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NOTE: these reviews of six films of Eric Rohmer's are not a buying guide. If you have the slightest interest in cinema (and why else are you here?) you must buy this set, one of the most essential collections in cinema. Watch the films, then tell me if you agree with what I say.
ERIC ROHMER'S Six Moral Tales series of films is a fascinating way to watch a major talent develop seemingly from nothing. They are available from Criterion in the USA and in a complete Rohmer set from Hong Kong (which includes the Criterion release minus most of the extras).
THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (La Boulangere de Monceau) 1962
The Bakery Girl of Monceau is Rohmer's first attempt to turn a book of short stories ' the Moral Tales ' into film. It is a simple film running for 20 minutes, photographed in black and white, with non professional actors, natural sound, and the dialogue and commentary synchronised not too convincingly during post production. The streets of the city, the shops and the passers-by seem to get more attention than the central characters. The film has a strong documentary feel to it.
A young student is attracted to a girl he sees in the street, strikes up an acquaintance with her, then, during her mysterious disappearance, spends his time trying to seduce the bakery girl of the title, on the grounds that she doesn't matter to him. He finally wins her confidence, but drops her abruptly when the girl he has been looking for suddenly reappears.
The theme of the series makes its appearance. A man finds himself attracted to a woman, gets involved with another whom he regards as 'unsuitable', frees himself from the second woman and goes back to the first. In thinking of how or if the second woman is unsuitable the audience can reflect on the choices one makes in a relationship and what factors should or should not be taken into consideration.
SUZANNE'S CAREER (Le Carrière de Suzanne) 1963
Suzanne's Career, a 50 minute black and white film, continues the theme. This time two students insult and exploit a girl they have met in a cafe. Guillaume is the more unscrupulous, who both seduces the girl then steals from his friend. The other student, Bertrand, gradually builds up a relationship with Suzanne while being in love from afar with another girl, Sophie. Bertrand and his friend are unable to feel respect for Suzanne, and Bertrand gradually loses contact with his love Sophie. Suzanne, generous to both men, finally falls in love and marries another man.
In this case Bertrand is unable to make contact either with Suzanne, the girl he undervalues, or Sophie, the girl he loves. The 'unsuitable' girl, Suzanne, like the Bakery girl in the first film, appears to have more to offer, but the central male character is too misled by fixed ideas to see it. Hand held cameras, uninspired street scenes (rare in Rohmer), grainy stock and poorly dubbed post production dialogue make for difficult viewing. The device of 'commentary', common to both films, has a distancing, uninvolving effect on the viewer.
THE COLLECTOR (La Collectionneuse) 1967
The third film in the series, La Collectionneuse, made in colour and a full length feature, shows three rather immature people at a holiday chateau by the sea. Two men alternately insult and try to seduce a teenage girl, who seems to respond first to one, then the other, before going off to Rome with some friends without a backward glance.
Adrian, a would-be art dealer, is on holiday. His true affections are engaged by his fiancée, yet he appears to find himself attracted to the girl Haydée staying at the chateau. After much too much commentary on how he feels, most of which bears no relation to what he feels, he goes back to his fiancée. Adrian and his friend Daniel, shallow and arrogant as egotists often are, are consistently shown as refusing experience. The dialogue given the two men, and Adrian's commentary, is clever, but superficial and a substitute for their emotional life. The teenager Haydée, seemingly not too bright, fritters her life away in casual love affairs. Though 'unsuitable' for the dealer Adrian, she is no more so than his fiancée Carole. The three of them are stalled, and so is the film. On the other hand the landscape, so important in later films by Rohmer, makes its first significant appearance. As he was so skilfully to do later in his career, Rohmer here uses colour to significantly highlight his story. Filmed in natural light however, the interiors are as murky as Daniel and Adrian's philosophising.
It takes a moment's adjustment from the defects of these films to see Rohmer's irony, directed towards unperceptive male characters whose intellectual rigidity and fear of emotional involvement cause them to bungle their relationships, both with women they admire and those they don't, and treat these women with real though unaware cruelty.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (Ma nuit chez Maud) 1969
Three films, and not much to show for it. But things were about to change. Rohmer is a master of construction, and the three films mentioned so far show the drawback to this mastery, which gives the films a mechanical, over-intellectual feel. With such a cinema of ideas, Rohmer needs actors of some skill, able to give emotional depth to the parts they play, often of people unaware of their feelings. A layered style of acting is required, which only an actor of considerable power can give. Rohmer was next to work with two of France's greatest actors, and the resulting film made him recognised around the world as a major artist of cinema.
