Party Girl: Nana (1926)

May 2, 2017

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

NANA (1926)

According to Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the production company Films Renoir was incorporated on September 1, 1925. The previous month Nana had been announced. Renoir was still negotiating with the Emile Zola estate, but eventually paid them 75,000 francs for the rights to the story. In order to secure German funding, they needed to cast German actors. Through the help of producer Pierre Braunberger, the role of Count Muffat, Nana’s main suitor, went to Werner Krauss, known today as Doctor Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). They also cast the German actress Valeska Gert (The Joyless Street, 1925) as Nana’s maid, Zoe. This helped convince Delog Film Kommanditgesellschaft, Jacobi & Co. to pay for the costs of the German shoot, since there would be a built-in local audience. It didn’t pan out that way, but it allowed for the film to continue.

Gert would later describe Hessling as “an authentic Parisian, chic, capricious [who] used a outrageous amount of makeup, which, at the time, only Gloria Swanson was doing.” Hessling was an untaught talent, and had no intention of taking lessons, unless the Americans called. She told her friend Alice Fighiera that if they called, “it will mean I’ve got talent. If they don’t, none of it’s worth the trouble.” She is introduced rising above the stage on a winch, in one of the first dolly shots of the film. Renoir and his DPs Jean Bachelet and Edmund Corwin use the technique as a slow reveal, a setup and punchline. Catherine is raised but cannot descend all the way to the stage, a knot keeps her dangling frustratingly above solid ground. Her flailing struggles make her look like a puppet. After the show a few suitors are shown waiting at her dressing room. The camera slowly dollies backward to reveal that the whole floor and staircase is clogged with potential paramours.

NANA (1926)

Only one manages to shoulder his way inside her room, the wealthy Count Muffat, who has enough cash to underwrite Nana’s career at the struggling theater. A blooming fetishist, Muffat becomes aroused by the hair stuck in her comb, and is at her beck and call the rest of the feature – by the end she has him on all fours barking like a dog. Like Charles Foster Kane, he funds her dramatic work, only for her to be laughed off the stage. Nana is completely without self-criticism, she truly believed her flouncy over-affected caricature could fly as a portrait of an upper class lady. When her life as an artist flops, she begins her second, more lucrative, life as a courtesan, with a group of lapdogs on her string. The other most notable victim is Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo), the last remaining scion of a distinguished family. He sullies his name in a poorly thought out racetrack swindle; to win Nana’s heart is through her pocketbook, or so he believes.

But there is no way to Nana’s heart, for even she doesn’t know the directions. Hessling plays her with an armor of artifice, always playacting to the room. One never knows what is authentic emotion or simply a flirtatious technique. Emblematic of her capriciousness is a shot where Nana wields a pool cue, lines it up against a fine piece of china as if setting up a shot, and then smashes it. Renoir would write in My Life and My Films that “In Nana she carried it [stylization] to the uttermost extreme. She was not a woman at all, but a marionette. The word, as I use it, is a complement.”  This doll crushes every man like that fine china, not that they don’t deserve it. Muffat is a dour married man who blows up his marriage out of boredom and a hair fetish. Vandeuvres is another of the idle death-wish rich, using Nana as an excuse for self-incineration. The only cad worthy of pity is a callow youth named Georges (Raymond Guérin Catelain), whose love seems innocent and true, and his delicate constitution can’t handle seeing Nana play pseudo S&M games with the masochistic Muffat.

Nana is surprised by her own emotions at the loss of two of her suitors, both of whom take their own lives. During an extraordinary sequence at a Parisian ball, Nana tries to recapture her previous decadence, losing herself in a feverish can-can, an attempt to sweat out her emotions. But she cannot stop them. Renoir ends the film with some of his most complicated and basic techniques. There are double exposures revealing ghosts of lovers past, haunting her with their modes of demise. Her body, unused to such feeling, shuts down. And without depicting a dramatic collapse, or giving her one last command performance, Renoir simply turns out the lights.

Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

April 25, 2017


In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy.

