“To watch a film like this, or any Rohmer film, creates a sense of peaceful regard in me. He isn't afraid of losing my attention with too much dialogue, or too little action.” -- Roger Ebert
“There are no indications of prurience.” -- Stephen Holden
When I made my pilgrimage to Santa Monica, the closest place for viewing arty French films, there were indications that in spite of this recent release, Rohmer doesn't have much of a future popular audience-wise. There were a smattering of senior francophiles with their accoutrement: oxygen tanks, walkers, cravats. I was the youngest by far in the theater, and that's not young. What were the chances my internet audience would have any interest in an increasingly obscure French filmmaker?
But then a vision of the highly successful Criterion video campaign appeared before me.
|Claire's Knee (1970)|
You see, I know just how successful these slick, suggestive images were in moving the merchandise because I worked in a video store for a time in the late eighties. We carried a pretty large selection of foreign films, but the Rohmer films were almost always rented out. And not by the serious middle aged people who occasionally took out Rashomon or Persona; no, these films were going out to young men, droves of them.
After I watched a few of his films, particularly his breakthrough film, the interminable aforementioned My Night at Maud’s (1969), I was forced to confront the unbelievable paradox of his video popularity. Talk about bait and switch: In Maud, this engineer/former seminary student goes around debating fine point of theology for 105 minute, which even though I just looked it up on imdb is hard to believe. It seems so much longer.
Oh, I think there are a couple girls who might take off some clothes (not too many!) whilst discussing the holy ghost. For a child born in sixties southern California, this was profoundly foreign and off-putting. It's possible I left my body a few times. And I’m not the only one. To quote from the Wikipedia entry on Rohmer: "His style was famously criticised by Gene Hackman's character in the 1975 film Night Moves who describes viewing Rohmer's films as "kind of like watching paint dry.”
|The infamous My Night at Maud's|
After I saw a few of Rohmer's films, I felt it my duty as a responsible video store employee to inform these young men what they were paying for. “You know this movie is in black and white, right? And it has a lot of talking. . .in French!” In return for my vigilance I got nothing but horrified looks, looks that declared, "I'm all about art," And "Back off!" So after a few attempts, I abandoned my post as consumer watchdog. From now on, it was their funeral.
My (Mild) Conversion
I assume this aspect of Rohmer's career in video rentals was curtailed with the advent of readily available internet pornography, From now on, there would be no need to sublimate in the foreign film section (correction: from the looks of it, some persists on Netflix.) The video stores themselves have disappeared, for that matter.
Yet the rare longevity of Rohmer's film career attests he had something to offer.
Yet the rare longevity of Rohmer's film career attests he had something to offer.
He really did have a remarkable enduring career. Part of the French New Wave, he edited Cahiers du Cinema in the years when Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut worked as film critics on the magazine. In fact, one of his first short films was made in collaboration with Godard, and Truffaut funded My Night at Maud’s. Remarkably, since their style seem very dissimilar, he wrote the first book on Hitchcock. But nothing is more striking about his life as a filmmaker than its simple duration.
Rohmer made films for an astonishing 50 years. And when you compare him to the few directors of comparable longevity--Woody Allen springs to mind--he appears even more impressive. Unlike Allen, he has actually improved with age. I think they call it maturing, and it’s something of a miracle wherever you find it.
Rohmer tended to make films in large thematic groupings: the “Six Moral Tales” which made his name; his mid-period “Comedies and Proverbs”; and the late “Tales of the Four Seasons” (by far my favorite). Like Shakespeare’s final plays, Rohmer’s show a shift, or rather, a broadening in perspective.
Is it possible for divine intervention to work itself out through the hassles and delays of foreign film distribution? Because the nearly twenty year delay before A Summer’s Tale was released in the U.S. enhances its low-key charms considerably. There are no cell-phones or computers; the beautiful young people who populate its shores seem like messengers from a simpler era, forced to deal with each other directly without any kind of social media to take the edge off the boredom and drift of actual interaction.
A Summer's Tale takes place in Dinard, a tourist town on the coast of Brittany. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a young mathematician who also happens to be a gifted musician, wiles away a few weeks in a borrowed room, waiting for a girl, Lena, a girl he was tenuously involved with, who may or may not show up (She is largely absent from the film, although she makes a brief appearance toward the end, pretty in her bikini but almost as unavailable in the flesh and she was off-stage.) Although withdrawn and self-conscious, he strikes up an inpromptu friendship with a waitress named Margot (Amanda Langlet) (who turns out to have a PhD in ethnography) and begins yet another sexual flirtation with the intense, demanding Solène (Gwenaelle Simon).
Gaspard is amusingly unmoored, drawn to whichever of these wildly disparate woman pays him attention in the moment (though this being Eric Rohmer, they are similar inl looking superb in bikinis). Rohmer enjoys playing off the fact that this self-serious, intellectual young man is stupidly at the mercy of the free-floating sexual energy surrounding him in this ancient beach town. The movie is partly a story of Gaspard maturing to the point that he could make a decent partner to the clear front runner among his prospective partners: Margot, the intellectual waitress who, in stark contrast with Gaspard, is both interested and available to everyone (she explains this as part of her role as an ethnographer), especially people unlike herself.
As I made my way out of the theater I heard one of the aging Francophiles in attendance. “I just wanted to shake that young man. I mean, they’re all pretty, but one of those girls is an real pearl!” There are, in fact, all kinds of indications that she is “the one,” including that, somewhat unusually for Rohmer, she is a returning player. She played a pivotal part as Pauline in a film from an earlier series, Pauline at the Beach (1983).
|Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach|
In that film she was the ingenue Pauline, watching her more experienced aunt juggle a number of men. By A Summer's Tale she is the more seasoned character, gently schooling Gaspard in the things that endure and choices that should be made.
|Amanda Langlet, A Summer's Tale|
She seems to be interested in him; the general drift of the film is that they will end up together at some point, “in winter, the best season,” as Margot suggests as one point. But she, like Rohmer himself, seems in no hurry. In stark contrast to his contemporaries like Woody Allen, or his old Cahiers du Cinema colleague Jean-Luc Godard, there is nary a trace of misogyny or misanthropy in the "Seasons" films. He has attained a kind of serenity and seems to simply enjoy the play of the water, the sun, and the free-floating sexual energy. To put it in Californian, he's totally mellow.
When I first viewed the films of Eric Rohmer they struck me as willfully stripped down and boring, but by the time I got to this sea-side film, twenty years later, it struck me as almost visionary in its simplicity. There are no cell-phones (uncommon at that time) or even computers (Rohmer's own call); as usual, Rohmer does not use non-ambient music; there is a lot of talking, walking, and sunning. This isn't that long ago, but through rapid acceleration of computer culture and through Rohmer's own luddite sensibility, they might as well be envoys from the ancient Bretons studied by Margot.