Jean-Louis Trintignant had acted in movies for more than 12 years when he joined the cast of My Night at Maud's. He had leapt to fame two years earlier as the lead in Lelouche's A Man and a Woman, and earlier in 1969 had played the investigator in Costa-Gavras' Z. Most people will know him as the judge in Kieslowski's Three Colours: Red. Trintignant was almost 40 when he played in the Rohmer film, and the part was rewritten to suit him: instead of a student, or an uncommitted society loafer, Jean-Louis is a professional who has travelled the world and had many relationships. Françoise Fabian was a couple of years younger than Trintignant and had been working in film since 1960, with directors such as Malle and Luis Buñuel. As the Maud of the film's title she is a divorcée and single parent with a talent for choosing the wrong man.
The difference these actors make to My Night at Maud's is immediately apparent. Rohmer drops the distancing commentary of the first three films: Jean-Louis speaks only a sentence of commentary on two separate occasions. Néstor Almendros, on his second assignment with Rohmer and working this time in black and white, first shows his mastery: the camera in this film is almost a character in its own right and the photography adds immeasurably to the impact of the film. Rohmer, with two such skilled actors, is not hesitant about using close up, and what's achieved, sometimes without a word of dialogue, is something that richens and deepens the film, adds its emotional content.
Yet the dialogue in the film is extraordinary. Rohmer's films are often disparaged as 'talky'. Haven't you ever met someone with whom you connected with quite deeply? What did you do? Chances are you talked the night away, and this is an inherently dramatic situation. In Rohmer's films characters are always meeting and talking the night away, and you have to understand this is because they love one another ' even though they might not know it. The talk is central to a real situation, and the adrenalin, special effect laden excitement we're used to in films can be seen after viewing this film to be the bizarre oddity it is.
The film's argument is coherent, complex and very challenging. It concerns faith and is quite subversive because it challenges the very foundation of faith. Building on Pascal's wager, it suggests that most people have a faith because they want to get something by it. Wouldn't it be perfect, suggests Rohmer, if you could have faith without believing in god? Perhaps on the grounds that the concept is so beautiful it deserves belief, whether it is true or not. Wouldn't it be perfect if you could just love someone, without expecting to be loved in return?
The 'action' is similar to the earlier three films: two men, Jean-Louis and Vidal, treat a woman, Maud, with unperceptive cruelty, too busy constructing their own world from intellectual concepts and negotiating their own advancement through egotistical complacency and self satisfaction and unawareness of others. There is an important difference between the two men. One, Vidal, is an atheist, and close to despair, and not taken seriously by either Jean-Louis or Maud. His shallowness is its own punishment. Jean-Louis is given a ray of hope: he is idealist enough to have faith ' but his faith serves his self-interest. Jean-Louis has already made his choice of woman by the time he meets the 'unsuitable' Maud, someone who fits nicely into the rational security system he has constructed. And Maud? She is the generous, emotionally responsive female of the other films, able to love despite her heartbreaks. Of course this is a gross simplification of what any woman really is, but it is the contrast Rohmer is interested in, and simplification helps make things clearer. And Maud is played by Françoise Fabian, who can give the character depth, essentially by adding ambiguity to the role, so that any viewer can enrich their interpretation by adding from their own experience when watching the film.
In the epilogue to the film Rohmer adds some concepts that were only implicit in the earlier films. That you can love someone without having a relationship with them, as Maud loves Jean-Louis. That possession, as Jean-Louis possesses Françoise, is a poor second to trust, which was what Maud offered him. That awareness of the situation, which Jean-Louis has for a moment when he meets Maud at the beach, will be something he soon erases from his mind, for we all seek to be comfortably numb rather than painfully aware.
My Night at Maud's is a film I've grown up with. I first saw it when I was 20. I went to the little Gala cinema in Pitt Street in Sydney, where European films were shown, and where I discovered films like Mon Oncle, Les Enfants du Paradis and The Seventh Seal, a whole new world for someone who then thought film was Tony Curtis playing Ali Baba or Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin not being very funny. The film touched me, and still does, in that part of me which mourns the things and people I've lost. I felt like Demios, up from Eleusis for the Dionysia in ancient Athens and sitting through one of Agathon's lesser efforts when suddenly Sophocles walks on the stage and introduces Oedipus Rex.
