MUBI's series Éric Rohmer: Comedies and Proverbs is now showing in many countries around the world.
A devout Catholic and staunch cine-moralist, a director of marvelous consistency and constant reinvention, a miser whose unfashionably talky films turned a consistent profit well into his old age, a committed environmentalist and covert neo-royalist: Éric Rohmer developed, over the course of his storied career, a variety of reputations—often distorted, always encouraged. (Given how he futzed with his birth date in interviews, one would be forgiven for forgetting his centenary earlier this year.) But if one feels that the great French director’s apparent contradictions and personal moral codes cannot so easily be summed up, this is only apropos, for his cinema conveys a sense of the world as too mysterious and variegated and unpredictable to accommodate our attempts at comprehending it—even, or especially, through fiction. Indeed, Rohmer’s deceptively spare cinematic practice constitutes a veritable confrontation with the multifarious materials of daily life, grounding its philosophical insight and sense of discovery in the inexhaustible richness of the everyday. Bedevilled by fortune and fate, accident and luck, his characters continually face up to the limits of their own reason, and are often thrown back upon themselves in their quixotic quests for order and certainty. Forced to suspend knowledge, they make room for belief.
The characters who inhabit Rohmer’s six Comedies and Proverbs, made between 1980 and 1987, are some of the director’s most memorable figures, each of them embodying some mode of existence, some way of reckoning with their personal, precarious positions. In his cinema of choice and chance, Rohmer observes individuals enacting their own dramas of human possibility, of human actuality—and hence presents a sense of history (and our subjection to history) as a matter of everyday concretion. Below is a kind of Rohmerian menagerie—a necessarily incomplete catalogue of the men and women who populate the hard, externalized, always surprising worlds of these films.
Philippe Marlaud, The Aviator’s Wife (1981)
Following his screen debut as a provincial teen in Maurice Pialat’s Passe ton bac d’abord (1978), 20-year-old Philippe Marlaud anchored the first of the Comedies and Proverbs as François, a Parisian law student working nights as a postal service worker. Like the Moral Tales before it, The Aviator’s Wife was based on a story sketch that Rohmer had written in his youth, and perhaps for this reason it fits the template of those earlier features more closely, focusing on a male protagonist (the only one of the Comedies and Proverbs cycle) whose attention is, over the course of the film, divided between two women. In this case, after spying his slightly older girlfriend Anne (Marie Rivière) with her ex-lover Christian (Mathieu Carrière), François attempts to trail the latter across Paris, in the course of which he crosses paths with a 15-year-old girl Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury) who aids him in his amateur sleuthing. But if the Moral Tales followed a more-or-less stable template in examining the protagonist’s and the audience’s interests and sympathies—one woman holds the story center, the other remains in the margins—The Aviator’s Wife consciously, wittily reconfigures this narrative structure.
From its opening proverb (“It is impossible to think about nothing”), the film continually underscores the myriad narrative possibilities that proliferate (and then fail to materialize) across the runtime. Indeed, The Aviator’s Wife as a whole operates as a reflexive exploration of the pleasures and pains of fiction-making, with Marlaud ably embodying a paradoxically unworthy hero—a protagonist so devoid of drive that he literally falls asleep at multiple points throughout the film. In some sense reprising the Jean-Louis Trintignant role from My Night at Maud’s (1969), Marlaud is the prototypical Rohmer hero, but his cannily self-effacing performance—an ideal balance of passivity and purpose—also points up to the contingency of his central position within the film’s perfectly-proportioned narrative. Rohmer’s most temporally unified feature, The Aviator’s Wife unfolds in three roughly half-hour parts, opening with the basic set-up for François’s amorous quandary about Anne’s fidelity, segueing into his aimless investigation/mystery around Paris’s Buttes-Chaumont quarter, and then finally culminating in a tour-de-force tête-à-tête between him and a nakedly vulnerable Anne in her cramped apartment. In a sublime coda to rival that of Maud’s, Rohmer delivers one of his characteristic narrative fillips—those charged coincidences that concretize his interest in a world of strangers and passers-by, each unable to detach themselves from their own fateful trajectories. Tragically, Marlaud died in a campground fire not long after production wrapped, a fact that adds a tragic dimension to what is already one of the most forlorn exits in Rohmer’s oeuvre: the closing shot of François disappearing into the bustle of an evening commute, set to Arielle Dombasle’s rendition of “Paris m’a séduit.” The concept of the film in a crowded, lonely image.