The scenario for Whirlpool of Fate was written by Renoir’s friend Pierre Lestringuez, and was shot in and around Paul Cézanne’s property, La Nicotiere, in the town of Marlotte. Cézanne was a family friend, and Jean spent many afternoons there as a youth, counting his Sundays there “among my happiest memories” (as recalled in My Life and My Films). So he was intimately familiar with the grounds, and he gets a fairy tale beauty out of the streams running through the area. The film opens with a houseboat cruising down a waterway on a sun dappled morning, shot by cinematographers Jean Bachelet (who would later shoot The Rules of the Game) and Alphonse Gibory.

On board are Gudule (called Virginie in some versions, played by Heuschling), her father and her roustabout uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). The father dies in a freak accident, and Jeff squanders the family inheritance on booze, and often shows up drunk and physically abusive towards Gudule. So she runs away from home, and takes up with a small time crook nicknamed “The Weasel.” They travel the countryside together, nicking food from nearby farms when they can get away with that. Just when Gudule is acclimating herself to a new life, she falls down a steep quarry wall and loses her memory. The Weasel disappears, and instead she is cared for by Georges (Harold Levingston), the son of a bourgeois family who brings her food and drink to stay alive. Suffering from terrible fevers, Gudule begins experiencing severe hallucinations – or incredible lucid dreams, in which Renoir experiments with double (and triple) exposures, associative editing and random shots of lizards. Once she comes to, Gudule regains her memory, only to run into Jeff again. She can’t fully re-emerge into adulthood until Jeff agrees to let her go.


The film is a charming travelogue of La Nicotiere, with a barely-there episodic narrative guiding Gudule through the wooded paths. Heuschling/Hessling was a great admirer of Gloria Swanson, and she applies her lipstick into a pert bowtie shape that mimics that of Swanson’s in Zaza (1923). She admirably underplays her melodramatic role, and her calm carries the film through it’s many twists and turns. Already Renoir was operating a film set like a family get together, emphasizing fun above all. Mérigeau writes that “A team was being put together, and with it one of the essential prerequisites of a Renoir film: Jean Renoir at the head of the gang, whose members constituted a kind of family, producing a self-organizing system.” It was shot at the familial locale of La Nicotiere and filled with friends and family, including painter André Derain, who plays a distressed innkeeper with a toothache.

What reputation the film has today rests on its dream sequence, which Renoir directed “in a studio where he had had a cylinder built and painted completely black so that a camera placed on a dolly permitted a 360-degree panoramic view and could follow a horse at a gallop. On the same roll of film, he next shot superimposed clouds.” This sequence has the charm of a Melies short in its analog magic. In its most abstractly beautiful section, Gudule is floating against a black sky, her translucent gown fluttering in the wind. Then she flutters back down to earth, emerging from a columnar set from which a lizard just poked out its head. It conveys weightlessness above all, appropriate for Gudule, whose body has brought her nothing but pain and sorrow thus far. An enterprising theatrical producer named Jean Tedesco would book programs of excerpts from feature films, essentially mixtapes of his favorite sequences. In 1925 he included the dream sequence from Whirpool in one of his programs. At first Renoir was annoyed at the bootlegging, but the scene was wildly applauded at the screening, which grew even louder when they saw the duo in the theater. This for a film that had received minimal bookings in Paris, to muted response. It was the same abroad. Tedesco continued to play the dream sequence in Paris to much acclaim.

Renoir considered Nana (1925) to be his first true feature, and I will write about that one next week, but Whirlpool of Fate is not worthy of disavowal, what with its inventive cinematography (both the natural light of the “realist” outdoor sequences and the madly expressionist studio dream sequence) and the laid-back brio of the performers. Renoir already seemed to have a knack for eliciting relaxed performances, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the Renoir family on this intimate affair.

Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

February 14, 2017


Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

Cocteau’s biographer Francis Steegmuller summarizes the working conditions on the set: “Old cameras jammed, old lenses developed flaws, no two batches of film were alike, electric current failed or was bureaucratically cut off; there was small choice of fabrics for costumes; sheets without patches were sought everywhere for the farmyard laundry scene; the curtains of Beauty’s bed were stolen from the set.” It was made for the Gaumont studio, but before it had fully recovered from the privations of war. So Cocteau had to rely on his crew of artisans to patch up mistakes, find workarounds for shortages and fabricate the fantastic illusions of Beast’s castle out of what was left over. The film is a triumph of ingenuity and craft. The most obvious example is the astonishing makeup used on the Beast (Jean Marais), designed by Hagop Arakelian. The Beast is given a round, open face, with room for Marais’s expressive eyes to emote through the thatch of fur. Two little fangs punch down out of his mouth, undermining his cuteness. Though Belle initially is repulsed by his appearance, she grows to acquire a fondness for the Beast, treating him as a puppy dog. This is only believable if the makeup allows for the actor’s charisma to display itself. Makeup more stiff, or grotesque, would render Belle’s slow infatuation ridiculous. Instead it flows naturally from the film’s dream world. Marais fondly remembered working with the man who applied the mask:

For my mask, we went to Pontet, an elderly gentleman, a real genius, one of those men who make you realize that one can be passionately in love with one’s work whatever it may be. He devoted a great deal of thought to how the mask could be given the look of my own face and not interfere with its mobility. He made a cast and worked on it endlessly. I often went to see him with Moulouk, and the dog taught us things: the unevenness and shagginess and spottiness of the fur that make it seem so alive are due to Moulouk. M. Pontet made my mask like a wig, hair on a webbing base, but in three parts—one down to the eyes, a second as far as the upper lip, and the third to the base of the neck . . . It took me five hours to make up—that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes, I scarcely dared open my mouth, lest the makeup become unglued; no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

Belle’s character, played with sweetness and light by Josette Day, is aided immeasurably by the costumes of Christian Bérard. The costumes are somehow of their time and outside of it, both practical and fantastical. Cocteau described it as, “[Bérard] makes us realize that a costume is not merely a costume but something dependent on many circumstances which change quickly and compel you to change with them. Men and women dressed by Bérard look as though they lived at a definite place, in a definite period, and not as though they were going to a fancy dress ball.” Belle is initially uncomfortable in her finery the first time the Beast joins her for dinner. She had previously been something of an ascetic, wearing the simple cloth of a maid (which she essentially was for her family). So while initially lost in the piles of tulle, Belle begins to fully embody them, fill them out body and soul, until she is as elegant as the outfits – they enrich each other. When Belle tries to gift one of the Beast’s necklaces to her gold-digging sisters, it turns to a smoking piece of rope. It is only Belle who can wear them, her suit of armor.


The most transfixing sequences in the film remain Belle’s initial explorations of the Beast’s castle. It is here that Cocteau uses the simplest of cinematic tricks to convey images of uncanny magic. He reverses the film so it looks like candelabras are lighting themselves (held by arms whose bodies are obscured by drop cloth). Belle glides down a hallway on a wheeled platform hidden under her dress, as curtains billow around her. Superimpositions place Belle and the Beast in the sky, as they fly away to their lives as King and Queen. The familiarity of these tricks gives them this power, an innocence in both form and story that is sublimely beautiful. Manoel de Oliveira is after something similar in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), with his own superimposed lovers flying through the air.


It is remarkable how enduring these sequences are, how they retain their mystery. Beast’s castle is magical but also monstrous and menacing, cloaked in darkness and hissing with smoke. The place is charmed with a talking door and a magic mirror, but they speak with the same monotone voice, neither friend nor foe, just some inanimate objects doing a job. It never opens up with the grandeur of the Disney animated version, where the whole kitchen cabinet becomes her cheering section. No, Belle is on her own, left to decide if the Beast is a manipulative monster or a sensitive soul. And in re-watching the film, the ending was more ambiguous than I had remembered. The Beast’s curse is lifted yes, and he turns into a beautiful Prince, but Belle is slightly disappointed in the transformation. For the human Beast looks quite like one of her suitors from the farm at home. Belle hesitates to go away with him – she was looking for an escape but might be going in circles. But, with no other options, she flies into his arms and up into the sky to live as husband and wife, future king and queen. But perhaps not happily ever after.


