Eric Rohmer died today, so I am publishing a piece I wrote on Pauline at the Beach in 1984. It was written as a program note for a film series and presumes the reader will have just watched the movie, so it has both spoilers and a paucity of exposition. Mostly I’m posting it because of the wish in the opening paragraph that Rohmer would live another 25 years and make a movie a year. He didn’t produce annually, but he did survive exactly those 25 years, and managed to put out sixteen more features. I should’ve wished the same longevity for Nestor Almendros, mentioned in the piece. R.I.P. — Robert Horton
One of my favorite cinematic daydreams involves Eric Rohmer: I ask myself, wouldn’t it be neat if Rohmer could somehow make one movie a year, for the next (say) twenty-five years? They wouldn’t all have to be masterpieces; it would be just something to hold on to, something to incorporate into the life cycle. I’m afraid the chances of this are slim, since Rohmer is getting on in years (he was christened Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920), but it’s one of those things that make for good daydreams.
Actually, we should feel lucky—Rohmer has been on a hot streak lately. Keep in mind he was a slow starter compared to some of his friends in the French New Wave. Rohmer made short films during the 1950s, and he was editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al. vented their auteurist spleens, from 1957 to 1963. Those other fellows had already collected an armful of international awards by the time Rohmer completed his first widely-recognized feature, La collectioneuse, in 1967 (though he had been directing for some time already). That film was part of his contes moraux—Moral Tales—and the next entry, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1968), brought him shoulder to shoulder with the world’s leading filmmakers. After he finished the Moral Tales, Rohmer took time out to pursue projects with settings completely different from the palpably modern landscapes of the six Moral Tales; predictably enough, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978) were two of the best and most intriguing works of the decade.
Now Rohmer is right in the middle of another cycle. This one is called Comedies et Proverbes, and so far its titles are The Aviator’s Wife (1980), Le beau marriage (1982), and Pauline at the Beach (1983). Like the Moral Tales, this new series consists mostly of people talking about love, sex, freedom, and more love. For the most part, these people are absolutely ordinary, and their problems, while important to them, are not unusual or earth-shaking. Nothing that can’t be talked out.
Late in Pauline at the Beach, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), the skinny chap who looks a little like the death’s-head hero of Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou, talks about what love means to him. He can’t understand why Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who he loves, insists on loving Henri (Feodor Atkine), who does not love her. Wouldn’t it be logical for people to love the person best for them? Well, yes, that would be eminently logical, but behavior very often doesn’t have anything to do with logic; besides that, if people were always doing what’s best for themselves, life would not be terribly interesting—and an Eric Rohmer movie certainly wouldn’t have much to go on.
Anyway, it’s very funny for Pierre to be saying this, since—although he keeps saying he’s the only clear thinker in the bunch, and that he’s trying to show the other how foolish they’re being—he’s the most illogical in his consuming passion for Marion, who makes it clear right away that she is not interested in him. His peevishness combined with his remarkable knack for doing what’s worst for himself propels him though the series of gaffes that he makes during the course of the film.
But then, the characters in Pauline at the Beach are consistently saying things that are the opposite of what they really mean. In the first scene of the film, Marion and her fifteen-year-old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrive at their summer beach place. Marion speaks some of the film’s first lines of dialogue in phrases dripping with TV-commercial sincerity: “Good—there’s no phone. I could spend hours here without moving,” etc. You don’t necessarily have to know what’s going to happen (in fact, you can just about take one look at this woman) to sense that these sentiments don’t exactly come from the bottom of her heart. This is not to suggest that she’s lying—no, that would be an erroneous sizing-up of the situation. Rather, she is the kind of person who enjoys having things her own way—she’s covering herself by saying these things. If the beach turns out to be deadsville, then she will have gotten the peace and quiet she supposedly wants. If, on the other hand, the vacation turns out to be a session of erotically-charged romance (as she probably and understandably expects), she’s ahead of the game. None of her self-delusions or corny sentiments—as when she goes on, a couple of scenes later, about “That unpredictable thing called love”—should be interpreted as condescension or disapproval on Rohmer’s part. Directorial attitude is crucial, and Rohmer’s attitude is one of bemused acceptance.
The scene at Henri’s house, just after Marion and Pauline have run into Pierre and met Henri, is one of the film’s best. Marion goes on about how she wants to burn with passion in a love-at-first-sight affair; Henri describes his rootless existence; Pierre glowers, knowing that Marion is interested in Henri; Pauline is fairly indifferent to the stupidities of these adults. The various tensions in the scene are wonderfully played out—we don’t know, for instance, whether Marion really does have this “burning” philosophy, or whether she’s simply sending out an invitation to Henri.
