Arts Review, Movies
When I was a teenager, I went on a date to an arthouse cinema in Manhattan to see Eric Rohmer’s first international hit, My Night at Maud’s. I left the theatre stunned by all of the philosophical chatter that took place over an evening in a sophisticated French woman’s apartment—and the high degree of eroticism that could be expressed without what I, and most of the audience wanted: physical passion. I didn’t feel cheated but was puzzled. Who was Eric Rohmer, I wanted to know, and what was he trying to tell us?
TIFF’s Cinematheque is in the midst of answering those questions for a new generation of cineastes this summer at Bell Lightbox. Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer is a six-week series, which shows all of the director’s major works, and runs to the end of August. The programme celebrates the work of a filmmaker who believed in the power of words and enjoyed showing the day-to-day life of bourgeois French society in the latter part of the 20th century. His films are elegant, beautifully acted and display a nuanced appreciation of how people fell in and out of love in France in the era after the defeat of the old colonial empire and before recent acts of terrorism disrupted the status quo, perhaps permanently.
Ma nuit chez Maud (as my Quebecois friends called it) was part of a series that Rohmer was making in the ‘60s and ‘70s called Six Moral Tales. Thanks to a racy title and star-making performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Fabian and Marie-Christine Barrault, it reached worldwide audiences and launched Rohmer’s career rather belatedly in 1969.
Eric Rohmer was the last of the French New Wave directors to achieve acclaim in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Like Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, Rohmer was a writer for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema and a theoretician who believed that directors were the true artists (auteurs) who authored the great works of film. While his four friends had hits in the late ‘50s, Rohmer had to wait another decade to achieve a similar global status.
Once he hit his stride with Maud, Rohmer continued quite confidently for the next 35 years, writing and directing such stylish films as The Aviator’s Wife, Le Rayon Vert, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, A Tale of Winter, A Tale of Autumn and Rendezvous in Paris. Like Six Moral Tales, some of the films are grouped into such series as Comedies and Proverbs and Tales of the Four Seasons. Others are simply one-offs, often set in the past. They’re all quite literary and deal with the most complex issues in well-to-do societies: how to negotiate a proper romance and live an ethical life.
Rohmer’s films traverse the terrain between comedy and drama. Although there are many charming moments, you rarely laugh a lot. But they’re not tragedies; people experience life changing events but, on the whole, they survive and are the better for having confronted uncomfortable truths. Two films coming up next week illustrate the mature nature of Rohmer’s work.
On August 11 and 12, the actress and filmmaker Marie Rivière will be introducing two Rohmer films in which she had the leading part, Le Rayon Vert and The Aviator’s Wife. She will also be screening her documentary on the great director, En compagnie d’Eric Rohmer. Le Rayon Vert, which won the Golden Lion at the 1986 Venice International Film Festival, stars Rivière as a young woman, who is suffering from an extreme depression since she and her boyfriend broke up. Nothing can assuage her emotional state: not pep talks from her girlfriends or trips to the French countryside solo or with friends. Rohmer even tilts the plot so Rivière can go to Biarritz, to no avail. But a chance encounter with the right guy allows her to try for something truly unusual—to see the “green ray,” which some people have seen when the sun breaks the horizon as daylight descends into nightfall. Out of despair, Rohmer and Rivière offer one of the most elevating moments of enlightenment and delight in cinema.
The Aviator’s Wife is quite different. Where Le Rayon Vert is nearly plotless, The Aviator’s Wife is filled with complicated and mysterious storylines. A young man, Francois, follows an aviator, who has had an affair with his girlfriend Anne (Rivière), through Paris. On the way Francois meets a precocious teenaged girl Lucie, who helps him with his detective work. Nothing is as it seems, however, allowing Rohmer to slowly reveal secrets as the film reaches its denouement.
The best part of The Aviator’s Wife takes place in Anne’s apartment. There, she and Francois talk about their lives and expectations. It’s a reprise of Ma nuit chez Maud, but less didactic. Rohmer’s great gift was to quietly dramatise women and men talking to each other as mature adults. His best scenes were intimate and revealing in ways that are moving and feel truthful.
Rivière will be on hand to talk about both films and Eric Rohmer next week. Once again, TIFF Cinematheque has produced a series that is mature, intelligent and a valid contribution to film scholarship. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to go to the Rohmer retrospective.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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