August 16, 2016


“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 


In a 1969 interview included on the Criterion disc, Delphine Seyrig compared working on Marienbad to being in a Racine tragedy, “where people stroll around without ever actually having anything to do”, whereas in her role in Muriel she was “faced with something much more concrete…having a package to wrap, or a cigarette to light.” In the latter she plays the dowdy Hélène Aughain, a widowed antiques dealer in Boulogne-sur-mer who lives with her step-son Bernard (the severe-looking Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), recently discharged from military duty in Algeria. Her life is charted in the rapid close-up montage that begins the film: of doorknobs, tea kettles, purses, and glass fruit centerpieces (25 shots in 23 seconds). All the while a customer is rambling about the chest of drawers she’s seeking. She deals in antiques, objects that project history without the buyer knowing exactly what that history is. Hélène has settled into her role, her dun-colored sweaters and dull brown blouses blending in with the lacquered bookcases and end tables she hawks to customers. Her vices are gambling (poorly) and a balding developer with the vaporous name of Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval). Seyrig is playing a character decades older than she is, but inhabits the role with a grim, distant fatalism.


Hélène lives in a house in which all of the furniture is for sale, and with a son that is not hers. Bernard is the son from her dead husband’s previous marriage, and he treats her like a live-in maid more than a mother. He is morose, cynical, and menacing, harboring grudges against the world that placed him in that apartment. He has been marked by a tragedy that occurred during his service in Algiers, one he replays constantly in his head, and later, on tape. Bernard is chillingly embodied by Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, whose sunken cheeks make him look like a rosy-skinned Dracula.


Their pasts begin to leach into the present with the arrival of Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) and his niece Françoise (Nita Klein). Alphonse was Hélène’s great love before WWII struck. Or at least she once thought so. She writes him a letter urging him to come visit, expecting nothing less than a miracle, and instead it is just a man. He is debonair and handsome, but the memory of their love and parting don’t match up. Hélène’s memories are more real than the Alphonse in front of her, who is a habitual dissembler and hanger-on. She can’t let go of the memory so she can’t let go of Alphonse, whose presence forces Bernard to move to an old stable house which he has filled with old newsreels from Algiers. Bernard idly flirts with Françoise, but always returns to his true girlfriend, Muriel. It is the name he has given to a phantom, a girl destroyed in Algiers. He was witness and mute, and the guilt is bleeding him apart.


Cayrol’s script has a precise structure, although it’s not clear while viewing. James Monaco laid it out in his book Alain Resnais: “Cayrol, in the published script, sets up a five act structure. All the action of the film takes place in Boulogne-sur-mer between Saturday, 29 September 1962 and Sunday, 14 October of that year. The first and fifth acts each cover one day, the second and fourth a week each, and the third 2 days precisely in the middle of the time span. Three meals provide focal points at the beginning, middle, and end.”


The ending meal is a tour-de-force of the past-becoming-present. It turns out Alphonse has abandoned his most recent life, and it has raced to catch up at this dinner. His brother-in-law Ernest (Jean Champion, the spitting image of James Whitmore) emerges from the ether to join the meal. He fully punctures their present and lets the past flood in. After sitting down with his tea he starts singing “Deja”, from a 1928 musical revue. “Time too rushes on/In such a hurry/How insane.” Then, with Hans Werner Henze’s fractured score crashing on the soundtrack, Ernest leans into a ferocious jeremiad against Alphonse that Resnais cuts back and forth with static shots of boxy apartment buildings, a disorienting push-pull effect that confuses space as Ernest is collapsing time. This pushes each character to a breaking point. Alphonse runs away, blending into the crowds of Boulogne, while Hélène, her history seemingly erased, runs off to a friend’s apartment. Bernard’s secrets, in a burst of audio tape laughter, are leaking out around him, and he runs off in a streak of violence. As their past seeks acknowledgment, they disappear. All that’s left is an empty room.


