More Than Talk
In an otherwise astute appreciation of Eric Rohmer, whom he cites as his favorite filmmaker, Slate’s culture critic Stephen Metcalf writes, “Rohmer’s films are only barely films.” In this view, Rohmer’s talk-filled movies, portraits of thoughtful but highly fallible characters who are confused about matters of sex, desire, morality, and philosophy, are valuable for reasons beyond and, presumably, above matters of cinematic style. Indeed, Metcalf ends his piece by praising Rohmer’s engagement with life over art: “His love of people and ideas has always exceeded any affection he may or may not have for the monomaniacal cult known as ‘cinema.’”
There’s a fallacy at play here: because Rohmer’s characters talk a lot, and because they don’t seem to contain much action, his films may be great but they are not particularly cinematic. In a letter to a critic published in La Nouvelle Revue Française (March 1971), Rohmer wrote, “My films, you say, are literary: The things I say could be said in a novel. Yes, but what do I say? My characters’ discourse is not necessarily my film’s discourse….”
This is the key point; while Rohmer shows us characters who talk a lot, his artistry is found in his discourse, not theirs. Specifically, it is found in the way that he shows and analyzes their talking through filmic means. He creates meaning and ambiguity in his precise calibration of camera placement, editing, costume, décor, and casting, and perhaps most importantly, the way he works with actors to explore the infinite variety of human gestures, including speech, which for Rohmer is a form of action, not exposition. Where Mizoguchi, Kubrick, or Welles may use elaborate tracking shots to convey meaning and impose their authorial voice, Rohmer achieves maximum impact through the smallest moves. His strongest effects come from such things as the choice to move from a master shot of a conversation to a close-up.
Consider a scene from Chloe in the Afternoon. Like countless Rohmer scenes, it is unostentatious yet extraordinarily rich. Frédéric, a restless married man who tends to his libido by flirting with the attractive secretaries at the office and by daydreaming about the women he sees on the Paris streets, is having lunch with Chloe, an old flame who has reentered his life. In the previous scene, Chloe, who is moving out of the apartment she shares with a male roommate, has just brought Frédéric along to look at a potential apartment, a single flat. Frédéric invites her to lunch. Take the restaurant scene shot by shot:
[00:00] In the establishing shot of the restaurant interior, the sensual color red is a strong motif; the walls and banquettes are red, an elderly woman enjoying the company of her male partner is wearing a bright red dress, and a writer dining alone edits with a red pen. Chloe wears a red turtleneck sweater; her coat is red, as are the lamps reflected behind her in the mirror. The red seems directly related to the barely contained sensuality of the previous scene.
In voiceover, Frédéric tells us, “Sensing Chloe needed moral support, I invited her to a restaurant.” It’s easy enough to see beyond his smug disavowal of his own sexual curiosity; in the scene in the flat, the landlord—another attractive young woman—assumed that Frédéric and Chloe were a couple, and the scene was filled with polite but blunt speculation about Chloe’s sex life; the landlord assured her, with a laugh, “visitors aren’t prohibited,” and Chloe pointedly joked, “I won’t give your number to anybody but him, but he’ll never call.”
Coolly denying any sexual tension from the apartment scene, Frédéric says, “My presence was unnecessary. The landlady seems honest.” The camera tracks in to a closer shot of Chloe and Frédéric, keeping them in the same shot and suggesting growing intimacy between them. Chloe, who alternates between neediness and independence throughout the film, says, “I couldn’t stand being alone. I needed to see you.” Frédéric’s arm is rested on the banquette; his hand hangs down between them, poised to touch her shoulder. Chloe smiles and places her hand on his, saying, “You’re the only one who can help me.” After a brief, warm exchange, Frédéric bends down to kiss Chloe’s hand; she pulls away, and the camera closes in on her, eliminating Frédéric from the shot. In this brief moment, the interplay between their hands enacts a drama of sexual advance and retreat and an emotional dance as they try to find where they stand with each other.
Chloe draws into herself, talking about her suicidal tendencies. “If just lifting a finger could return me to the void, I’d do it. Everyone would.” The focus has shifted from the couple to Chloe, and in a close-up we observe her insular, somewhat inscrutable nature.