Béatrice Romand, A Good Marriage (1982)
Laurence de Monaghan may have provided Claire’s Knee (1970) with its titular “magnet of… desire,” but it is Béatrice Romand, in the role of Claire’s impulsive, younger half-sister Laura, who went on to star in the second Comedies and Proverbs, playing an art history student, Sabine, who resolves to get married. It couldn’t have been otherwise. The epigraph of A Good Marriage, displayed on an orange background and set to a pulsing club beat, is from La Fontaine (“Can any of us refrain from building castles in Spain?”), and it’s hard to imagine Romand, ever the precocious pursuer, allowing anyone else to build her castle for her. Of course, this doesn’t stop Romand’s Sabine—eyebrows perpetually arched in daydreams of the future—from setting her sights on Edmond (André Dussollier), a successful lawyer who is wealthy and worldly, if also decidedly uninterested. The later Autumn Tale (1998), in which Romand plays a widowed winemaker whose friends attempt to set her up, uses her impetuousness as a springboard for farce, but she is at her most alluringly intransigent in A Good Marriage, a film whose plot seems impelled by sheer force of will.
As she shuttles between the ancient quarters of Le Mans and a Parisian pied-à-terre, Romand’s heroine continually brushes up against the concrete realities of Rohmer’s environments, and the film builds to a confrontation between Romand and Dussollier in which neither party’s dignity is spared. A conservative male’s judgment of women’s liberation? Perhaps. But A Good Marriage lingers more vividly as the portrait of a woman realizing that her life is not a comedy to be orchestrated, culminating in marriage. The film ends as it began, with Romand on a train, trading glances with a winsome fellow commuter, perhaps finally opening up to a capacious world of everyday coincidence. And maybe now that the comedy is over, life can take its course.
Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach (1983)
An avowed proponent of endless talk as a form of realism, Rohmer “puts speech on trial” in Pauline at the Beach, designating Amanda Langlet’s eponymous heroine as its 15-year-old judge. For the film’s prefatory proverb (“A wagging tongue bites itself”), the director turned again to 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes, whose work formed the basis of Rohmer’s 1978 Perceval le Gallois. But this third entry of the Comedies and Proverbs is also the first full-on farce of his career. With the young Langlet, the filmmaker went through the same procedures he would have with any of his older actors: He selected her based on a photo, talked with her over tea at his Films du Losange offices, and then conducted a series of tape recording sessions to develop and rehearse her role as Pauline. In turn, Langlet’s precocious, petite heroine gives the impression of an adolescent somewhat bewildered by a world of adults, each with their own settled ways: Arielle Dombasle as Pauline’s blonde, statuesque older cousin Marion, who throws herself at life, wanting to “burn with love”; Pascal Greggory as Marion’s more hesitant ex-lover Pierre; and Féodor Atkine as her new love interest Henri, who is older than either, and more practiced in his amorous dealings. Even the younger Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse), with whom Pauline enters into a tentative courtship, ends up drawn into the adults’ roundelay of deceptions and loquacious, dissembling games. Langlet’s Pauline alone refuses to take part.