July 26, 2016


I am ending my Summer of Rohmer series with a film set in the spring. Yes, it is a shocking betrayal of the series’ seasonal brand, but I was eager to revisit The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), and extend my stay in Rohmer’s world. Over the last six weeks I have traveled to a variety of France’s hottest vacation spots for romantic anxiety, from a Saint-Tropez country house in La Collectionneuse (1967) to Dinard, the beachside town in A Summer’s Tale (1997).  The Romance of Astrea and Celadon transported me to the valley of the Sioule in Auvergne, a bucolic green landscape for star-crossed lovers in 5th-century Gaul to suffer in. For his final feature (he passed away in 2010), Rohmer adapted Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astree (ca. 1607 – 1627), a 5,000 page hit at the royal courts. Rohmer focused on the spine of the digressive novel – the romance between the shepherd Celadon and the shepherdess Astrea, and the miscommunication, madness, and masquerades that delay their union. Though set millennia in the past, the film works over familiar Rohmerian ground, as it ponders the nature of love and fidelity, while trying to square the contradictory impulses of each.


Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Celadon (Andy Gillet) are secretly sworn lovers, their passion closely guarded from their feuding parents. Celadon pretends to flirt with local girls to protect their cover, but one afternoon he goes too far, allowing one of these faux-paramours to kiss him. Astrea happened to be walking by, and immediately ejects him from her life, forbidding him to ever enter her line of sight again. Celadon, a sensitive poet-type with model cheekbones, takes this to heart, and attempts to drown himself in the river. But three upper-class nymphs spy his soggy body, and nurse him back to health in their castle. Galathée (Véronique Reymond) wants to seduce this shepherd, but all he cares about his living his life in solitude away from Astrea, to fulfill her wish. The nymph Léonide (Cécile Cassel) sympathizes with the poor lover, and tries to convince him to return to Astrea, who believes him to be dead. A stubborn literalist, Celadon cannot adjust to the new reality. His fidelity instructs him to honor their love, he has to obey her request and remain sequestered. But such actions drive both Astrea and Celadon to melancholy tears. Only the intervention of a kindly druid and timely cross-dressing can bring Celadon within Astrea’s sight, reigniting their passions.


The Romance of Astrea and Celadon had a long gestation. Originally it was to be developed  by Pierre Zucca, a filmmaker who Rohmer admired and advocated for. As Noel Herpe and Antoine de Baecque write in Eric Rohmer: A Biography, Zucca also planned his feature around the central romance, but was ready to include some of the novel’s more fantastical elements, like a “Fountain of Love that allows Astrea to see her heart’s desire again”, and a “rather mad final sequence in which Celadon contemplates the body of the sleeping Astrea, which is transformed into a fabulous landscape while Celadon himself visibly shrinks.” Zucca could not find financing for the project despite Rohmer’s vocal support. Zucca would pass away from cancer in 1995. Rohmer thought about mounting the adaptation as early as 1999, when he did some location scouting, but nothing came of it until 2007.


Rohmer did not have the same vision as Zucca, eliminating the more fantastical elements and focusing solely on the central couple. He was after a pared down lucidity, into which nature, and accidents, would intervene. For the first time he shot with two cameras (both Super 16mm) , which were operated by DP Diane Baratier and Francoise Etchegaray). Shooting with two cameras saved time, which was of the essence because Rohmer was suffering from scoliosis, which hindered his mobility. As with his previous adaptations like The Marquise of O or Perceval, Rohmer was slavishly faithful to the text, and when asked what he added to the Astrea and Celadon if the text was verbatim, he responded:

Nature! In this novel, landscapes are mentioned but not described. The sense of nature that appeared toward the eighteenth century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, did not yet exist; one doesn’t feel nature really living. Thus what cinema contributes is elements like wind (I was lucky to have wind) that are not at all in the novel.

This response is strikingly similar to what D.W. Griffith lamented to Ezra Goodman in 1944: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty – the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.” That beauty is almost the subject of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, the gusts whipping the actresses intricately braided hair and letting Celadon’s lanky locks flutter over his face. The further Rohmer went back in time the more radical his aesthetic, as in the flagrantly artificial theatricality of Perceval and the presentational period piece of Astrea and Celadon. Rohmer recorded mostly direct sound (except for his precious birdsong that was added in mixing), and so wanted a location in which 21st century sounds would not be audible. This eliminated the Haute-Loire (which was slagged in the opening crawl for being “disfigured by urbanization” – for which they sued him and lost), choosing the unspoiled area around the Sioule river instead, a remarkably pristine stretch of hilly forests and glades.


