Jacques Rozier's Vacationscapes

The films of the French New Wave filmmaker hurl themselves to islands and beachfronts in a rare style of loose, improvisatory filmmaking.
Patrick Preziosi

Du côté d’Orouët (1971).

The water is too cold for swimming and there’s the subtle threat of a gale in Jacques Rozier’s 1971 film Du côté d’Orouët. Ostensibly a summer movie, this lackadaisical, two-and-a-half hour dispatch from three girls’ eponymous beachfront holiday nevertheless has trouble fulfilling the hallmarks of a successful vacation. In addition to the especially crummy weather, the beachhouse grows messier and the local patisserie, one of the only eateries, shutters for the impending fall and winter seasons. Such is the liminality of September, where the worst elements of August and October mingle without ever fully committing to one or the other, and these three weeks are the chosen off-time chosen by Caroline (Caroline Cartier), Kareen (Francoise Guégan) and Joëlle (Danièle Croisy). These 21 days equally swirl with torpor and fleetingness, Rozier evincing an impossible relationship between the two to convey both the longueurs and excitability of vacation.

Rozier’s filmmaking grammar, however, is anything but miserabilist: a still from his debut feature, Adieu Philippine (1962)–which Jean-Luc Godard called “the youngest film of the New Wave”–graced the cover Cahiers du cinéma’s Nouvelle Vague issue in December 1962, should tip one off towards his style. In his movies narrative is gleefully charged with the immediate possibilities of location shooting, improvisation, natural light, post-sync and direct sound and the unifying montage (despite this early publicity, Rozier is now all too forgotten and mistreated; recently, he and his sick wife were evicted from their Paris apartment, Paul Vecchiali stepping in to house them). This immediacy carries over to Rozier’s chosen subjects, mostly French youth (and possibly their middle-aged selves in later films) in confused, transient scenarios, and the enticing and overwhelming summer weather that’s often featured a rich backdrop for contrast.

Time is an all too multifaceted entity, and Rozier latches onto its various manifestations, its speediness, its lumpiness, its strange, unpredictable vacillation between ephemeral moments and molasses-like boredom. Title cards denote the dates in Du côté d’Orouët, a reminder of vacation’s end as the film barrels forth with little structure scaffolding its episodes; Maine-Ocean (1984), a wintertime counterpart that shuttles out to the nearby Yeu Island off the Vendée Coast, is replete with fades that sometimes jump minutes ahead in time, sometimes hours, even days; Adieu Philippine, fractured and disorientingly pieced back together, gives no temporal foothold, until suddenly, it’s time to say goodbye, with Michel’s (Jean-Claude Aimini) military draft date now firmly in sight. Rozier’s vacationscapes have attracted superficial comparisons to Éric Rohmer, yet films like Pauline at the Beach (1983) or The Green Ray (1986) are inundated with summertime pressures, what one should or shouldn’t do to enjoy this season of encouraged distraction to its fullest. Rohmer was always wary of escapism, and although Rozier is similarly skeptical, he’s also quite taken with the inherent pleasures.  Adieu Philippine, Du côté d’Orouët, The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976), and Maine-Ocean cede ample screentime to the respective jobs of the protagonists, escapism necessitated by the general drudgery of contemporary France––Maine-Ocean comes to life over the wildly circuitous, halfhearted disagreement over a train ticket between passenger and inspector. Is it a simple thesis, that our collective respites are victim to the vicissitudes of time as dictated by money, work, and other immovable responsibilities? Yes, but to house all these variegated manifestations in a single film is quite the feat, and all the more impressive, considering Rozier did so four times over.

Adieu Philippine (1962).

In Adieu Philippine, the giddy assemblage of scenes, which is already in motion from the outset, with the credits sequence laid over a cut-up montage of Michel working as a camera assistant on a television shoot, veils a desperation that resides along the peripheries of the film. Picking up two girls who are watching the production, Liliane (Yveline Céry) and Juliette (Stefania Sabatini), Michel juggles their affections, and the two try to reconcile their own existing friendship with having a mutual object of desire. Michel’s looming conscription rushes this imbalanced courtship along, summerisms enacted in rapid, frenzied succession. Isolated scenes are inarguably fun––especially those involving the fraudulent and loquacious television and film producer Pachala (Vittorio Caprioli), a source of opportunity and subsequently stymied opportunity––but the three-pronged romance is resoundingly hard-edged, combustible in the mutual frustrations of Michel, Liliane, and Juliette.

The lack of a shared emotional and physical destination is felt in the threesome’s trip to Corsica, a headily hopeless pursuit of Michel, as well as Pachala, whose latest doomed venture is shooting on the Mediterranean island. As is typical of Rozier, there’s a half-formed excitement that surfaces amidst the ennui, and vice versa. Dance scenes are especially intricate constructions of dueling desires and carefree spontaneity, an impressive formal rhythm achieved by foregrounding on-the-fly sensations: the camera steadily pushes back and forth like a pendulum, surveying couples and loners alike, and actors will even gaze into the camera, the secondhand contentment crystallized before the prevailing unpredictability elbows its way back in, a far cry from the stately, tableau-like compositions of Rozier’s shorts, such as 1958’s Blue Jeans. Winding drives through the much less crowded hillsides, which regularly shuffle the characters into different combinations, act as plangent bookends, the end-goal undulating like a desert mirage, fuzzy to all, including our protagonists.

