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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Francois and Lucie follow the couple to a lawyer's office, and when they can get no more information, they retreat to a neighboring cafe to wait for them to come out. Though Francois solemnly informs her that "life is not a novel," Lucie asks, "What would Sherlock Holmes do?" and expounds her theory that the blonde is the aviator's wife ("That's why they look bored"). They are seeing the lawyer about getting a divorce so that he can go to Anne. She advises Francois not to kill Anne. "It's her neck you want to twist," she confidently pronounces. "But it's more noble to kill your rival."

Before leaving with a request that he write and tell her if she was right in her conjecture, Lucie casually gives Francois a lesson on the view of love from age fifteen: "Girls always choose," she tells him -- a young girl's insight that contrasts almost tragically with the twenty-five-year-old Anne's inability to choose. Meanwhile the male of twenty tells Lucie almost angrily that he chose Anne before she even knew he was there. It's here that Lucie affords an insight. When Francois tells her that "Anne doesn't know what she wants," Lucie replies: "Yes she does. She just hasn't found it yet -- and it's not you."

Then there is an immensely touching scene between Francois and Anne. She has come home from work and gone straight to bed, but he forces his way in to have a serious talk. She sends him away. She calls him back. He stands up, then he sits down. He gets up to go, then he comes back. She lies down, then she sits up. The choreography is the very image of indecision. It is comic but at the same time reveals Anne's inability to go far in any direction. Earlier in the film, she says that she needs to be alone, that if she marries she will expect her husband to allow her a separate establishment. And yet she cannot do without people. Lucie was right: Anne's problem is that she doesn't want what she has and is too frightened of being alone to get rid of it.

To Francois she says that she hates glue or anything sticky -- and there he is clinging to her. She doesn't want to see anybody, least of all Francois, and she says all sorts of hurtful things, things calculated to wound the sensitive masculine pride of a twenty-year-old. But she can't let him go, and every time he is on the point of leaving she calls him back. "Why do I keep doing things no one forces me to do?" she asks herself. "I'm too kind." This is a comic line, but we realize that she is right: She allows herself to be pushed into relationships and entanglements that leave her feeling that her life is no longer her own. She finally allows him to come to the bed and comfort her in his clumsy, youthful, and rather absurd fashion (it is all very chaste), whereupon the facts about the aviator are sorted out, including the fact that his walk in the park and to the lawyer had been with a sister. Francois learns that his suspicions were not true -- but has a hard time grasping that something worse is true.

So Lucie's romantic conjectures and Francois's suspicions both turn out to be wrong. But the three versions neatly correspond to the three ages: romance at fifteen, doubt at twenty, and business at twenty-five. As Francois ponders the mistakes of the day, Anne asks him what he is thinking. "Don't you ever think of nothing?" he asks. "No," she says. "You can't think of nothing." And she ought to know.

In La Femme de l'Aviateur, Francois is always placed between: between the comic playfulness of Lucie and the tragic self-contradiction of Anne, between childhood and adulthood, between promiscuity and faithfulness, between innocence and experience. The film is typical of the way in which the director, like a surgeon, always anatomizes love: its pleasures and self-deceptions, its will to believe and its ineradicable suspicions. Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman have it wrong. For anyone who has ever been in love, Eric Rohmer's movies are immensely exciting to watch.

James Bowman is the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement.