The tiny stations of life, and the freshness of human experience subtly structured into a film. These are two qualities immediately recognisable in Eric Rohmer’s work, a director who is a quiet iconoclast: classical, modern, revolutionary. Over his fifty-four year career, Rohmer has embarked on three film series, the early Moral Tales, the recent Tales of the Four Seasons, and the six Comedies and Proverbs of the eighties. All six of the latter have now been released on DVD in the UK by Arrow. In the Four Season films, the theme of love in abeyance and the play of seasonal light threads through and links the films. The Moral Tales all feature a dilemma, a choice. By contrast, the Comedies and Proverbs do not turn on a central point: here is tragedy, comedy, coincidence, and – as ever with this director – a smattering of tiny miracles.
A proverb or a writer’s observation which has gained currency has sprung from an original experience, somewhere, perhaps unrecorded. Rohmer begins with six such phrases and then places each one back into a human situation. The proverbs he chooses are also telling insights into his cinema as a whole. "One can’t think of nothing" is the thought embedded in The Aviator’s Wife (La Femme De L’Aviateur, 1981), a film which takes place over a day and night as Françoise becomes obsessed with the idea that his girlfriend Anne may be cheating on him. It is a light comedy; he plays at being the sleuth (with a sidekick he meets in a park), as if his mind, unable to face the void of a twenty-four hours, fills it with jealousy. But then, the next morning, when he actually sees Anne again, his jealousy sparks off, in her, a complex set of fears. In her small attic apartment their conversation is a startling cinematic achievement, memorable image (the green room, the glow of a lamp, the sharp morning light) fused with the delicate interplay of speech.
A Good Marriage (Le Beau Mariage, 1982) continues in comic vein: "Can any of us refrain from building castles in Spain?" is the maxim, taken from La Fontaine’s fables. The film suggests that we are all engaged in fantasies, and we need to outgrow each one, always finding a more complicated illusion. Sabine decides to cut off an affair and get married. She decides who the man is going to be and sets about telling him. Her subsequent plans and final realisations are comic but also provide a series of tiny shocks. There’s a wry element of Mike Leigh class comedy here: the man she decides on is of a different milieu, and in a final scene they clash. Rohmer’s films are often comic but we are never invited to laugh at the characters. We are not being asked to make judgements, to like or be disgusted by a character’s actions: we are simply being presented with people and a space of their lives sculpted in cinematic time.
In a Rohmer film you can be guaranteed a lot of ta`lking, but he’s a master of cinematic conversation. "He who talks too much will damage himself" is the title proverb of Pauline On The Beach (Pauline à la plage, 1982), the tale of a young girl’s initiation into the duplicity and game-playing of an adult sexuality. Most Rohmer characters do chatter on, analysing, explaining, excusing. Through the words there is often some other motive glimpsed or feeling expressed, and this is part of the joy for the viewer – the realisation that you’re watching a subtler film than is immediately apparent. The next film, Full Moon In Paris (Les Nuits De La Pleine Lune, 1984), is tragic. "He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind", we are warned in the titles. The story teases around the paradox of simultaneously wanting the excitement and freedom of an affair alongside the safety and intimacy of a long-term relationship. The two houses turn out to be a shared one in Marne-la-Vallée and a pied-à-terre in Paris; the tragedy is that of a woman who plays the paradox and loses. Paris, as city and experience, is effortlessly captured by Rohmer’s casual approach to filming on the street.
One of Rohmer’s best known works follows, The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert, 1986), winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, 1986. The quote here is from Rimbaud’s "Chanson de la plus haute tour". The film concerns Delphine’s summer holiday. She is nervous, will not compromise, feels out of place, and is not averse to explaining her ideals at length over a salad. The film seems the most spiritual of the six because Delphine is also quietly awed by the world: a sudden wind in the bushes (which reminded me of a similar shot in Tarkovsky’s Mirror ) makes her stop; the power of the sea makes her stay on the shore; the snow in the mountains makes her awkwardly reach down to touch its coldness.
Delphine possesses a kind of faith in the world and in chance (she is always picking up playing cards), and this culminates in the final scene, surely a classic of cinema, in which she and a new companion wait for the legendary green ray of the sunset. Things are closer to comic farce again for the final My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (L’Ami De Mon Amie, 1987) – a story full of mistaken conclusions, hesitations, lovers wanting to swap partners, and leisurely walks through the grass. The elements are deftly managed to prompt questions such as, what is romantic compatibility, what spells do we cast and how are we romantically caught – the cheeky proverb being "My friends’ friends are my friends."
Each disc contains a trailer and a concise (but interesting) interview with Rohmer. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend also has a Rohmer meditation on the industrial world, Changing Landscapes, which is a real bonus, and Full Moon In Paris (1984) includes an additional one hour interview. The transfer on these DVDs is never a letdown, but it would be splendid, in the future, to see these prints restored and the subject of high definition transfer. The palette throughout is one of greens and blues with a dash of red, a winter scarf, a hand-painted lampshade, an Art Deco teapot given as a gift, a Mondrian on the wall. They are films which take place in flats, in coffee-shops, on trains, in cars and on park benches: they do not turn from bigger questions to explore intimacy, they are not indiscrete, emotive, or highly worked. These films are precisely sculpted from light, time, and sound, the elements of total cinema, used to create a great art, generous and open-ended.