The Rohmerian summer idyll—an indispensable class to which Pauline at the Beach belongs—locates its action between the fickle flings of a vacationer and the constancy of a sailor’s wife, while also incorporating the long tradition of the seafaring raconteur come to port. In questioning the distorted, deceptive ends to which this storytelling tendency is put, Pauline speaks ahead to both the heroine of A Tale of Winter (1992) and Langlet’s later role as Margot in A Summer’s Tale (1996), each of whom possess a clarity so rarely found in Rohmer’s characters. (The latter film, starring Melvil Poupaud, might be considered a reworking of Pauline at the Beach, but centered around Sylvain instead of Pauline.) It is at Pauline’s prompting that she and Marion head home prematurely, cutting short a farce that might otherwise have kept on going. And when her cousin suggests that they each preserve different, contradictory versions of the rather painful events that came before, Pauline responds with verbal acquiescence and tacit disagreement, the latter conveyed by Langlet’s tight-lipped smile and quick bob of the head. There is nothing left to say.
Pascale Ogier, Full Moon in Paris (1984)
The fourth of the Comedies and Proverbs is something like the negative complement of A Good Marriage: twenty-something design firm trainee Louise (Pascale Ogier), married to a city planner (Tchéky Karyo) in suburban Marne-la-Vallée, tries to maintain her independence by keeping a pied-à-terre in the heart of Paris. More than any other of Rohmer’s ’80s films, Full Moon in Paris managed to bottle something of the decade’s contemporary color, which was due in no small part to its lead actress. Apart from selecting her own character’s name and chic wardrobe, Ogier was responsible for some of the film’s interior decor: Mondrian paintings, trendy lamps, an incongruous neoclassical column, among other modish touches. As Louise revels in her freedom, negotiating the attentions of both her caddish confidante Octave (Fabrice Luchini) and lithe love interest Bastien (Christian Vadim), there’s a continual emphasis on space, design, and appearance, and all that these are meant to conceal. In Ogier’s performance—an alluring mix of glamour and self-consciousness, stubbornness and vulnerability—one gets the sense of Louise as a kind of stage manager, orchestrating the theater of her life. And Rohmer, rather surprisingly, allows the film’s mise-en-scène to retain a glossiness, verve, and visual/tonal coherence in keeping with his heroine’s desires.
For a while, things seem like they could even turn out as in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). But Rohmer, who invented the proverb that opens the film (“He who has two wives loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind”) has other intentions, and after Louise’s Lubitschian pursuit of pleasure unfolds under the night of a full moon, the filmmaker delivers one of his harshest endings. And it is harsh because, like Louise, we had forgotten to consider what lies behind the scrim of things, so what should have been plainly evident instead delivers a sharp shock to the system, restoring our sense of the world as too capricious to fit any individual’s designs. The opening shot of Full Moon in Paris, a steady, 180-degree pan across a depopulated suburban street in Marne-la-Vallée, already stands out as uncharacteristic for Rohmer in its unmotivated, somewhat aestheticized movement. But it is only at the film’s end that this overture is decisively addressed: Image and story finally in sync, the camera follows Ogier walking along that same stretch of road. Emotionally battered, she faces the stinging clarity of a winter morning.
Fabrice Luchini, Full Moon in Paris (1984)
A vivid, voluble presence in Rohmer’s cinema since the time of Claire’s Knee, Fabrice Luchini finally vaulted into the popular eye with his defining role in Full Moon in Paris, amassing a considerable following of his own. Armed with a flashing intelligence and a lilting sense of elocution, his Octave is louche, brazen, and breathlessly literate—a sort of dandyish devil in the mold of Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). There are of course no noirish, fatal twists in this amorous nocturne, but Luchini’s self-styled seducer meddles in Ogier’s tangled affairs all the same, at one point offering a singularly unhelpful pronouncement (“One doesn’t see a woman, one sees… Woman”). The actor’s great gift is conveying a sense of spontaneous inspiration, the impression of epiphany—evident in everything from the revelatory quietude of Christian Vincent’s La discrète (1990) to the comic exaggeration of Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (2016). But far from preferring the freedoms of improvisation, Luchini delights in the constraints of a well-written script—per Rohmer’s own assessment, the actor is “never as good as when he has a text.” Perhaps Luchini’s mastery, then, is not unlike the director’s own: He makes a rare sense of discovery feel like the most natural thing in the world.