Following the production troubles that beset its predecessor (shot in 1960, the film wasn’t released until 1962, a maelstrom of technical difficulties, canceled contracts, and no existing script to fall back on), Du côté d’Orouët didn’t materialize for nine years, and although it’s a more verité object than Adieu Philippine, it still stashes away intervals of modest, playful ingenuity. The protean current pushes the film in varying directions, and matters of narrative ownership are gleefully muddled. One would assume that because Joëlle graces the screen first, she’s the “main character,” but it’s Kareen who breaks the fourth wall to give the audience details of her own childhood spent at this particular family villa, and it’s Caroline who has the pensive moments of letter writing. Gilbert (Bernard Menez), Joëlle’s boss from Paris who shows up perfectly unexpected and uninvited, has some of the most outwardly emotional displays, cooking an eel dinner to which no one shows much interest and subsequently having a veritable breakdown; Caroline subtly mirrors these dramatics, shedding a few exhausted tears over this uncalled-for volatility. The film belongs to everyone, so it coils around each character as the vacation begins to curdle.

The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976).

Rozier favors haphazard, not necessarily elliptical filmmaking, but a kind that’s still omissive: extended sequences of the three girls giggling and giggling…and giggling, testing one’s tolerance for a cavalcade of in-jokes and resulting fits of endless laughter. Yet, a trip to the casino, or to the club, or a boat capsizing, or an impromptu date, are all glazed over with the almost randomly dispensed with title cards. Such circumvention of drama gives the encroaching autumnal sadness a more forlorn essence, as it’s conjured from the assumption of what may have happened in one’s absence—which, as anyone who’s ever harbored an unreciprocated crush before knows, is unfortunately par for the course. The juggled dynamics of Adieu Philippine prove flexible when applied to this larger character canvas, the camera bouncing between performers, unmooring itself in surprising turns of narrative, extreme subjectivity yielding itself to long-take observation.

Rozier’s next two features–and unfortunately, his last that are easily accessible–engage in a more “writerly,” conceptual mode of storytelling, relying on offscreen backstory, as well as settings that give improvisation an extra shot of external drama. At this point in his career, comparisons of Rozier to Jacques Rivette are even more incisive, with a defining exception: oftentimes, Rivette’s characters burrow further into Paris, their own localities, whereas those of Rozier’s hurl themselves outwards, off to the islands and the beachfronts. The Castaways of Turtle Island (which Jean Eustache said gave him hope for the cinema upon its release, along with Maurice Pialat’s The Mouth Agape) is a comedy of natural tactility, transpiring on old-fashioned trawlers and deep in Mediterranean forests: two travel agents, bored of their standard vacation packages, propose a “Robinson Crusoe trip,” where participants would sacrifice comforts for rugged living, a quixotic aim that is disrupted time and time again. Maine-Ocean brings upon a flurry of happenstance to thread together its ensemble–two ticket inspectors, a Brazilian model and dancer, a lawyer and a sailor–on Yeu Island.

Maine-Ocean (1986).

The experiential candor of the previous two films sustains itself within Castaways and Maine-Ocean’s screwball situations. The delirious forward motion will come to a pause to take in the sunrise, or culminating in a beautiful, communal song-and-dance routine, like the “King of Samba” scene in Maine-Ocean. Both films also hang the specter of work over their heroes’ heads, making what was more abstract in Adieu Philippine and Du côté d’Orouët a trifle more tangible; these holidays are shorter or, in the case of The Castaways of Turtle Island, technically business trips, with the Hawksian anarchy––or threat of such––reined in by offscreen burdens. Maine-Ocean ends with Menez’s ticket-taker’s near-impossible trip from Yeu Island to Nantes, only a few hours remaining before his morning shift on the train, a capstone of obligation in a film otherwise dedicated to casually flouting responsibility. Calling upon the sympathies of various boatmen, whose vessels he traipses between repeatedly as the tides shift, the strictures of travel he so humorlessly upholds in his day-to-day are effectively dismantled.

Early in his worried, break of dawn journey, Menez is an excited witness to the open-water phenomena of the day and night being split evenly in two on either side of the boat. Not every Rozier film offers such a useful visual metaphor, though they do seem to dangle at precipices of divided sight, the stopgap function of summer carving out a space between past and future. In Adieu Philippine, one of Michel’s friends has recently returned from his own conscription in Algeria, but remains tightlipped about his experience, and as the two dine with Michel’s family, he’s now seated between his youth and his potential adulthood. The film reaches a zenith of trenchant montage at the close, a protracted goodbye between the three principal players as Michel’s ship drifts from the dock. The adieu extends backwards through the entire film––it’s always been goodbye, and yet, there’s always next summer. 

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