The two disc set from Artificial Eye called "The Early Works of Eric Rohmer" features two of his Six Moral Tales, the shorts La boulangère de Monceau and La carriere de Suzanne. (In addition it contains Rohmer’s shorts Nadia á Paris and Charlotte et son steak, and his documentary on the Lumière brothers.) The Moral Tales, and much of the other miscellany, are handled quite well in the renowned domestic Criterion box set, so the picture I’d like to concentrate on from this set is Rohmer’s first feature (and his last for almost a decade) Le signe du lion, or The Sign of Leo. Rohmer’s known for his Four Seasons, his Comedies and Proverbs, and of course his Moral Tales. Le signe du lion, its title notwithstanding, would appear to be Rohmer’s sole Shaggy Dog Tale.
If it is in a sense Rohmer’s most rambunctious film, it’s because it features what’s possibly the director’s most rambunctious lead character: a burly, bluff American in Paris named Pierre (played by Jess Hahn, an ex-G.I. who settled in France after World War II and made a good career in French films; his more international roles include turns in Topkapi, What’s New, Pussycat?, and the abysmal Brando starrer Night of the Following Day) who’s dragged out of bed late one morning with the news that a European aunt has died. Convinced this means that he’s going to inherit her fortune (the proceeds from several factories at the very least), he goes on a bender. The itinerate composer throws all-nighters for friends (that’s Jean-Luc Godard cameoing at one such affair, playing solitaire with the phonograph and obsessing over, what else, a passage from Mozart), picks up tabs at dinner, does all the things that a proud, voluble life-of-the-party would do if he or she came into a considerable sum of money. He does all this heedlessly, as if he’s earned his due, because, after all, he’s a Leo, and so that is his due.
Part of my affection for this film stems from a certain identification with Pierre. Like him, I was born under the sign of the Lion, and we share enough personality characteristics to make you believe there actually is something to this astrology stuff. (As it happens, I came into the world the same year the picture completed production, 1959.) It goes on from there. I’m also big, and clumsy—the chair-missing scenario the top screen capture gets the tail end of is a not-uncommon occurrence for me—and have been known to exhibit an irresponsible streak several miles wide. Sometimes my identification with Pierre is affectionate, sometimes scornful, sometimes rueful. What’s interesting about the film is the way Rohmer—born on March 20, a Pisces, and hence imaginative and sensitive!—keeps faith with this peculiar fellow and potentially alienating fellow. (While Rohmer came up with the story, the dialogue was written by Paul Gégauff, later a frequent Chabrol collaborator and one of the most intriguing characters of French cinema.) Partially it’s due to the fact that this tale is constructed like nothing else in the Rohmer canon. When I call it a Shaggy Dog Tale, I do not kid; there is something thoroughly anecdotal, not to say O. Henry-ish, about Pierre’s slide into ruin once he discovers that the windfall isn’t coming. It allows Rohmer to really make room for the character and his habits and stupid little tics, such as the way he needlessly sasses a couple of attractive young women passing a fountain. At the same time it allows the director and cinematographer Nicholas Heyer to compose a visual love letter to bohemian Paris, and he shoots the city here in a way that he would never quite do again, making it a very real and very attractive character in the picture.
Just when you think that Pierre’s pretty much done for, Rohmer rolls out his twist, and he furthermore applies some (technically clumsy) intimations of the cosmic into the film’s final moments, dissolving from a church tower to the faraway heavens, evoking the beginning of It’s A Wonderful Life and anticipating the Eames’ Powers of Ten, not to mention the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, and likely a lot more. What fools these mortals be, for sure.
The picture was produced concurrently with Godard’s A bout de soufflé, and the friends and colleagues planned that their respective films would share one individual shot. Their scheme did not pan out, and Rohmer’s film ended up almost an inversion of Godard’s, as far as commercial success was concerned. In the intervening years Rohmer continued at Cahiers du cinéma, made the first two Moral Tales as shorts in partnership with producer/actor Barbet Schroeder, and, it would seem, considerably retooled his artistic arsenal. Sign of the Lion, then, remains unique among Rohmer pictures. I’d say it’s unique among films in general, but I’m biased.
The Artificial Eye Region 2 PAL U.K. disc presents a solid but flawed picture; a 1.66:1 aspect ratio dropped into a 1.33:1 frame. One hopes a correct anamorphic presentation is somewhere in the future for this beautiful work.