Thursday, March 2, 2017

My Favorite Eric Rohmer Film

I nearly titled this entry "The Eric Rohmer Film I Disliked the Least," as I did with Jean-Luc Godard's entry. Of the French New Wave directors, Rohmer is probably the one I enjoy the least on average - which means, of course, that I spent an awful lot of time tracking down his films and trying to figure out what other people saw in him. I've come to the conclusion that Rohmer simply does not make films I can connect to easily.

I was left completely cold by some of his most famous films, including "My Night at Maud's" and "Claire's Knee," part of his series of Six Moral Tales, where the heroes grapple endlessly with ethical behavior. They're full of beautiful young people playing out their love games and light comedic farces, but are too wrapped up in their own little neuroses to be much fun to watch. They're always terribly passionate and sincere, yet too often insufferable, and have a tendency to make lousy deicisions. However, as Rohmer got older, I found his output grew more interesting. After the Six Moral Tales came the Six Comedies and Proverbs, which were more varied and fun. And then the Tales of the Four Seasons, including my favorite, "A Tale of Autumn," or "Autumn's Tale."

Unlike most of Rohmer's other films, the would-be lovers are much older, and their interactions more direct and matter-of-fact. I found the forty-something heroine, Magali (Béatrice Romand), a very likeable presence. She runs a vineyard in the south of France, and is altogether a very successful and thriving woman. However, with her husband dead and her children grown, she admist to her friend Isabelle (Marie Riviere) that she has become lonely. Isabelle suggests placing a personal ad, which Magali shoots down, so Isabelle decides to place one in secret, attracting a man named Gerald (Alain Libolt). Then there's Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of Magali's son Leo (Stéphane Darmon), who tries to set up Magali with her old professor, Etienne (Didier Sandre). Isabelle and Rosine are the ones who act like the typical Rohmer protagonists, who get themselves into trouble by trying to be too clever. )

Each of the Four Seasons films has a great sense of place, opening with picturesque landscape shots and frequenly having the characters take long walks as we get to know them. Magali and Isabelle are introduced as they ramble around the vineyard, discussing their lives and their agriculture. There's a comfortable familiarity to their conversation, an ease and openness that extends to most of the relationships that we see in the film. Everyone has been through the throes of love before, and likes to think that they understand it better than they do. Maturity turns out to be no safeguard against foolishness, but there's a remarkable warmth to even the most uncomfortable situations. When Isabelle cheerfully explains her plot to Gerald, he's taken aback, but good natured enough to take her at her word. Etienne, similarly, would clearly rather be with Rosine than Magali, but plays along.

As you might expect, what follows are misunderstandings, intrigues, hurt feelings, and complications in abundance. And it's the steadier, more even-tempered personalities of the characters that make the farce palatable. I don't find most of Eric Rohmer's films funny, or the little ironies in his plots especially illuminating. However, i was completely won over by the climactic wedding sequence where all the storylines in the film finally come together, culminating in a scene of a grumpy Magali failing to keep her ire in check as she's escorted home by a nervous would-be suitor. And later, depite all her protestations and attempts to isolate herself, she finds herself intrigued by possibilities. Because Rohmer is so hands off with the characters, the ending is ambiguous and can be read in many ways, but the personal journeys of his three heroines are easy to discern and appreciate.

Much has been written about Rohmer's approach to filmmaking, which boils down to shunning artifice in search of capturing moments of reality. They really don't look like much at first glance. And yet, his films are often fantastical in their construction, full of contrivances and clever plots that comment on the human condition. I still find Rohmer's work a bore more often than not, but he's certainly responsible for a few irresistable bits of cinema magic too. It just took a little time and a little patience to find them.

What I've Seen - Eric Rohmer

La Collectionneuse (1967)
My Night at Maud's (1969)
Claire's Knee (1970)
The Marquise of O (1976)
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
Le Beau Mariage (1982)
The Green Ray (1986)
A Tale of Springtime (1990)
A Tale of Winter (1992)
A Tale of Summer (1996)
A Tale of Autumn (1998)

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