’s what the film’s about but the very accuracy with which it nails Frédéric makes me uncomfortable. All of Rohmer’s films have this kind of balance to them, and as an oeuvre I think he has achieved something rather singular, even if at an individual level they just seem like so many stories about rather pathetic men.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The final film above has another rather early short film on the set as a supplement, Véronique et son cancre (Véronique and Her Dunce, 1958). Nicole Berger, who played another Véronique in an early Godard short film the next year (and who sadly died less than 10 years later), here plays a tutor to an annoying kid who wants nothing more than for his tutoring to be over so he can go play. Obviously what this short is capturing is a fairly common feeling amongst all of us during our education, and Véronique is hardly particularly invested in it either, so this becomes a tiny little microcosm of a battle of the wills between the two. The kid isn’t a dunce, but he is also isn’t really invested in things either.
  • There’s also an afterword by filmmaker Neil LaBute touching on all the moral tales, and the inspiration he takes from them in his own work. I think it’s a solid summation of the value of Rohmer’s films as a set, and some of the themes which he develops within the six films.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Françoise Verley; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 347: Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970)

It’s hard not to watch this film without acknowledging the very creepy power dynamic at its heart, as our bearded late-30-something protagonist Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) arrives in Annecy on holiday before his wedding, where he bumps into an old friend Aurora (Cornu) and then proceeds to obsess over his friend’s landlady’s teenage daughters. To be fair Aurora encourages him in flirting with them, and he is a very strangely touchy-feely kind of guy, and it’s worth pointing out from the outset that nothing particularly untoward happens, it’s just that constant way he is always talking himself into action (or, as frequently, inaction) that puts one’s guard up. Then again, that’s really what you feel Rohmer is going for and if there’s one thing I’ve taken from this run of “Moral Tales”, it’s that Rohmer’s male protagonists are all pretty terrible, in their own ways. Jérôme’s particular problem is that he likes to analyse everything, and Aurora, who’s a novelist, likes to listen to him do this, and even encourage him a bit. Brialy is almost like a Woody Allen presence in a way, constantly commending himself on his own restraint while also talking up the potential outcomes, that could involve him romancing these teenage girls, Laura (Béatrice Romand) and then her sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), who to her credit isn’t interested in Jérôme at all. It’s a film ultimately about the power of storytelling itself, which may explain some of its enduring appeal — though the luminous colour cinematography by Néstor Almendros helps too — but the power dynamic between its leads remains offputting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Linked to Claire’s Knee, the third disc features a short film called La Cambrure (The Curve, 1999) which was made under the auspices of Éric Rohmer and displays plenty of Rohmerian feeling. It has the lead actor — who is also the film’s director and writer, Edwige Shaki — put herself into the context of European art by almost literally modelling herself on various paintings pictured in her art historian boyfriend’s flat. It’s witty and concise in its way of taking on these artistic ideas of women that are promulgated by men, along with a sly demolition of the boyfriend’s own motivations for getting into the relationship at the end. It’s slight, but likeable.
  • Accompanying this film is a short interview segment from a French TV show in which Brialy, Monaghan and Romand all discuss working with the very private Rohmer (who did not of course appear). There’s a little bit about the making of the film, in the sense of Brialy telling of how far in advance Rohmer was doing his planning, but the rest is just descriptions of Rohmer and his working from his young actors.
  • As well as the short film and the interviews, there’s also a trailer for the original release, and of course it’s just snippets of talking. Makes one wonder how it lured people in, but I suppose the audience of the time were more understanding of Rohmer’s style.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 13 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 346: La Collectionneuse (1967)

At first blush this feels like a very typical leeringly sexist film, as our title character Haydée (Politoff) is introduced in a bikini walking in the surf, reduced to shots of her body, not speaking. It is instead the two men, the suave Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) and the bookish repressed Daniel (Pommereulle), who get to talk. The former is heard at great length as the narrator, presenting his opinions, flirting then arguing with Haydée, and reflecting on his own growth as a person — the film is set during a period he spends away from his girlfriend, at a friend’s mansion in the south of France. But the crux of the film seems in fact to be the way that Adrien has his own view of Haydée and lets it run riot in his mind; he acclaims himself for not falling for her, and constantly implies that she is trying to lure him, but all we actually see is him initiating contact, being obsessed, stroking her creepily. Her interior thoughts are never heard, but she has to be pliable and friendly because of guys like Adrien who expect women to put out, and who think the moral strength is all in their own (as it turns out, non-existent) resistance. So the film focuses on these typically wordy self-obsessed French cinema men and takes them apart, albeit slowly and subtly, because it allows them the rope to hang themselves with (or at least, so it seems to me). Perhaps Haydée isn’t fully developed as a character after all (it is still a French film of the 60s), but in part because she’s just a projection of Adrien’s desires, and that’s what the film is focusing on.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On the second disc, as an extra to the film above, is Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (A Modern Coed, 1966). This is an odd little film, a documentary which just watches a number of young women and marvels at their increased visibility within the academic system. It’s a little condescending, it feels at times, but seems to come from a place of interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle and Alain Jouffroy; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 345: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969)