[1:02] At this disturbing moment, as Chloe asks, “Why live?” Rohmer cuts to the writer, who is taking notes and seems to be listening to the private conversation. The play between private thoughts and the public world has been a theme throughout, including the landlord’s intrusion in the previous scene, and a memorable montage earlier in the film where Frédéric speculates about the private lives of the couples he sees in the city streets. The author is also a stand-in for Rohmer and for the audience, reminding us of our own role as observers of the scene. Just like this writer taking notes, we are being asked to interpret Chloe’s and Frédéric’s actions and gestures, as well as the ideas that they’re discussing.
[1:13] The camera shifts to a shot of Frédéric listening; his bemused smile indicates that he doesn’t really understand Chloe, and isn’t really in control of what is happening between them. We can sense both his attraction and fear.
[1:32] Cut, from Chloe’s point of view, to two wealthy-looking women friends. While the writer in the previous cutaway was observing Frédéric and Chloe, the women here are unaware that they are being observed, and judged. Chloe says, “The way some people live turns me off.”
[1:56] Frédéric talks to Chloe about how he likes to watch other people and see how they live, and that nobody’s lives are ugly. The camera remains on Chloe’s face; we can see that his reassuring words are making no impact. She is the anguished bohemian, he is living in bourgeois self-delusion. His words failing, his hand enters the frame, reaching toward her shoulder. At the last second, he hesitates, and clutches at the banquette.
[2:27] Cut to Frédéric, as Chloe explains that she’ll never live with a man, that she’ll sleep around a bit. Does he want this type of freedom for himself? How does he feel about being one of the men that Chloe will sleep around with?
[2:44] A shift in tone, as we go from separate closeups to a shot of Chloe and Frédéric together. She gazes directly at him, and they talk about how good it is to see each other. In a quintessential Rohmer line, Frédéric becomes abstract, not knowing how to handle the real connection between them: “Your real worries deliver me from my imaginary ones.” Comfortable that she has him under her control, Chloe arranges their next date…to help her clear out her things from her apartment. He says he doesn’t “like sneaking into someone else’s place.” “It’s my place, and my things,” she assures him (or more evocatively, “mes affaires” in French).
Much of the richness of this scene comes from the performances. As Chloe, the model/actress Zouzou is a marvelously fragile femme fatale; she knows that her insolent self-sufficiency and sexual freedom are both a temptation to Frédéric and a rebuke to his marriage. Bernard Verley’s nimbly self-effacing performance reveals the naivete and adolescent longing beneath Frédéric’s attempts to appear suave.
This scene barely registers as “great” while watching it, but it is made with tremendous nuance and attention to behavioral detail and the meanings, both text and subtext, beneath the dialogue. It also confirms an insight that Vincent Canby made about Rohmer when reviewing the film in The New York Times; while his “heroes inevitably opt for the comparatively celibate choice, his films succeed in being immensely erotic.” Canby’s main point was that Rohmer’s films are so precise, and tactile (and exquisitely photographed by Nestor Almendros, whose working method with Rohmer is detailed here), that the presence of a few square inches of flesh has tremendous impact. But as a close viewing of the restaurant scene shows, layers of eroticism and sexual tension can be found not just in overtly erotic scenes, but in any scene.
In his chapter on Chloe in the Afternoon in his memoir A Man With a Camera, Almendros somewhat wistfully but respectfully said that of all his films with Rohmer, “This is the one that has given me the least chance to shine. I should make it clear that I am not judging the film.” But Rohmer clearly understood that his job was not to show off, to create opportunities from great cinematography, but instead to create great cinema. With Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette still producing terrific movies, it does seem like the 89-year-old Rohmer died young. But his films remain fresh, and reward repeated reviewing. To offer a variation on a famous phrase from his 1953 review of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky: One cannot really love any film if one does not really love the ones by Eric Rohmer.
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FURTHER READINGThe Auteurs Notebook roundup of Rohmer obituaries
David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.More articles by David Schwartz