22 January 2010

On Eric Rohmer

1920-2010

Drift

Someone is walking somewhere from someplace else—so begins an Eric Rohmer movie. Two secretaries in an office chat about nothing in particular; mail is sorted; a boat is at sea. The pointless opening is crucial for establishing the rhythm of these movies, and what happens as they unfold is not that events get more exciting but that the pointless events grow richer in meaning.

These movies capture the formless sequentiality of life, which moves us along until we find ourselves somewhere other than where we thought we were, or thought we might end up. Jean-Louis’s conversation during My Night at Maud’s feels like those real late-night sessions, mostly in college, which you can never plan in advance or later quite recall; in The Aviator’s Wife, after hours of brooding and planning and anticipating the effects of what he has to say to his girlfriend, François never dreams that one thing he says will make her defensive, another will make her jealous, and a third will make her cry, so their talk shifts back and forth and it bewilders the boy, and perhaps the older woman too. Rohmer’s understated theory of the relations between the sexes is nothing more than this: men and women drift farthest, and fastest, and most mysteriously, in their dealings with each other.

Drift feels like a formless sequence of one thing after another, but it results less from actual formlessness than from rhythmic realism. With traditional plot, a conventional form (marriage comedy, detective story, love tragedy, happy ending) is overlaid onto realistic content; here, the form makes the movie seem real despite the content, no matter how baroquely intellectual the conversations or farcically manufactured the stories. Even Shakespearean contrivances—the two mismatched and rematched couples in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, for example—feel not like plot twists, but like those events that drive every writer I know to distraction: the ones we can’t put into our work, even though they really happened, because no one would believe them.

The End

Rohmer said that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon would be his last movie—and now that he has died, we know he was right. Most people seemed not to know what to make of it. “Based” on a now totally unread 17th-century French novel (imagine if The Magic Mountain was written four hundred years ago, about philosophies no one knows anything about anymore, and was 5,000 pages long), it takes place in the fifth-century pastoral world that the 17th-century French aristocracy liked to imagine. Unspeakably beautiful shepherds and shepherdesses wander around unspoilt forests with nymphs and minstrels and Gaulic bards declaiming Christian philosophy. In Rohmer’s movies in general, formless form makes the content seem real; in The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, the alien historical form makes the alien historical content seem theatrical and therefore true. But after all of Rohmer’s contemporary Parisians and vintners and mismatched lovers, it certainly seems odd.

Yet what would we expect a last Eric Rohmer movie to be? Not a sequel or an anthology, not an addendum tacked onto his balanced four- or six-film sequences, but surely some sort of link from this filmmaker of connections, a return or revisiting. Today, Rohmer’s body of work seems to exist in the distant past. Any movie that summed up his earlier films would have to be an old-fashioned period piece: no one talks like that, about Pascal’s Wager or Don Quixote, no one philosophizes like they did in the French ’60s and ’70s any more than they wear those clothes or hairstyles. What makes the Rohmerish way of life such a throwback is that things seemed to matter then in a way that it’s hard to quite believe they matter now. His last three movies have all been historical—the strange tableaux of The Lady and the Duke, set in the French Revolution with artificial digital backgrounds; his little-seen Triple Agent, a ’30s spy film in sepia brown and red; and now this 21st-century’s 17th-century’s fifth-century, all historical distance and artifice squared. (The title cards in the movie are a shade of pale green called celadon, the color of a Chinese glaze new to 17th-century Europe and named after the famous character who wears green ribbons in that pastoral French novel.)

The movie comes at the end of something. It looks back to a time in the distant past when people looked back to the distant past for value and meaning. 

Stuck

“An action is best drawn at its beginning or its end, not at the midpoint,” says Robert Hale in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, and he illustrates this fact of art with a sketch by Rembrandt, “Two Butchers at Work”: the cutting man is drawn with his cleaver raised, not midway in its path into the hanging meat; the walking man—as in every comic strip—is shown with his legs outstretched, because if he were drawn in the middle of his stride he would seem to be standing. How do you show the action of inaction? Where is the beginning or end of being stuck?