There’s a reason people make austere black-and-white films about relationships, and it might just date back to this film. Well, maybe not (as themes go it’s a mainstay of the art cinema canon), but clearly this film forms a sizeable chunk of what people think about when they think about French cinema. Four people in the city of Clermont-Ferrand intersect with one another, but never at the same time, and slowly the ties that bind each of them become clearer — never explained exactly, but they become like a shadow across the other relationships, fracturing them in perhaps unexpected ways. It’s all very subtle and it follows the format of a series of dialogues, explicitly linking itself to Pascal’s Pensées in expounding on the moral questions that are at its heart (this is, after all, the third in Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” series). An attractive engineer played by Jean-Louis Trintignant has a reputation as a bit of a player, and falls for a woman at church (Marie-Christine Barrault), but then via a school friend gets to know another woman (the Maud of the title, played by Françoise Fabian), and must essentially choose between them, and this perhaps is his Pascalian wager. Maud is, secretly, the tie between all of them, and the way Rohmer unveils this all is exquisitely structured. I think perhaps it’s a film whose complexities only deepen upon rewatching, but clearly it is formally precise and beautifully shot. It’s also, presumably not insificantly (given that Rohmer made this third of his moral tales after the fourth because of his insistence at shooting at the right time of year), a Christmas film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Rohmer’s short film Entretien sur Pascal (On Pascal, 1965) — an episode of a rather dry French TV series called En profil dans le texte — is attached to the film above on Criterion’s disc, and that makes sense because Blaise Pascal and his famous wager is discussed within that film, and indeed forms something of the backbone to the ‘moral tale’ it tells. Here we get a dialogue between a philosopher and a priest touching on this wager, and it’s fairly dry stuff, but not uninteresting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 344: La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963)

Following swiftly on from The Bakery Girl of Monceau is this slightly longer portrait of another man with two women on his mind. We find ourselves in a Parisian café, where all the film’s figures are introduced. It’s not initially clear that the protagonist is Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen), the shy wallflower in the corner, rather than his gregarious friend Guillaume. It’s the latter, after all, whom we see chatting up Suzanne (Catherine Sée), a pretty, smiling girl from the provinces sitting by herself reading. As in the earlier film, a class distinction starts to be formed between Suzanne and her rival in Bertrand’s affections, Sophie, a taller, elegant Parisian. Yet despite not being as clearly compromised as his bolder friend, whose morals are lax to say the least, Bertrand is hardly presented as a perfect match either. His more exaggerated sense of courtliness (no doubt a reaction to Guillaume’s boorishness) makes him rather seem callous and unfeeling, and indeed both women largely shrug off his attentions. And slowly, then, despite Bertrand’s central role in the story (he is the film’s narrator after all), it’s Suzanne who emerges as the strongest and clearest character. Narratively speaking, it’s fascinating the way that despite having this power to shape the audience’s opinions through his point-of-view narration, Suzanne almost seems to move beyond his preconceptions and confounds him through to the end; she could be some Daisy Buchanan-like figure of male desire, but it’s in this interplay that the film particularly succeeds. I wouldn’t say she’s rounded exactly, but she exceeds the narrative and breaks free from it, and ultimately it turns out that she is the character with more than one love interest, while the women in Bertrand’s life move on from him.

(Written on 7 January 2015.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The second short film on the first disc, an supplement to Suzanne’s Career is Nadja à Paris (Nadja in Paris, 1964), and at a certain level there’s really not very much to this short film — the titular student is in Paris to do a thesis on Proust, wanders around, makes observations — but it very much captures a certain spirit of the age. It’s listed as documentary but it could as easily be a drama (and perhaps it is), but it’s about hanging out and soaking up the feeling of a place, and it seems to me that the New Wave filmmakers were among the best at just capturing a feeling.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Daniel Lacambre; Starring Philippe Beuzen, Catherine Sée; Length 54 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 6 January 2015.