At first the dialogue impressed me, and I thought it very clever that a film maker could show people having a conversation about Pascal and making it involving, just as I was impressed that Ingmar Bergman could make a film, The Seventh Seal, about the imminence of death and why that makes life futile, or not, and why not. These things just had not been done before, to my knowledge, in film. I realised that Maud was a film about what did not happen, about things that could have happened, just as much as it chronicles the petty details of what actually does happen. I thought this masterly then, and still do today. Thanks to video and DVD I had opportunities to watch Maud half a dozen times again, and gradually came to understand the understated, or not stated, emotional issues of the film, as I grew up, lost opportunities I was unaware of at the time, reflected on that, and gradually built up the background to appreciate the immense understanding and compassion for human beings that motivated Eric Rohmer to first write stories, then make films.
CLAIRE'S KNEE (Le genou de Claire) 1970
Claire's knee is not really the subject of this film (the knee, and Claire, make their appearance after more than one half of it has passed). It's a sly and amusing study of desire, and the self-deceit we have about it, played out in the person and actions of Jerome, a 35 year old diplomat who finds himself attracted by an old friend and two teenage girls but finds it inconvenient to admit it.
Jerome explains to a friend, Aurora, that he is getting married to a woman he feels no desire for, but whom he knows he can live with for that reason. His friend doesn't believe him, and neither do we. For the first half of the film Jerome demonstrates his lack of desire for his friend Aurora. Jerome then attempts to prove he is sincere by allowing the 16 year old Laura to fall in love with him, and then pursuing the 18 year old Claire in order to touch her knee, and then do no more. As the movie progresses we see he has many illusions about himself, and the desire he doesn't feel may be only atrophied and repressed through fear of rejection, or shyness.
The part played in the earlier movies by a male friend to the central character in this movie is played by a woman, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), who sets in motion the events that occur in the film. The woman Jerome intends to marry remains offscreen, and the 'unsuitable' woman is played by not one but three women. The wrong that Jerome does to Claire is to try to break up her relationship with her boyfriend, and this is comically ineffective. Compared to the earlier films all this is much lighter and more whimsical.
Jean-Claude Brialy, an experienced and very popular actor in France who had worked earlier with Truffaut and Godard, plays Jerome so we can see the contradictions behind his ever so slightly fatuous self appraisal. Béatrice Romand, one of the best actresses to have worked with Rohmer and only 18 at the time the film was made (it was her first film) yet able to look as young as 14 in some scenes, plays Laura and virtually steals the movie with her virtuoso portrayal of adolescent sophistication, which shows considerably more self knowledge than the ostensibly older and wiser Jerome has. Aurora Cornu, a non actor playing herself (you can see her smile self consciously a couple of times at Rohmer where he directs beside the camera), has an important part as the character Aurora, perhaps as the woman Jerome really loves.
Rohmer uses close up of these three faces, a shot he uses sparingly in his films, as he tries to delve deeper and deeper behind the many layers of self deception we all (Rohmer wants us to believe) use to protect us from experience and the change it brings. As in the later Pauline at the Beach there is a contrast between the convoluted reactions of the adults and the more direct responses of the teenagers, suggesting we may be learning the wrong things as we grow up. Perhaps the most subtle of the Tales, it concerns the morality of self deceit.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (L'amour l'après-midi) 1972
Love in the Afternoon is the most heartfelt and moving of the Moral Tales, and has an effect that resonates long after the movie is finished. Frédéric is a corporate attorney who is happily married and with a young child. Though he loves his wife he doesn't share his thoughts with her. In fact he feels a little trapped in marriage. It's what he wants but not all he wants. In a wish fulfillment sequence early in the film he imagines having all the women passing in the street, who just happen to be six of the actresses in earlier films in the series. Then he meets Chloé, an old acquaintance he is at first wary of. The two become closer, and build up an intimacy, and soon his fantasy looks like becoming a reality. But how sincere is love built to fill an empty space in an afternoon? The need to choose has a shattering effect on Frédéric. He seems forced to make a choice, and cannot.