The lead performers have a challenging task of navigating d’Urfé’s demanding, archaic text while wearing period dress (draping cloth and lots of exposed nipple). Stéphanie Crayencour is a diaphanous blonde who Rohmer chose because “he liked the way she held her head and her generous bosom.” Andy Gillet looked carved out of stone or a Calvin Klein ad, with his high, razor sharp cheekbones and wide-set eyes. They float lightly over d’Urfé’s dialogue, seeking music in the language, both performing in a lyrical, light footed style. They remain in disharmony until the final act’s glorious plot contrivance – in which Celadon dresses as a woman and arrives at a guest for the blessing of a new temple. As “Alexia”, he begins an intimate friendship with Astrea, until their closeness sparks into kisses. To Astrea she is giving herself over to a same sex attraction, while Celadon is indulging his love while technically honoring her request. She is not seeing “Celadon”, so he is not in her sight. But the masquerade cannot last forever, and when Astrea turns and prays that “Alexia” is really Celadon, he drops the mask. Love and fidelity again come into alignment, and they embrace in a new, tear-stained awareness of the other’s truth. It is an ending of ecstatic revelation, one only rivaled by The Green Ray in Rohmer’s work. And in a career forever concerned with exposing the feminine in his personality, to end with a scene of cross-dressing, of entering into the female domain and learning its secrets, is a lovely wish-fulfillment fantasy for one of cinema’s great directors of women.


For those who have traveled with me on this Rohmer Summer Vacation, I thank you.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is available on a watchable DVD from Koch Lorber, and on the crazy expensive Region B Blu-ray Rohmer box set from PotemkineFor the previous five entries in the Summer of Rohmer, click below:

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Pauline at the Beach (1983)

The Green Ray (1986)

A Summer’s Tale (1997)


July 19, 2016


My summer of Rohmer enters its fifth week by docking at the rocky Breton seaside town of Dinard, the location of A Summer’s Tale (1996). Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.


A Summer’s Tale is the third of Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” series, following A Tale of Springtime (1990) and A Tale of Winter (1992). Rohmer readily admitted its autobiographical qualities to Cahiers du Cinema at the time of its release: “Of all the films I’ve made, I think this is the most personal vehicle. Everything that is in this film is true. They are either things that I experienced in my youth or things that I noticed.” It was shot in Dinard, which was close to Parame, where he had married his wife Therese in 1957. For his stand-in he chose Melvil Poupaud, a rail-thin, gawkily handsome 24-year-old who had been making films for Raul Ruiz since he was a child (i.e. the delirious City of Pirates, 1983). Poupaud was to play Gaspard, a boy stuck between his school (engineering) and his love (music). He scoots of to Dinard on a slender thread of affection for a girl named Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who made vague promises to get there during the summer. Before her arrival, Gaspard strikes up a friendship with Margot (Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach), an anthropology student who is working at the local creperie. Her boyfriend is halfway around the world, so she takes an interest in this melancholy narcissist. Assuming Lena has ditched him, Gaspard reluctantly bows to the attentions of Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), a flirtatious collector of men looking for a summer fling.


The majority of the film is taken up by the conversations between Margot and Gaspard, walking down the beach, around the rocky paths, and through the nearby forests. He claims to be a romantic, impulsively running to Dinard on the off chance he runs into Lena there. But then when Solene presents herself, these ideals disappear, and he begins to see the light in Solene’s eyes….  Margot is intrigued by his passion and disappointed by his predictability. She is clearly attracted to Gaspard, but continually pulls back from any romantic entanglement. She recognizes that he is something of a barnacle, happy to latch on to any passing vessel. The nautical metaphor is apt, because throughout the film Gaspard composes a catchy little sea shanty about a “corsair’s daughter” traveling the world. Rohmer wrote the lilting melody, which is threaded throughout the film and changes its meaning in context. We first hear it whistled over the credits, and on Gaspard’s guitar as he is working out the arrangement in his room. He is inspired to complete it after Margot takes him to hear stories from a local sailor about their folk songs. This is a boy serious about his art, wanting to channel his passions into song. Later we learn that he is composing it for Lena, but when he is alone with Solene he plays it for her as part of his tentative seduction routine. The song is as changeable as he is, and is thus drained of meaning.


