"Merde!" Woken up by an insistent doorbell, penniless American Pierre (Jess Hahn) answers his front door to receive a telegram that brings the news that his extremely wealthy aunt has died. Overjoyed, he immediately calls his friend Jean-François, to announce his forthcoming inheritance, which he believes merits a drinking binge for the evening. He swiftly rounds up a group of revellers to help him celebrate.
Three weeks later, Pierre has seemingly disappeared and his friends search the city for him in vain. It is reported that he has in fact not inherited the money he thought was coming his way. He is seen roaming the streets endlessly, stealing food and taking care to avoid his landlady, to whom he owes a large amount of rent. Before long she catches up with him and his door keys are confiscated. Without a home, he is forced to contact his sparse number of friends, most of whom have left Paris for the summer, to find a bed for the night...
Eric Rohmer was 40 years old when he got his first feature made and the achievement owed much to the financial help of his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critics. Compared to the first films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (made when both were in their 20s), Le Signe Du Lion (1959) is undeniably hard work. Its heavy tone could be responsible for its commercial failure, which, compared to the ecstatic receptions of most of the New Wave films, must have hit Rohmer hard, especially after his long struggle to get it made in the first place.
Like the other New Wave films set in the capital, Le Signe Du Lion revolves around a largely recognisable Paris. Several scenes take place in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and there is plenty of location shooting among the cafés. Paris becomes - perhaps more than in any other New Wave work - a filthy and unattractive city, viewed through the eyes of the desperate and needy. The large number of night-time shots helps to convey this bleak atmosphere. As the lumbering, tragic figure of Pierre, Jess Hahn dominates the film, adding to the general air of gloom and emptiness with a performance of despair in the big city. The film is littered with painful moments, of which perhaps the most excruciating to sit through is one where the tired and hungry Pierre rests on a bench next to three girls who cheerfully discuss their fortunes and enjoy the refreshments he is so clearly in need of.
With its depiction of one man's long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors - always devoting particular attention to his characters' complex emotions and inner thoughts. Later films, though usually lighter in tone, would adopt a similar approach.
If The Lost Weekend (1945) or Leaving Las Vegas (1996) is your idea of a good time at the movies, then give Le Signe Du Lion a try. But you have been warned! The film's slow pace, piercing strings soundtrack and gruelling story makes viewing a rather exhausting experience.
Reviewed by Chris Wiegand
Reader comments about Le Signe Du Lion
Gary Chapman (gary firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
I love this film, I can't pinpoint why though, i think its the great shots of 50's st germain, and the fact that it must have been hellishly hot weather.
Jess Hahns performance is brillant, pierre is not unlikable, but he can be short tempered, cocky and surly,and after counting chickens too early pays a heavy price, and hahn's pierre slowly suffers misfortunes, until he's at rock bottom. But his friends jean-francois and domanique eventually find to tell him his luck has changed...
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