Eric Rohmer’s penultimate feature, Triple Agent, is relatively neglected within his oeuvre. Released in 2004, one hardly ever sees it among best-of-00s or even best-of-2004 lists, even though it is certainly one of the great director’s most fascinating and remarkable films.
Based on a true story, Triple Agent focuses on an expatriate couple living in late 1930s Paris, right before the outbreak of the Second World War. The husband, Gen. Fyodor Voronin (Serge Renko), is an ex-White Army officer exiled from Russia, working at a White Army veterans organization. The wife, Arsinoé (Katerina Didaskalou) is a painter, originally from Greece, who concerns herself mostly with her art. The two are lovingly devoted to one another, but the election of the Front populaire, a communist-leaning political group in France, creates difficulties in Fyodor’s job—some mysterious variety of intelligence work—which effect unusual complications in their personal lives. One would be forgiven, based on this description, for thinking of the film as something in the spy-thriller genre—in fact one would be forgiven for thinking so even 40 minutes into the film. But in fact Rohmer puts the language of politics and espionage in service of one his most religious films, in which he examines the ordinary and extra-ordinary manifestations of faith and doubt with subtlety and clarity.
I’m not sure if Rohmer expected to present the film with a very real challenge to the audience: much of the text, the dialogue, consists of intellectual discussion of the French and Russian politics of the era. A fairly early scene has Fyodor getting into a rather dry political discussion with his communist neighbor (Emmanuel Salinger) over workers’ strikes in France and whether the actions of the new left-leaning government were in fact counter-revolutionary. It was with difficulty that I recalled these details, because they seemed, in the context of the film, both important and unimportant—and also because I’m weak on labor history in late 1930s France. For me, these types of scenes created a sort of aesthetic distance which I feel pervades the film: we are only weakly identified with the central couple; our position, due to being spectators from 2004 and beyond, is a distant one, an analytical one.
Rohmer’s visual style seems to adjust around the distant subject matter. One might have expected something more like the director’s The Marquise of O (1976) , which exploits light and location to suggest the idea of an 19th century documentary, but here Rohmer and his cinematographer Diane Baratier go for a more theatrical approach, especially in the interiors. (We see in certain exterior scenes images more typical of Rohmer—like the rather exciting shot of Fyodor getting into a blue old-fashioned Citroën and driving off.) The light falls perfectly on the actors, the sets are dressed with adroit character details (most notably Arsinoé’s Christian icons), and even his shot progressions seem more formal than usual. One thinks of the crucial scene in which Arsinoé reproaches Fyodor for telling his cousin things that he never told her. For the first time in the film, we are made to examine the kind, yet odd figure of the husband. As he explains himself (something he has to do very frequently throughout the film) Rohmer uses shot/reverse shots to put us in the curious position of the spectator, Arsinoé, who is biased to believe him. The isolation of either character in their opposed frames, one examiner and one under examination, is certainly formalist—and that Rohmer stages their reconciliation and embrace in a unifying two-shot further serves to confirm the director's plan.
These rifts between husband and wife eventually become the dominant theme of the film, and they usually follows the same procedure: Fyodor has done something which he must explain; Arsinoé will be hurt, but will believe his explanations; and they will reconcile. What emerges from this progression is an increasingly strong identification with Arsinoé, because her position is so similar to ours as viewers. The scene in the country house, where Arsinoé questions Fyodor about being in Berlin without her knowledge, makes this exceedingly, even ironically, clear. Fyodor makes an especially long explanation for himself, which is filmed in a long take, forcing us into examination not really his words (more insider jargon), but of his appearance, his posture, his expression. And when he’s all done and Arsinoé comes to reconcile with him, she says “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear all that you said, I was sleepy,” confirming our mutual states-of-mind.
And yet Arsinoé is not a simple audience surrogate, or else the film would not have nearly as much power. Her reactions to her husband’s explanations are not the ones we would want from a plot-savvy character—she has no Hitchcockian powers of doubt. When Arsinoé runs up to Fyodor, crying that she was so afraid he was helping the Nazis, it is the first time we are made aware of this distaste for the fascists. Arsinoé can surprise us, even though she is closest to us--and the surprises usually point us toward the nature of the husband-wife relationship, One really senses that this marriage is not based on survival or society but on affection and sympathy--or else they might have been more alert to getting out of the conspiracy.
In many ways this film is a remarkably true picture of marital fidelity, which Rohmer tips us off about when the final act of the film features that most typical of film marriage conventions: a day out in town. First Arsinoé’s fitted for a dress; then, to a ball; then to the hotel, where there’s even the faintest suggestion that she and Fyodor have made love. It is here that Rohmer chooses to strike, before ours and Arsinoé’s deepest suspicions have even budded, and it is masterful. Another round of “Fyodor explains,” which we have been accustomed to, starts up, this time much more serious than the last. Arsinoé’s tears are violent: we see that the moral violation of this latest action is in many ways unacceptable. But Fyodor recognizes this and pushes their reconciliation further than ever; he is even on the verge of self-awareness when, all too abruptly, the tides of history sweep over them both. Their cozy corner in the world is corrupted and devastated almost without their awareness.
Triple Agent is a sad film, but not a dark one. It is like an elegy, or a lamentation: mournful but romantic. We see a faith challenged and destroyed, but we do not feel that faith itself is futile. I certainly look at this portrait of a marriage and find in it many virtues, many truths—its specific problems generalize easily to the moral condition of many relationships. What makes the film feel so tough and unconsoling is that it prods at the insufficiencies of goodness in a world which is impossible to master or comprehend. Rohmer's insertion of archival footage shocks us, because it reveals that even the immensely nuanced perspective that he crafts does not cohere entirely with reality. Pieces are missing; our theory of history is ever incomplete; and in the end the chaotic march of history defines our lives, no matter what powers we obtain in our attempts to defend against it.
So we may be relieved when the curtain closes. “Non, elle est morte!”