Are film directors like cupids? Are they armed with a bow and arrow, shooting their particular and peculiar vision of life at the audience so some spell can begin? If so, Eric Rohmer's arrows are philosophically tinged, though aimed more at the heart and the many-tiered prejudices surrounding it than the head. Sometimes mistakenly branded intellectual, his cinema is the personification of the Shakespearian invocation at the beginning of Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on...” His music is talk and the talk is of love, and though it can stray into discussions of Plato, Pascal, and Kant, its end is the heart because the fleshy fist ultimately decides who we stay with and who we leave, who's in and who's out—the fist answers Rohmer's main question, Who, out of all the people I attract or I'm attracted to, is my type?
Rohmer's least seen, but possibly richest series of films, “The Tales of Four Seasons” came in no particular order throughout the 1990's: Spring, Winter, Summer, Autumn. In A Winter's Tale (1992), now playing in DCP at Lincoln Center, the hairdresser Félicie (Charlotte Véry) ping pongs between three men. Charles, her brief love of five years before, is a cook with a male model's face and body. He is the father of her daughter, Elise, though Félicie gave him her wrong address at the time and they've never seen each other again—yet she constantly speaks of him. Then there is Loic, a wiry intellectual who works in a library and sports turtlenecks, and Maxence, a burly man, at times sweet and at times impatient, who owns the salon Félicie works at. Félicie is like other restless characters in Rohmer's oeuvre, especially those played by Pascale Ogier in Full Moon in Paris and Marie Rivière in The Green Ray, as well as the main male characters in A Tale of Springtime and A Summer's Tale, where the inversion is not only in terms of weather but predicament, as a man bounces around amidst three women, and those in the Six Moral Tales, where a man grapples between desires for two different types of women. Félicie tries Maxence (moving from Paris to Nevers and his new salon around Christmas) only to half-heartedly return to Loic, while all the time pining for and hoping Charles will come back into her life. Some may find her fickle, foolish, or mad, but Rohmer avers, “Characters in a tragedy must be neither totally good nor totally bad, neither totally guilty nor totally innocent.” One relates to Félicie as one sees oneself on both good and bad days of life, but she retains faith.
While taking her unhappy child out to play in dour, wintry Nevers, they go into the large half Romanesque, half Gothic cathedral because Elise wants to see the nativity scene. Félicie sits in a chair, waiting. There is a brief shot of the apse, then Félicie's reaction, but more an action shot of her moving her eyes up and down the architecture before her. In this short moment, she changes her life, making a berth for further kismet that gets preformed for her when she and Loic go to see Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Rohmer, who had the idea for the film after seeing the BBC version on TV years before, shows most of the play's last scene in which a queen apparently comes back to life sixteen years after her death. Later Félicie argues with Loic about the meaning of the scene. He's concerned with whether the queen had ever died or if it was magic. No, it's about faith, she tells him, adding of her moment in the church by way of correlation, “I was alone in the world: it was up to me to act and not be pushed around by anyone or anything.” As philosopher Stanley Cavell says in his essay on the film, Félicie “has placed her infinite stake in her life not on the theoretical rationality of God's existence, but on the reality of her own desire.”
The film, while obeying Rohmer's love of dialogue (Félicie's put down of Loic after seeing the play is precious and hilarious, “If I say I love you, you'll check to see if that's in a book”), has a fast pace, with many shots of Félicie crossing the city by foot, bus, and train and then traveling to Nevers and back. These crossings and re-crossings pack a documentarian punch whose gash in the viewer's consciousness makes space for what will happen—the ending isn't so far-fetched. In detailing so many journeys like leitmotifs (a good five minutes of film), characters are bound to run into all types of people. Along the way, every shot adds to the mortal atmosphere, including one of the intact remains of St. Bernadette in her chapel, a close-up of less than three seconds, that is enough to suspend itself or disappear like an irrelevant pop on some viewings, as is a lengthy discussion with Loic's friends about reincarnation. These moments reinforce the themes Rohmer plays with, supporting his world view like the flying buttresses holding up the Cathedral.
As his screenplay portrays the innards of characters like a consummate playwright, it's no surprise Rohmer wrote extensively before filmmaking, working at fiction, journalism, and criticism (he would be the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma). He can be said to have a plain style of mise en scène, similar to that of Murnau and Renoir, or Alice Munro and the John Williams of Stoner in writing. Besides simple pans and tracks, a zoom here and there is the extent of his camera's tinkering. Set décor, lighting, and the weather during the shoot were more important for him and the soft winter light filling the faces of Félicie and Maxence as they speak near Nevers's old city walls illustrates this. The low light, in collusion with the words and the expressions of the actors, makes the audience want to see the characters speak as much as hear what they have to say.
The film gestures towards the masterpieces of two of Rohmer's influences, one a precursor, Carl Dreyer, who he interviewed for Cinéastes de notre temps, and one a contemporary, John Cassavetes. Compared to Ordet's miracle ending and A Woman Under the Influence's miracle that the family stays together at the end, Rohmer's ending is uniquely low-key. The film's miracle has little magic—only faith, which Félicie often speaks of. And maybe this is why she comes across as so even-handed, so wise, even in the midst of her vacillations. There is no breakdown, no screeching freak out, though her ideals are as different from most others as Mabel Longhetti's are from her family and friends in A Woman. It's a miracle people like Félicie and Mabel live among us at all. The last scene, with everyone united and cooking a celebration dinner while the credits role, echoes Cassevetes's film as well.
In Shakespeare's play the keywords are nature, bear (as in bearing, though a real bear famously chases a character off-stage), conceive, and lawful. A child has died, but one child is adrift for sixteen years. In Rohmer's tale, Elise is the most prominent child character in his work. She is in danger of staying a bastard child, though her mother proudly posts a picture of her father in her room. Elise has a consciousness in the drama, a stake—like the children in Cassavetes, the attitude toward her is not cloying. She laughs, she talks, she eats, she plays—exactly as a child would. Her life will change most drastically if her true father returns.
Why do Rohmer's films, many made with small budgets and without stars, work? After a career of teaching and then making a number of short films, Rohmer bloomed late in life (his late 40s) with the Six Moral Tales he'd been cultivating for nearly twenty years before he filmed them. His films are made of a different particulate than those of Godard, whose early radical leanings followed his delight in being the destroyer of the narrative cinema, though he could forgive John Wayne his right-wing leanings because his character in The Searchers does not kill a Natalie Wood raised by indians. Or Kubrick, who grew up on his own education and that of the streets of New York in the 1940s, coming into an insatiable mind that from Dr. Strangelove on would exhaust the knowledge of man on many topics before he shot a frame of film. Rohmer is closer to the three psychologists of the cinema: Ozu, Bergman, and Cassavetes, though he loved weather and often placed his characters outdoors in contrast to the largely indoor cinema of those three. It seems that question of type, a question everyone eventually asks of themselves, whether consciously or not, could be endlessly exhausted by Rohmer because people, in all their openness and subterfuge, were his cinema. He knew why we cried and how we could be made to laugh the laugh of forgetfulness. A Winter's Tale, full of both, holds a hallowed, holy place in his cinema.