This dialogue is stimulating, but the visualization of the scene is what makes it so fraught with excitement and edginess. Rohmer and his brilliant cameraman Nestor Almendros (a longtime collaborator) put each of the three adults in his or her own portion of screen space, so that Rohmer is cutting back and forth among them. The surroundings have a convincingly frowsy look, and the people are in authentic states of sprawl—except Pierre, who seems a little too uptight. Everything, the lighting, clothing, tones of voice, rings precisely true in capturing the atmosphere of an after-dinner fat-chewing session. When Rohmer cuts back and forth among the various people and those separate spaces, he introduces the notion that they are all opposing each other in some game—that it is going to be extremely difficult for their philosophies to interact.
There is, however, one person here not compartmentalized: Pauline, who is moving through the backgrounds of shots and finding her own way around the place. It’s her innocence and lack of presumption that allows her this freedom, a freedom that the others can only talk about. When they finally get her into the conversation, she is reluctant to talk about love—but Marion brings up a couple of boys that Pauline had been telling her about earlier, in private. You can sense Pauline bristling at this breach of trust, but she handles it with straightforwardness and candor. It isn’t the last time she’s going to wind up looking like the most sensible member of the group.
In the big misunderstanding around which the film turns midway through—just who was that fooling around with the candy girl in Henri’s bedroom?—Pauline acquits herself with dignity. When the truth comes out, after the adults have constructed their elaborate schemes and had them all blow up, Pauline still can’t quite forgive her new boyfriend Sylvain. As she puts it to him, “If it had been you with another chick, okay. But you played their games.” We can see that Pauline is wise beyond her years—but you can’t necessarily interpret these lines as the viewpoint of the director shining through. Rohmer probably appreciates her scolding to some degree, but there is also a certain appreciation of Henri’s ingenuity in cooking up such an effective smokescreen.
And certainly Henri comes off looking better than Pierre, who bumblingly spills out one version of the scenario—one that he knows perfectly well is going to hurt Pauline’s feelings. He’s even devious in the way he brings it up: when the candy girl walks by, he asks her, “Have you seen Sylvain?”—this, Iago-like, knowing full well Pauline can hear him. Pauline begins wondering why he should ask the candy girl, and soon the “truth” is out. Pierre has a petty little victory, of a kind, but he will soon learn the wisdom of the proverb that opens the film: a wagging tongue bites itself.
Henri is the most ambiguous figure in the movie. To a certain extent, he fulfills the narrative function of being the character that sets everybody else off on their modest voyages of self-learning. He is a vaguely diabolical figure: someone thinks he resembles a snake, he is first seen in red, and that actor’s face is sharp and devilish. But he is a character, luckily, not merely a mechanism. His most fascinating moments come in his final conversation with Pauline, in which they analyze Marion, and find out why Henri does not burn for her the way she burns for him. He explains that, while Marion is just about a perfect woman, “her perfection is oppressive.” When Pauline points out how unique Marion is, he replies that Marion’s very uniqueness becomes almost universal.
On Marion’s theory that love should be a burning passion from the first glance, he disagrees and says something that is key to Rohmer’s cinema. Because she was pursuing this hypothesis about the immediacy of love, “she gave me no time to desire her.” This is in direct opposition to Marion’s idea that, if someone is right for you, you know it because you can see deep down into them right away; whereas Henri holds that the process of getting to know someone, and learning just how funny/sexy/bright that person is, itself becomes the springboard for desire. Rohmer, I think, agrees with the character this time. To grab the first example that comes to mind, the lead female character in Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon, played by Zouzou, is a striking but not conventionally attractive actress. The film is about her almost-affair with an ordinary guy, and at the beginning you can be forgiven for wondering what exactly he sees in her. By midpoint of the film, Rohmer and Zouzou have convinced you that this Chloe is simply the most desirable woman in that man’s particular world. That evolution happens to other characters in Rohmer’s films—it happens to Pauline in Pauline at the Beach—and it says a lot about Rohmer’s patient, wry world-view.
There is much to be fooled by in the world—appearances, other people, ourselves. Part of Rohmer’s gift is in capturing the joy—not just intellectual appreciation—of discovering something. At the end of Pauline at the Beach, Marion tries to soothe Pauline’s painful feelings about Sylvain’s apparent deception. She gives Pauline big-sisterly advice—“Tell yourself it isn’t true—convince yourself”—and, of course, Marion is really talking to/about herself. Both of them know the truth, and know the other one knows, but even though Pauline is “playing the game” by going along with this little deception, the moment is not at all cynical. The shared deception is a warm bond the likes of which they haven’t had yet. And it is Pauline who is orchestrating this scene: that wonderful look on her face as she promises Marion that, oh yes, she will try to forget it, is the final indication of her maturity and understanding. Now she’s the big sister, administering tenderness and love to the charming, wounded, burned-but-not-scarred woman sitting beside her.