The mode best suited to stasis is allegory, with its diagrammatic, fixed stages. Allegorical agents—not “characters,” because they lack the freedom to move and develop that we demand from fully realized characters—are each pinned to a certain level in a hierarchy,

thus, for example, the Pope or the King is always the first figure in the traditional Dance of Death, while the Fool or Antichrist is likely to be the last. Animals have their orders, with the lion as “king”; birds have theirs, and for them the eagle tops the hierarchy. The same hierarchies can be established for all kinds of things in the universe, even stones, as the medieval lapidaries show. As soon as all the several ladders of symbolic ascent are lined up “beside each other,” it becomes apparent that instead of vertically parallel ladders, we have horizontally parallel “levels” of symbolism,

with every agent drawing the emblems associated with it from the same level in the other hierarchies. Such an agent is defined not by his or her “character,” but by the associated animal, bird, gemstone, color, heraldic symbol, clothing, planet, element, flower, and so on, as well as by his or her extremely limited and typical range of action. Each one illustrates a predefined position, so the figure may act but it does not move:

Even when Dante … wants to show that the blessed spirits of the Paradiso are free to come and go as they wish, he also in fact shows them fixed to certain stages of the progress toward God. … When an author is interested in what seem to be free metamorphoses and changes of state, he is in fact not showing his characters acting freely. He is showing them changing, presto, from one facet of a destiny to another. … These heroes do not choose, they do not “deliberate” but act on compulsion, continually demonstrating a lack of inner control. (Quotes from Angus Fletcher, Allegory)

The Green Ray (a.k.a. Summer) is Eric Rohmer’s study of stasis, and also his most allegorical film. Delphine is precisely the sort of figure Angus Fletcher describes: unfree, compelled, stuck. “If we were to meet an allegorical character in real life,” Fletcher writes, “it would seem that he was driven by some hidden, private force.” Rather than changing or developing (see “Drift,” above), Delphine is given a host of emblematic familiars. Her color is green, helpfully decoded by another character early in the film as “the color of hope”; her sign is Capricorn; her element is air, and she keeps to a vegetarian diet so that she can “feel airy inside.” (“You are what you eat,” she says, and “green vegetables” are “airier”; the ladders line up beside each other.) She calls herself “an idiot” in St. Jean de Luz, and the book she is shown with is Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Her defining landscape, where she finds herself after having wandered away from her friends, is a hilltop, with the coast in the distance and the wind in the trees above her but wooden fences between her and the fields, fences she never thinks to open or climb over.

Elsewhere, she is stuck in her room, or hemmed in by blackcurrant bushes. When she faces a hilltop without containment, in the Alps, she rushes to return to her unhappiness in Paris. She is also out of her element, as they say, when immersing herself in the sea at Biarritz, or when standing in the sun outside the museum, or whenever she rides boats or swings, which give her motion sickness: the condition is aptly named, and shared by every allegorical figure. The most emblematic emblems of all are the playing cards she finds: Queen of Spades and Knave of Hearts, of course—no run-of-the-mill threes or fives here. Finally, her transformation at the end is a sudden shift, not a development—she finds herself, presto, in the sign of the Heart, not the sign of the Spade, propelled by a green ray of light from the sky.

Delphine is unknown to herself—she thinks herself open, receptive, and an easy houseguest; she longs to vacation in the sun, at the sea, although one hurts her eyes and the other makes her sick. And so allegory, with its all too legible meaning, cannot be her own point of view. Indeed, no allegorical figures know themselves to exist in an allegory. This is why, I think, Rohmer gives us another sort of art at the start of the movie, the staggering statue of the digger at the Palais Galliéra. The shaft of his shovel is bent over his thigh with the weight of its load; his arms are about to unleash their strength; his craggy calf muscles strain with effort. He must feel like Delphine feels, trapped at the moment of greatest tension and unable to enjoy the release of doing anything at all.

But the digger’s stasis is not allegorical: he is not “driven by some hidden, private force,” but has been turned into stone by an outside power, brought to a sudden halt in the middle of his real life.  He is at the beginning of his action, as Hale prescribes. Delphine too is thus not just an allegorical character we meet in real life, but a Rohmer character, whose stasis has a beginning and an end. She is desperate to reach that end, and perhaps, as she admits, she is wrong to wait for it rather than search for it, but it is there nonetheless. “If any of us knew,” says Emerson, “what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know to-day whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished and much was begun in us.”

Image: Still from "Autumn Tale." 1990. Creative Commons (via flickr.com/photos/mueredecine/430067420/)

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