Frédéric's dilemma is an almost universal one. Into any relationship, perhaps soonest into the best ones, comes an unwelcome visitor: boredom. Solutions vary. Some make a fetish of duty and morality, others fantasize, others cheat on their partner, some become cynical about 'men' or about 'women', some become serial monogamists ' there's no effective solution, except to keep reinventing the relationship, have a new one with the new people each couple have become over time. But here's a film that looks at the problem three ways. From the point of view of a pregnant woman full of uncertainty about her attractiveness (something many pregnant women go through); from the point of view of a man who wants to live as a polygynist but with a strong sense of justice that makes him unwilling to hurt another person (he is a lawyer after all); and from the point of view of a woman unsuccessful in her relationships, with a strong sense of liberty and contempt for traditional attitudes, who yet wants to hang onto real love and affection when she finds it. Three divergent and incompatible sets of needs, and the way Rohmer weaves these into a narrative makes for fascinating viewing. It amazes me that so many people say nothing happens in Rohmer's films just because there are no explosions. Plenty happens, but you do have to have some knowledge of human nature to see it.
Bernard Verley stars as Frédéric, acting with an effective mix of charm and staidness that make the conflict Frédéric is experiencing plausible, while not making his final choice a foregone conclusion. Frédéric's wife Hélène is played by Françoise Verley, a non-professional actor in a small part which yet is pivotal. It is remarkable that in the series the suitable women all have small parts or are off screen, while the 'unsuitable' women are usually the centre of each film. The movie also stars pop icon, model, singer and actress Zouzou (aka Danièle Ciarlet) as Chloé. Zouzou was idolised in the 60s in France as one of the most beautiful (and trendy) women in the world, whose career bore an uncanny resemblance to Andy Wahol protegée Nico's. Zouzou's past and existential problems were pretty much the same as Chloé's, which make her authentic in the part.
This time around Rohmer reintroduces the commentary of the first few films, whereby Frédéric explains his motivations. I found it redundant. Rohmer is a highly observant and subtle film maker, and his character's motivations are there to see. Perhaps increasing fame and a growing overseas market led him to add a commentary to 'explain' his film to all the bored, restive viewers used to passively watching scenes of men chasing each other with guns. It wouldn't have helped.
Watching the series in order allows you to see Rohmer developing as a film maker, and experimenting with variations of the theme. It also lets you see how the different treatments add resonance to each other. In the treatment of romantic love, Rohmer looks at the spectrum: lust, affection, tenderness, companionship, passion, love and other variants. But he also shows how all these emotions lose out in the ever present conflict between liberty ' and the results, self indulgence, self deception ' and morality.
The films inspire many to talk at length about how much talk there is in a film by Rohmer. My advice to these folk is not to pay so much attention to what is being said, which admittedly is often clever and sophisticated, but to watch the space between what the characters feel and what they say. You can learn a lot doing that. The people who complain of Rohmer's films being talky are ignoring, too, how masterly he uses silence, and how much the intellectual content of the dialogue is influenced by the emotional subtext that motivates it. It's just like real life, and we tend to be a bit unperceptive about our real life.
A remarkably consistent film maker, Eric Rohmer has made more good films than most directors, and quite a few great ones. In this series I would include two such: My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon. I've thought both were pretty wonderful for about 20 years now, and I watch a lot of films. Rohmer was now about to embark on a series of films which he called Comedies and Proverbs which would see him reach his peak as one of cinema's greatest directors (and inspire a multitude of viewers to think his films were about the conversations they contain).
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Stephen H. Wood
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Though it retails for a steep $100, intellectual romantic adults will want to own the magnificent Criterion DVD boxed set of ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES. Each film is individually boxed in a slim case, and the whole set comes in an attractive and sturdy bookcase. It is not a viable rental item from, say, Netflicks because you will want to have the entire bookcase contents in front of you at once--see a movie, read the corresponding chapter in a separate 56 page booklet of critical essays on all six essays, maybe read the related pages in a 262 page paperback book with the movies in narrative form because the movies themselves are so hellishly talky that you will miss a lot of the English subtitles, then maybe see the movie a second time. This is a feast for lovers of Eric Rohmer, romantic films, and French movies. Actually, it is nothing less than a semester-long college course in Rohmer's work.
Moral Tale #1 is the 23 minute B&W "THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU" (1962). The essence of Rohmer is already at work this early--a male narrator infatuated with two different women; Paris locales and a semi-documentary style; 16mm with single takes after a long rehearsal period because of budget limitations; a lot of non-professional actors sometimes playing variations of their real selves and creating their own dialogue; non-stop intelligent conversations in French with exhausting English subtitles. A law student meets a lovely young woman, loses her, befriends a plump and likeable bakery employee, gorges himself on her pastry to be around her, then rather unceremoniously dumps her at the end when the first girl shows up. Incidentally, Monceau is a district of Paris.