Criterion Sunday 343: La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau aka The Baker of Monceau, 1963)

Eric Rohmer returned to filmmaking (after a period editing Cahiers du cinéma followed by the relative disappointment of his delayed feature debut) with this short film, the first in a six-part cycle he called the ‘Contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’). If the story seems somewhat slight (a man pines for an elegant woman, while flirting with a shopgirl), that doesn’t make its execution in any way simplistic. There’s some of that familiar nouvelle vague charm to the location shooting, which all takes place in one neighbourhood, on its grand boulevards, as well as its smaller byways and street market, and there’s charm too in the simplicity of the storyline. Indeed, the narrative pattern of a man in love with two women would be repeated in the later moral tales, but the differences in the women here is telling — Sylvie is a tall woman he passes regularly in the street, who holds herself with a slight hauteur, while Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) is a young shop assistant in a bakery who works every day. Our protagonist (played by the producer Barbet Schroeder) thinks he has a shot at Sylvie but he stops seeing her around for a while and, in her absence, makes a romantic move for Jacqueline. It’s significant too that our male protagonist isn’t named, and that the title of this (and most other films in the cycle) is after one of the women. In a sense, the man is a stand-in for the filmmaker and an audience surrogate, but if so, it’s a deeply critical portrait. He may have some success in love, but he’s shallow and frankly a bit creepily stalky too, and his voiceover makes it clear that his motives are pretty flawed. Rohmer’s sympathy is with the boulangère.

(Written on 7 January 2015.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The short film Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak (Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, 1960) is a supplement to The Bakery Girl of Monceau. This is the earliest short film by Rohmer, starring Jean-Luc Godard and filmed apparently in 1951 although not finished until the end of that decade. Like a lot of the early New Wave films, it’s a slight premise, just two people hanging out and talking. She’s waiting for a train to leave, he’s killing time, chatting her up, hoping for something. Slight, but certainly not lacking in interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographers Bruno Barbey and Jean-Michel Meurice; Starring Barbet Schroeder, Claudine Soubrier; Length 23 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 6 January 2015.

Criterion Sunday 342: “Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales”

This box set takes in six films by French New Wave director Éric Rohmer, not his earliest films (his debut feature film was 1962’s The Sign of Leo), but probably the films which helped him to make his mark. The films are based on his own short stories (a translation of which is included with the box set, making up at least half of the packaging, being a not insubstantial book in itself), and start off with the short film The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), and the slightly longer Suzanne’s Career (1963). The first full feature length Moral Tale is the third, with which he started to really make his name, My Night at Maud’s (1969), nominated even for an Academy Award in the US. However, for production reasons it was the fourth to be made, while the fourth tale La Collectionneuse (1967) was filmed earlier. The series is rounded out by Claire’s Knee (1970), considered by some his masterpiece, and Love in the Afternoon (1972). Rohmer would go on to make films in two more overarching series, his “Comédies et proverbes” of 1981-1987 and “Contes des quatres saisons” (Tales of the Four Seasons) from 1990-1998, and it is from these three series that his most famous works come, such as The Green Ray (1986, aka Summer), which may be my favourite of his films.

As well as the six tales that give it its name, the box set also contains a number of Rohmer’s short films from both before and during the making of the Moral Tales, as well as some supplementary material. Each of these extras is linked to one of the six films, so I will add them to the individual entries.

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

Continue reading “March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962)

I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

If the film’s shooting locations are quite swanky locales, even by the standards of over 50 years ago, it only serves to emphasise the distance its protagonist Pierre (Jess Hahn) has to fall. He may not start off rich, but he cuts a louche, overfed figure, from a solidly middle-class American-Swiss family, and pursues a bohemian lifestyle (as a musician with distinctly modernist proclivities). When a promised inheritance windfall doesn’t materialise, the debts he’s accrued begin to take their toll, and with all his well-connected friends off for their summer holidays (the date intertitles are given prominence), he gets progressively more desperate as July wears on into August. Streets which were once packed with familiar faces start to become more alien to him, friends replaced by Europeans on holiday. This disconnect is made literal as a downwards class mobility by his ever more grubby clothes and dishevelled appearance.