Marie Rivière, The Green Ray (1986)
Remembered as much for her monologues on meat-avoidance (“A lettuce is a friend”) as for her tendency to tearful collapse, The Green Ray’s melancholy vacationer Delphine (Rivière) is the echt Rohmer heroine—though the film itself emerged from a marked departure in directorial approach. Finally weary of being told that his films were too expressly “literary,” Rohmer decisively incorporated improvisation into his cinema with The Green Ray, even crediting Rivière at the end “pour le texte et l’interprétation.” The basic idea was that audiences would not be able to distinguish between what he scripted and what was improvised, and if the extraordinary results are now difficult to separate from the ubiquitous awareness of this intention, The Green Ray nonetheless stands as one of Rohmer’s most daring experiments, purifying his impulses to documentation of both his actors (clarifying the importance of casting to his filmmaking method) and environments (Cherbourg, the Alps, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz). Rivière here embodies a woman characterized not merely by her loneliness, but by her active avoidance of any sense of momentousness; as if taking refuge in an impoverished notion of everyday possibility, Delphine literally flees a number of potential encounters, and thus any conventional sense of narrative incident. But alongside these near-misses is her countervailing belief in “personal superstitions,” in recurring signs and coincidences that together constitute a trajectory of sorts—perhaps a fiction.
If The Green Ray is the purest illustration of Rohmer’s filmmaking principles, it is because the aforementioned qualities of Rivière’s Delphine harmonize with the director’s career-long search for a minimal means with which to convey the sense of an event. It is no surprise that Rohmer’s cinema often finds recourse in natural phenomena, which have an especial prominence in The Green Ray, but remain inseparable from our (human) apprehension of them. In The Aviator’s Wife, Rivière’s Anne returns from a vacation to a mess of work, but it is for her a kind of relief, a welcome distraction. There is a comfort in being needed. But the natural world offers no such assurances, and the melancholy of the solitary traveler is being forced to confront one’s insignificance without the excuses that our diurnal duties afford. It is the melancholy of facing the coherence of the world without us. The greatness of The Green Ray’s ending, then, is not that it offers a glimpse of the sublime in the anticipated flash of color, but that it examines the basis upon which we might even receive it—receive anything—as “sublime.” In this climactic sequence, we find the Rohmerian paradox of the natural miracle.
Anne-Laure Meury, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (1987)
Better known as Marlaud’s 15-year-old sidekick in The Aviator’s Wife, Anne-Laure Meury plays a strictly secondary character in the sixth and last of the "Comedies and Proverbs": a story of two female friends (Emmanuelle Chaulet and Sophie Renoir) who, following a series of comedic goings-on, exchange love interests (Eric Viellard and François-Eric Gendron). But as Meury’s character catalyses this eventual swap with her mischievous meddling, she ably embodies the appeal of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, a freewheeling farce whose animating interest is often tangential to its main plot. Indeed, the film is most striking in its documentation of the Belvédère Saint-Christophe neighborhood of Cergy-Pontoise and its surrounding natural environs. And it’s amid this open geography that Meury’s Adrienne, though she appears only at a few key points, becomes a kind of agent of narrative possibility, suggesting sundry paths of exploration away from the central quartet’s cloistered romantic rivalry. Skirting around the margins of story, always with a puckish twinkle in her eyes, she becomes something like the film’s blithe spirit—an emissary from the city beyond.
Regarding the film shoot itself, Meury observed that Rohmer was much less at ease with the size of the production team—minimal for a normal set, but relatively large for the notoriously thrifty director. In retrospect, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend seems more clearly a transitional effort, arguably closer to Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) and Rendezvous in Paris (1995) than the other Comedies and Proverbs. Rohmer himself saw it as an “inaugural film” that just happened to be made at the end of the cycle. A banal coincidence, then, but one that expressed the director’s recurring, Pascalian meditations on the arbitrariness of the here and now. The kind of chance occurrence that is, in Rohmer’s cinema, the wellspring of a world.