Also in B&W and rather short (55 minutes), Moral Tale #2 is "SUZANNE'S CAREER" (1963). This has a lot of plot for less than an hour's length. Two college friends talk endlessly about college and life and love. When one befriends a woman named Suzanne, the other is filled with envy and self-loathing. So the two men compete for Suzanne's attention. Ah, but which man does SHE want, if either?
The remaining four Moral Tales are feature-length and genuine masterpieces of the romantic French cinema: MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969), LA COLLECTIONNEUSE (1967), CLAIRE'S KNEE (1971), and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972 and a.k.a. CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON). They are major Rohmer works that look expensive, but were, again, filmed in 16mm and a 1:33 ratio, composed of single takes with largely non-professional actors, and rented settings. The incomparable head cinematographer (the last three are in glorious color) is Nestor Almendros.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (B&W) was a break-out hit in the United States, the movie that made Eric Rohmer's reputation internationally. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a rigid Catholic and mathmetician who meets blonde Francoise at mass, then brunette Maud in an apartment. He discusses his infatuation for both women with likeable good listener Maud in another Rohmer film with non-stop English subtitles that will have you wishing you knew French to catch all of the thoughtful French dialogue.
LA COLLECTIONNEUSE is probably translated as "The Collector", here meaning a collector of both women and art objects; the soft pastel color is just exquisite. Thank goodness, Rohmer decided to stay with color for the last three Moral Tales which, by the way, do not need to be watched in any particular order. This tale is darker and has two men--an art dealer and his painter friend--basically fighting over the bohemian Haydee in a villa on the Riviera. The script was written by Rohmer and all three actors.
My favorite Moral Tale is CLAIRE'S KNEE which brings us back to one man torn between two, or maybe three, women in a ravishingly beautiful lake and summer house setting. Planning on getting married when he shouldn't, Jerome wonders why he should be torn down to one woman; meanwhile, he meets Laura and Claire. Claire has a boyfriend. In a funny and kinky plot, Jerome likes young Laura a lot, but only cares about teenage Claire's right knee. I adore this film's idyllic summer lake setting in breathtaking color by, again, the great Nestor Almendros.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, Moral Tale #6, is also known as CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON, which is its videocassette title and title in Leonard Maltin's Video Guide. Business executive Frederic is happily married to a pregnant and adoring wife named Helene, but is surrounded by beautiful women in his Paris office. One day, an old girl friend named Chloe enters his life and provides the first real threat to his marriage. Should he have a non-committal sexual fling with Chloe and, if so, will Helene take him back. The chain-smoking and egotistical Chloe isn't worth it, Frederic. Stay with your lovely wife. This is a masterpiece.
Accompanying all six Moral Tales in this boxed set are two major bonuses that I mentioned before: a 56 page booklet of critical essays (ideally, you can see a movie, then read the essay about it); and a 262 page paperback book that has all of the tales in narrative form, written by Rohmer two decades before making the movies. Ideally, if you are new to Rohmer's "Conversation Cinema" with grueling non-stop dialogue and subtitles, you might want to read the film in book form, THEN see the movie, THEN read the essay(s) on the movie. Again, this is not a DVD boxed set, it is a full-fledged college course on Eric Rohmer's cinematic universe.
As if you needed more (this is Criterion), you also get several short films Rohmer made in the 1950's while he was editing "Cahier du Cinema"; a 1970's chat with Rohmer for French Canadian TV; a whopping 90 minute chat with director/writer Rohmer and producer Barbet Schroeder on all possible subjects and made expressly in 2006 for this Criterion DVD set; and a 20 minute English-language (thank you, God) video afterward from 2006 with American filmmaker Neil LaBute on why he loves Rohmer and what the cinema of Rohmer means to him.
The stupendous Criterion DVD boxed set, ERIC ROHMER'S SIX MORAL TALES, is not for everyone and will either exhaust or bore his detractors. Maybe you SHOULD rent one or two of them to see if you want to invest an admittedly very expensive $100 on the whole boxed set. But if you already love Rohmer, this DVD set will be your personal nirvana and a crown jewel in your video library. You may or may not want to loan it out to friends to make converts out of non-converts.