A Rohmer Datebook

I have written a novel about a man who traces his life in Beatles songs. I see no reason I can’t do the same thing with my real life and Eric Rohmer films. The problem is, my memory is vague – an advantage of making things up.

My Night at Maud’s. I wish I could remember the first time I saw this film. Even though it qualifies as an official Film Klassic of the kind rolled out by PBS in the early 1970s (access that allowed for early viewings of The Seventh Seal and Rashomon and the like), I think I finally really saw it during college, at somebody else’s place with a 16 mm. print. I asked Jim Emerson whether we watched in his apartment by Ivar’s Salmon House when we were in school, and he didn’t remember, either. But the watching of it may have blended into the movie itself, which is also about being in someone else’s place, along with a lot of other things. Important movie to see in college, when you are at someone else’s place most of the time. A wintry film, where so many Rohmers seem to be bathed in warm weather. I bought the Penguin collection of Pascal because of this movie, but I don’t see it on my shelf any more. You have to weed out, but I’m surprised I let that one go.

Claire’s Knee. Also a hazy memory, but probably at the repertory at the Harvard Exit theater, late 1970s. This is one of the only Rohmer films that has ever seemed like a letdown to me, maybe because its reputation had already been established, and because its mysterious title would be hard to live up to.

Chloe in the Afternoon. An afternoon movie: basement screening room at the University of Washington film & video department, probably 1979. Why was I seeing the film there? Maybe it showed in the ASUW film series. I don’t think I actually had an official reason to see it, I think I missed the public showing and requested it (you could do that in those days). Movie must have started late, because the man who ran the office shut the projector down with about ten minutes to go, and closed up the booth. He wanted to go home. I didn’t see the end of the film for another ten years or so. However, I gave the same gentleman a ride home from a screening or two, and he gave me a beautiful poster for Rohmer’s Perceval. I don’t know whether he was unconsciously making up for pulling the plug on Chloe. But of all the Rohmer films to end prematurely, Chloe in the Afternoon, a story of romance deferred and denied, might be the right one.

Perceval le Gallois. See above. Saw this for the first time Dec. 4, 1979, at the University of Washington Office of Lectures and Concerts Autumn Quarter Film Series. I know this, because I have the program note from that evening. The note was written by Lindsay Michimoto, who, one year earlier, gave me extremely valuable writing advice as the T.A. in the first film class I ever took. That class made me a goner for studying film. My first published writing would appear in Movietone News magazine in March 1980, which had a photograph of Fabrice Luchini in Perceval on the cover. He was skinny and had long blond hair like me and I identified a little with him.

Le beau mariage. Underappreciated masterpiece. Now I was actually writing, and I included this in my accounting of the Ten Best of 1982, in the newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, The Informer, which I edited. In that short take, I said, “With his typically bemused wisdom, Rohmer shows us how utterly necessary it is to be foolish.” Please don’t blame the movie for that sentence. I was 24 years old. Any good critical writing is autobiographical, and I think I was doing some foolish things (not interesting or dark or cool foolish things, just foolish things), and trying to make myself feel better through a Rohmer film.

Pauline at the Beach. Saw this one a few times during its first run, too. Not long after, I wrote the program note I re-published here.

Full Moon in Paris. I walked out of the press screening of this film at the Havard Exit theater and I remember how shocked Tom Keogh was when I told him that the young actress we had just watched in the lead role, Pascale Ogier, was already dead. I reviewed the film for the Herald, where I was now the film reviewer, and cited the (now more famous than ever) Gene Hackman line from Night Moves, “Yeah, I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watchin’ paint dry.” And I wrote, “Ah, but there are many coats of paint in a Rohmer movie, and peeling off each one is part of the reward.” Which I guess is fair enough. At that time, I never imagined I would still be reviewing movies 25 years later.

Summer (Le Rayon Vert). Another masterpiece. I thought this film might have had its first run at the Market Theater, which Jim was programming and Ann Browder owned – both former Film Society hands. But Jim didn’t remember that, either, and he would know. This movie is about the slimmest of ideas – the “drama” comes when a plan changes for summer vacation – and it struck me, and strikes me, as just about the best kind of idea you could have for a film. I racked my brain trying to think of a similar sort of storyline that could work in a screenplay. Also, this one began a lifelong curiosity about the “green ray” effect at sunset, which I’ve never seen, if it does exist. I went looking for the Jules Verne novel called Le rayon vert, which is mentioned in the movie; shuffling around bookstores was part of the regular texture of life in my twenties. Didn’t find the book, though.

