The Magazine

When in Rohmer

The French New Wave movie director could teach Hollywood a few things

Apr 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 28 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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In the late 1970s, Rohmer took a break by producing deliberately non-naturalistic versions of Kleist's Marquise von O and Chretien de Troyes's Perceval le Gallois. But he returned to self-deception and self-knowledge in another series of six films, the "Comedies and Proverbs," made between 1980 and 1987. These films -- La Femme de l'Aviateur ("The Aviator's Wife"), Le Beau Mariage ("A Good Marriage"), Pauline a la Plage ("Pauline at the Beach"), Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune ("Full Moon in Paris"), Le Rayon Vert ("The Green Ray" or "Summer"), and L'ami de Mon Amie ("My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" or "Boyfriends and Girlfriends") -- are perhaps Rohmer's greatest works and should be counted among the artistic achievements of the last century.

They are remarkable for their insight into feminine psychology. A young star of Le Genou de Claire, Beatrice Romand, reappears twelve years later in Le Beau Mariage, which turns out to be a kind of bookend to the earlier film -- a harrowing meditation on the female capacity for self-deception. The erstwhile school-girl is now a woman in her late twenties named Sabine, who decides it's time to end her affair with a painter and settle down. With the confidence of youth, she picks out her prospective partner, a suitably handsome, boring lawyer named Edmond, who is the cousin of a friend. It is almost unbearable to see the cruelty with which life teaches her that the power to choose is no longer hers.

Yet the "Comedies and Proverbs" are, after all, comedies: The characters are still young enough that they can recover even from such a disaster as Sabine's infatuation with Edmond. In Conte d'automne ("Autumn Tale"), the last of a later series of four films Rohmer made between 1990 and 1998, Romand appears yet again, as a middle-aged widow whose married friend tries to find a man for her by dating him herself. Here Romand is neither the innocent tease of Claire's Knee nor the desperate young woman of Le Beau Mariage but someone whose chances for love are dwindling and who can't bear to become the sexual aggressor. Even sadder than her case, however, is that of her friend, whose oftreiterated happiness in marriage collapses with her sudden and unexpected desire to hold on to the man she finds for her friend.

As in Rohmer's great films of the 1980s, the focus is on feminine psychology and the theme is self-deception. But by this time of life, the romantic illusion comes to seem less comic than pathetic. The balance between comedy and melancholy was better maintained in the "Comedies and Proverbs." The greatest of these films are Pauline a la Plage and Le Rayon Vert, but the most typical and most formally perfect is the first, La Femme de l'Aviateur.

Taking as its epigraph "On ne saurait penser a rien" -- "You can't think of nothing" -- the film confines itself to a single day in the life of the beautiful Anne, a working woman just breaking off an affair with a married aviator, Christian. (A nice and very Rohmerian touch is that the wife of the title only appears once, briefly, in a photograph.) A young man named Francois, who is working nights at the post office to put himself through law school, is also in love with Anne. Seeing Christian coming out of Anne's apartment early one morning, he suspects the worst. Later, when he sees Christian meeting an unidentified blonde, Francois decides to follow the couple. Along the way, he strikes up an acquaintance with Lucie, a schoolgirl with the day off.

Rohmer is almost always precise about his characters' ages. Francois at twenty is midway between Lucie's fifteen and Anne's twenty-five, and he is like a weathervane, oscillating between childish playfulness and emotional vulnerability, neither of which he quite understands. He lectures Lucie like an older brother, trying to make her become more serious and grown-up, at the same time that he is attracted to her carefree girlishness. He is an ardent wooer of Anne, who keeps him hanging around even while insisting that she wants to be left alone.

The earnest, idealistic love of the twenty-year-old looks faintly ridiculous when compared with the reactions of both the girl and the woman. Rohmer constructs a wonderful parallel: When Francois tries to stop the teasing Lucie from giving away the game to the aviator and the blonde, she laughs, "Let me go, or I'll scream" -- the same thing Anne had said, seriously, to Francois.