According to Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe’s Eric Rohmer: A Biography, Poupaud borrowed some of Rohmer’s mannerisms for his performance, “rubbing his hands or biting his lips as a sign of indecisiveness”. Poupaud was not a fan of Rohmer’s previous films, finding them to be “a bit boring”, but he was fascinated by the man. “As soon as I met him I realized he’d put a lot of himself into this character. Everything I say, everything he has to say, all the long monologues about the way he doesn’t feel like he’s part of a community, and all these ideas I really think they came from Rohmer himself. The first time we met he didn’t talk very much, he was very shy, very intense, his blue eyes—he would look at you like a beast almost, he was very wild.”


They would shoot on the street in public, and hope no one would look into the camera. To keep people from noticing there was a crew shooting, they hid high-frequency microphones in the actor’s clothes (dispensing with a boom) and “Rohmer, made unrecognizable by his dark glasses and kerchief on his head, moved away from the filming team and waited for the crowd’s curiosity to dissipate. Then he inconspicuously lifted his kerchief, which meant, in his coded language, “Action!”.  It was a guerilla kind of filmmaking that was also highly planned. Poupaud recalled that “Eric had calculated the schedule of the tides, the statistics for the sun, he had scouted sites a year in advance…” This kind of precisely organized chaos is what makes a Rohmer film. Actors befriend and talk for hours with Rohmer before shooting, but once on the set he never speaks about the characters and prefers to capture scenes in one take. Poupaud describes this approach as “everything was already in place, everything was already framed, he was just waiting for reality to come into the field.”


Rohmer is preparing the ground for reality, hoping to capture the memories of his hesitations and uncertainties as a young man, revived in the form of Poupaud. The film would not work however, without the mischievous, enigmatic performance of Amanda Langlet, who had last worked with Rohmer nearly thirteen years earlier in Pauline at the Beach (1983), and now 29 years old. Just like on Pauline, she is a wise observer, taking in the delusions of her friends and family. Her face is constantly reacting to Poupaud’s philosophical meanderings, and with a twinkling of an eye, or a downturn of the lip, can extinguish their brief flirtation. A Summer’s Tale ends with bittersweet non-closure as Gaspard sails away from his emotions and girlfriends, leaving Margot on the deck as the only adult ashore.

The previous entries in my Summer of Rohmer:

La Collectionneuse (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Pauline at the Beach (1983)

The Green Ray (1986)


July 12, 2016


My Summer of Rohmer has been held over for its fourth smash week! For the uninitiated, I have been writing about the summer-set films of Eric Rohmer, allowing my vacation-less self to live vicariously through his characters. I have already traveled to Saint-Tropez for La Collectionneuse  (1967), the French Alps for Claire’s Knee (1970), and Normandy for Pauline at the Beach (1983). Today I join one of Rohmer’s most peripatetic souls, Delphine (played by Marie Rivière), through Cherbourg, the Alps, and Biarritz in The Green Ray (1986). Delphine has recently separated from her long-distance boyfriend, leaving her alone and without direction for her summer vacation. A melancholy romantic, she is fiercely protective of her independence, and forever seeking the man who is worthy to end it. She spends her holiday bouncing from resort town to resort town, staying long enough until her loneliness overwhelms her and she is forced to move on. She begins to see portents all around, creating meaning by turning the world into a Tarot card to be read. Rohmer finds the beauty in her intense ascetic solitude, and grants her an ending of offhand sublimity.


It has been absurdly difficult to see The Green Ray in the United States since its theatrical release, where it was re-titled Summer and topped Andrew Sarris’ top ten list. The Fox Lorber DVD is out-of-print and pricey, and there are no streaming options (though VHS versions can be had cheaply). I viewed it on a UK Region 2 DVD, part of Arrow’s eight-film Eric Rohmer Collection, and it is also available on Blu-ray from the French label Potemkine, although only as part of a massively expensive box set (and it is locked for Region B – so you must have an all-region player to view). However you can get your hands on it, it’s worth it.