Aside from this sense of place, what Rohmer captures so well, and so subtly, is the way that Pierre’s desperation takes hold. At first he lives on credit at various hotels, having run-ins with the staff, barely making ends meet. We see him walking the streets in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket, passing rough sleepers while frittering away spare francs on inessential items like stain remover for his trousers. But when finally kicked out of his accommodation, it doesn’t take long for this to seem ridiculous, as his shoes start to give way and he’s reduced to fishing out flotsam from the river in the hope it might be discarded food he can eat. But the film isn’t all grimness, and there are periodically sparks of hope, as when he falls into the company of a fellow homeless artist-of-sorts alongside the river.

Throughout all of this, there are continuities with Rohmer’s later filmmaking. Its setting over the summer holiday period is one that he would return to many times (not least in Le Rayon vert 25 years later, likewise marked out by title cards with the date, as well as 1996’s Conte d’été and others). Then we have those solo male protagonists, so often creatures of high-flown intellectual taste, which might suggest some form of autobiographical self-identification, but if so, it’s one riven by self-criticism. For his male protagonists, though they may be nice enough guys, are never really heroes, and are often marked by some weakness in their morals (which is partly the great subject of his six subsequent films, grouped together as the ‘Six Moral Tales’). In Le Signe du lion, there’s a compassion instead for the experience of homelessness, and the way the homeless are patronised and barely tolerated by polite society, but I’m not always convinced that this compassion extends to the protagonist. There’s a nagging sense in my mind that Rohmer is judging Pierre, whether for falling into this situation, or for his slight sense of aloofness even when he’s at his lowest ebb. This judgement would only become clearer in subsequent films (and I hope to convey this in future reviews, whenever I get round to them; they’ll show up in my Criterion Sunday series).

I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of Rohmer – if anything I think it marks him out as being every bit the equal of his contemporaries as a director and screenwriter, with a great concern for his characters. Le Signe du lion is a first feature, but it should stand alongside those other more famous titles, as a great work in its own right.

The Sign of Leo film posterCREDITS
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Rohmer and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jess Hahn; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.

Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, aka Summer, 1986)

I’ve by no means seen enough films by French New Wave director Éric Rohmer to judge where this 1986 film, one of his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series, fits into his œuvre, but I’m given to understand it heralds a move away from formalism towards something freer and a little bit spontaneous. Certainly, that fits with the later films of his I’ve seen (primarily the ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’), and there’s something almost artless about the filming and lighting here, done with a minimal crew on a 16mm camera that in (the relatively infrequent) indoor scenes is pushed towards an ugly graininess, and which at times suggests a vérité documentary quality (as when the kids look directly into the camera). But this, along with the film’s largely improvised dialogue (for which the lead actor Marie Rivière received an assistant screenwriting credit), is all part of a very conscious style that may not come across as much initially, but builds to a fascinating character study of a woman who seems to be dealing with depression, on the occasions when she reflects on her life and her failed relationships.

All this, though, comes in the details; the film feels light and airy in the way that its central character Delphine aspires to be. The film is structured as a series of dialogues with friends, family members and those she meets on her holiday travels, interspersed with scenes of her on her own, in Paris where she lives and on her vacances in Cherbourg and Biarritz. In the discussions, references are made to various new-agey philosophies and ways of living and connecting with others and with one’s spiritual self, and Delphine tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to articulate something of these, most notably in a lunchtime scene as she expresses her dislike for eating meat — still something of a minority position on the European continent, it must be said. Her happiness, though, seems to remain predicated on her lack of a boyfriend figure, or at least so those around her keep trying to tell her (Delphine avers she has one, but her friends are quite aware she is clinging to the memory of a failed relationship). Men certainly move around her, and the camera takes note of these periodically, but she largely pushes them away — and for good reason, whatever her friends may say, as they are variously rather aggressive or unpleasant.

What the film captures particularly well is this social interaction that continues to make Delphine feel like a failure because she’s unattached. The green ray of the title (an optical phenomenon that occurs at sunset) appears to be just another semi-mystical idea that Delphine wants to believe in — that seeing it will allow a person to find clarity — and Rohmer leaves it unresolved at the end whether it does, though there seems at least to be hope for her. It’s this, perhaps most of all, that makes the film ultimately a ‘comedy’, even if there are plenty of tears along the way.

The Green Ray film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Marie Rivière; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.