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“The Sign of Rohmer” and “A Film Unfinished”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is touting The Sign of Rohmer, opening this afternoon with a screening of Eric Rohmer's debut feature, The Sign of Leo (1959; Richard Brody has a capsule review in the New Yorker) and running through September 3, as the "most complete North American retrospective of Rohmer's work in more than a decade, including all of his feature films and the US premiere of his 1980 TV film Catherine de Heilbronn. Plus special in-person appearances by key Rohmer collaborators."

"Rohmer was the oldest member of the nouvelle vague and the last to make his reputation," writes J Hoberman in the Voice: "[H]e was nearly 50 when My Night at Maud's [image above] rocked the 1969 New York Film Festival with its seeming rebuttal to 60s permissiveness.... Much as I admire certain Rohmers, not to mention the idea of Rohmer, it's always with an ambivalence — doubtless exacerbated by the fact that ambivalence, lifelong and constant per Freud, is his great theme. Rohmer's movies induce self-conscious introspection because that's the zone in which his protagonists live. Eulogizing Rohmer in the Times, novelist André Aciman defined 'Rohmerian' as the 'impulse to dissect each nuance of desire and then turn around and confide it right away.' When the protagonist of A Tale of Springtime (1990) tells a new friend, 'Maybe I think too much about my thoughts,' she speaks for all of Rohmer's endlessly self-explanatory characters."

"Both Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell have noted the persistence of the male gaze in Rohmer's work, but, perhaps being women, however perspicacious, they neglect the additional dimension of doubt and bewilderment confounding his compartmentalization of lust. Nary a supple bottom or striking visage appears without the question of why such arbitrary appearances should drive a civilized man to distraction." These are but a few of the 4000+ words in Joseph Jon Lanthier's piece, which he notes at his own blog is "one of my most discursive, confessional essays, and possibly my proudest moment at Slant Magazine thus far."

"There is no such thing as an expositional scene in a Rohmer film; every line of dialogue, and every corresponding picture, is essential to the whole." Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: "Claire's Knee (1970) is made up almost entirely of pastoral images of diplomat Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), talking through different scenarios that end with him caressing the knee of the eponymous teenager (Laurence de Monaghan). When the moment of truth comes, all the spadework done by the writer-director suddenly shifts into sublime focus."

"While infrequent trips to other periods and milieus at moments exceed the steady brilliance of his contemporary studies (the historical realism of The Marquise of O... (1976) and bold theatricality of Perceval le Gallois (1978) are among his most extraordinary achievements), Rohmer can be confidently placed among a select group of directors (Ozu, the Dardenne Brothers) whose oeuvre is maddeningly consistent." Michael Joshua Rowin in the L Magazine: "The quotidian scale and sheer singlemindedness of his vision would be open to charges of stuffy insularity if it weren't for his assured emotional complexity and his inimitable ear for the strange rhythmic sparring contained in everyday interactions and conversations: has any director — even Cassavetes — better conveyed the exasperating stubbornness of a lover's quarrel or the tense insecurity of a hesitant flirtation? Such careful renderings of romantic life make Rohmer's work about much more than relationships, encompassing the very way we act in the world, and the very way we allow it to act on us."

Updates, 8/19: Artforum is running James Quandt's piece on Rohmer from its March 2010 issue: "From the hot August streets of his first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), to the radiant arcadia of fifth-century Gaul in his last, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer's sun-flooded settings signaled his congenial approach, which was often mistaken for inconsequence. Paradoxically, the very constriction of the director's regard, the intent limitation of his style and purview, resulted in plenitude, a gracious bounty of social perception and, indeed, of highly organized pleasure."

The Human Comedies of Eric Rohmer is a series at the Harvard Film Archive opening tomorrow (August 20) and running through August 30. Peter Keough in the Boston Phoenix: "As intelligent as Rohmer's people are, they can be opaque when synchronicity comes knocking. Signs and portents are sought but not always recognized. In Summer ([also known as The Green Ray] 1986; August 22 at 7 pm), perhaps my favorite of all Rohmer's films, a young woman goes on vacation in the hope that something might happen that will shake her out of her loneliness. She plays cards, reads her horoscope, tries to meet new people. Only a miracle can save her, and Rohmer slyly conjures one, ending with an image that could illustrate what James Agee termed 'the incontrovertible perception of the incredible.'"


A radical shifting of the gears now, and we begin with Gary Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times and "a 62-minute, 35-millimeter rough cut of a never-released 1942 Nazi propaganda film simply labeled Das Ghetto." This film was "first unearthed in an East German film archive in 1954, was particularly curious as it was apparently abandoned after it was shot without evidence of who was behind it, its exact purpose or why it was never completed." Nevertheless, for many years, it was taken "to be a starkly real depiction of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis in occupied Poland. It was one of many such films produced by the Third Reich to promulgate its policies, help gain and maintain power, vilify the Jews and, in some segments, portray Jews seemingly living the high life under the Nazis' 'compassionate' protection. But what [Yael] Hersonski came across as she watched four unfolding reels of emaciated captives, corpse-strewn streets and even scenes of the Jewish elite attending posh Champagne balls, was a staggering fifth reel of outtakes that had been discovered in 1998 by a British researcher. In those images could be seen entire scenes being reshot, cameramen in the background and signs of staging. It was proof that the film, while capturing some genuine suffering, was being manipulated by SS cameramen. This soundtrack-free assemblage so inspired the director it would wind up as the centerpiece of her own unique and gripping Holocaust documentary, A Film Unfinished, which opens in Los Angeles theaters Friday."

Today, though, it opens for a two-week run at Film Forum and, in the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis finds it "remarkable as much for its speculative restraint as for its philosophical reach. Moving methodically reel by reel and acknowledging the 'many layers of reality,' the director creates a palimpsest of impressions from multiple, meticulously researched sources representing both victims and oppressors."

In Slant, Andrew Schenker argues that "Hersonski is, if anything, more emotionally manipulative than the Germans, staging a final sequence in which she cuts from The Ghetto's most horrifying sequence — the mass dumping of bodies — to extreme close-ups of the survivors' faces. But even if this crude, ethically suspect juxtaposition seems nearly unforgivable, Hersonski's manipulations have the virtue of deliberate transparency. Whereas the Nazi films aimed to obscure the dividing line between fact and fiction, A Film Unfinished aims at clarification, at analysis."

More from Claude Brodesser-Akner (New York), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Benjamin Mercer (L), Noel Murray (AV Club), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Michael Joshua Rowin (Artforum), Ella Taylor (Voice), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York) and James van Maanen.

The Motion Picture Association of America has slapped the film with an R-rating and, as Micah Sachs notes, introducing a conversation with Hersonski at indieWIRE, "Adam Yauch, Beastie Boy and founder of the film's North American distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, called the MPAA's decision 'bullshit.'" But Hersonski "sees things a little bit differently. 'This MPAA thing has made many people talk about this film,' she said, in Oscilloscope's funky West Village offices. 'Eventually, I don't think it will harm the theatrical life of this movie.'" Let's hope not. As the NYT's Michael Cieply reports, Oscilloscope's appeal has been struck down.

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