The Sign of the Lion. Watched it in a 16 mm. print in Tom’s apartment, or house. We had founded a not-very-long-lived nonprofit called the Seattle Filmhouse, and thought a 20-year-anniversary series on the French New Wave would be a good idea. The viewing public, which didn’t show up, disagreed. It was Rohmer’s first feature. The idea is fantastic – a man thinks he has inherited a lot of money and spends a bunch, then finds out he was disinherited. Tom and I talked a lot about the film after (one of the draws of a Rohmer film is that you want to be like the people in them, talking about stuff) and for a while we kicked around the idea of a similar story for a screenplay, about a man who wins the lottery and celebrates for a weekend, only to realize on Monday morning that the date on the winning ticket is wrong.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. For some reason it screened twice for the press at the Seven Gables theater before it opened, and I went both times. The publicist was very surprised to see me a second time, and it took a minute for her to get that I just really enjoyed the movie and wanted to see it again. I can’t imagine having that much time now.

A Tale of Springtime. Saw it at the 1990 New York Film Festival, the first year I covered NYFF for Film Comment magazine. That was an eventful trip, for a lot of Rohmeresque reasons. I wrote: “In its first scene, a woman enters an apartment, sifts through a few things, and leaves. That’s it, but immediately we are locked into a Rohmer movie: the lambent light, and the uncanny authenticity of what an partment sounds like, with traffic noise coming up from the streets outside, as Paris hums by in its indifferent busyness while tiny stories from ordinary lives are played out. And yet not ordinary; as usual, once Rohmer points a camera at someone, he or she becomes a valuable player, a presence worthy of cinema, extra-ordinary.”

A Tale of Winter. NYFF, 1992. That was the year of Les Amants du Pont Neuf at NYFF, so this was a little overshadowed. But still good. I said: “It’s as though every turn on a sidewalk, every decision about where to go at a particular moment, were fraught with the possibility of finding…the very thing.” The movie’s about a woman hoping to run into the man she met briefly five years before, but that description might describe the artistic process, too.

L’arbe, le maire et la mediatheque. I have never seen this movie. But the posters were all over Paris in the spring of 1993; I didn’t think my high-school French was enough to get through the movie without subtitles. A local told me the movie might be “too French” anyway, and indeed it never played much in the U.S. (Surely I was in Paris in part because of Eric Rohmer, and because “every turn on a sidewalk,” etc. etc.)

Rendezvous in Paris. Saw it in early Spring 1996 in a dumpy little theater near Russell Square in London. Impulsive trip, based on a newspaper ad with low airfares. That should have become a habit. The movie is enchanting.

Tale of Autumn. Another Harvard Exit screening. Is is possible to really remember the details of Rohmer’s films, and tell them apart? David Thomson writes so well about Rohmer, but made the crack about his movies blending together, “like an extra egg going into batter.” But no – they stand apart. There’s nothing else like the post-credits sequence of this movie, as the film blithely keeps going on past the official ending to find more moments of grace.

The Lady and the Duke. You make a movie like this in your eighties, and it’s a warning not to take things for granted, even the next Eric Rohmer movie. All on false sets, projected backdrops actually, pointing toward a different potential for green-screen and Avatar technology. I don’t know where I saw it, but it might have been on a DVD screener. There’s a coming-down.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. A film made by a young person. I wrote it looks as though it might have been made in the 5th century, if somebody just happened to have a camera around then. Wonderful way to go out.

La collectioneuse. A Rohmer series came by the Northwest Film Forum in the early Aughts, and I saw this then. I hadn’t seen it before, and finally getting to the last of the Six Moral Tales when I was in my forties was like remembering some great event that you’d forgotten from your youth. But I wish I had seen it back then. Beautiful sense of the textures of a lazy summer. The way Patrick Bauchau says the name of the heroine, “Haydee,” is superb. At the time I wrote a note about the film, just in a notebook, about Bauchau’s character: “His narration assures us he knows exactly what he’s doing, which he does not.” At his best Rohmer allows you to see yourself in his movies – and boy, there is myself.

Postscript: A Summer’s Tale. And then there was the super-delayed official U.S. release of this 1996 gem, which I reviewed in 2014 for Seattle Weekly. An achingly gorgeous summer idyll, full of youth and slightly shapeless days. I said: “Rohmer, as always, has the touch when it comes to tracking the tiny shifts in intensity between people. His neutral camera, which generally stays far enough from the characters so that we can appreciate body language and comfort levels, is ideal for allowing us to notice the tentative brush of a bare foot against someone else’s leg or the incline of two heads toward each other in a game of chicken that will end in a kiss. Or not.” I was happy to have this movie new in my life in 2014, when, viewed from middle age, its observations felt restorative.

Pauline at the Beach

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

Pauline, and les autres, at the beach

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. Continue reading