Rohmer first conceived of The Green Ray after seeing the following classified ad:  “I am beautiful. I am from Biarritz. I should please, and men pay no attention to me, why?”. He combined this with his childhood memories of reading Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, a romance of the Scottish highlands in which a young girl avoids romance until she can see the titular ray, a flash of light that occurs after the sun sets, and which, per Verne,  “has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its apparition all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and read the thoughts of others.” The film takes the lonely yearning of the classified ad and the mystical romance of the Verne novel and combines it into the character of Delphine, created together by Rohmer and actress Marie Rivière.


Rohmer and Rivière held endless conversations about the character, with the director recording the actress’ thoughts on everything from her relationships to her vegetarianism, all of which were incorporated into the script. In the newly translated Eric Rohmer, A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, Rivière recalls Rohmer saying that, “I’m reproached for writing sentences that are too long. But in life, people talk a long time without stopping. And I’m going to demonstrate that. No one will see the difference between a text I’ve written and an improvised text.” In order to create an atmosphere conducive to such improvisation, Rohmer opted for a completely female crew, from the sound engineer to the camera operator. He hired the 23-year-old Sophie Maintigneux to be the cinematographer, “giving her a small Aaton 16mm camera fitted with an old-fashioned zoom lens. Although he sometimes discreetly asked Sophie to use this zoom lens…in general he let her set the frame the way she wanted.” Francois Etchegaray was the production supervisor, who had already helped Rohmer on Full Moon in Paris. Rohmer would tell Marie Claire magazine that “It isn’t that I like girls so much that I feel the girl that resides in every man. I feel it in me.”

Le Rayon Vert 5a

It was an austere, cheap 16mm production, shot in chronological order.  Etchegaray was frequently annoyed by Rohmer’s miserliness, but toughed it out, arranging housing with friends and family at each of the locations and casting locals wherever possible. After it was shot, it sat in the can for two years while Rohmer decided what to do with this strange object. Eventually it was cut into presentable form by his longtime editor Cecile Decugis and her assistant Lisa Heredia. He decided on the unusual route of giving it to the cable television channel Canal+. They would debut it on television before its theatrical premiere. From the Canal+ advance and the one paid by Orion Classics in the United States, the film was almost entirely paid for before it’s opening. It’s theatrical life was not harmed by debuting on television, either, as it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and attracted more than 460,000 viewers in France. Baecque and Herpe claim it was “certainly one of the most profitable films in the history of French cinema.”


Rohmer wanted the intimacy of a home movie, and got a tremblingly open-nerved performance from Rivière as a result. Incorporating her own improvisations with Rohmer’ written texts, Rivière’s Delphine is annoyingly sympathetic, a vulnerable introvert and judgmental scold. So intent on protecting the domain of her self, she can lash out at others simply wanting to entertain her. Any incursion into her space is a violation to Delphine, whether well-meaning or no. And Rivière can throw a fine tantrum with her long-levered limbs. But then she is given moments of privileged silence. There are three pivotal sequences of solitude at her vacation stops, where she walks off on her own and contemplates her loneliness. Rivière’s face can be a mask when with others, but here it cracks, she is so utterly alone against the vastness of nature. To invest this solitude with meaning, she begins to read signs. Throughout her journey she stumbles upon the color green, whether on street signs or the playing cards that mysteriously turn up at her feet. Though she denies a belief in the supernatural during an earlier conversation with friends, as the vacation drags on she begins to grasp for such belief as coincidences pile up around her and a group of scholars discuss Verne’s The Green Ray in Biarritz.


A fugue (composed by Jean-Louis Valero) intermittently plays on the soundtrack, a rare use of non-diegetic sound by Rohmer, as Delphine seeks the ray, and impulsively flirts with a cabinetmaker (Vincent Gauthier) at the Biarritz train station. Everything starts to glow with meaning as she travels with him to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, at which a gift shop is named Le Rayon Vert, and the sun begins to set over the horizon. He asks Delphine to stay with her a few days. She delays a response until after the sunset, waiting to see the ray, for the truth, and for some rest in the arms of another.


June 28, 2016


My Summer of Rohmer continues with Claire’s Knee (1970), the fifth of the director’s Six Moral Tales. It is a story of fidelity and an experiment in desire, in which a betrothed vacationer enters into a flirtation with two teenage girls. As with La Collectionneuse (which I wrote about last week), it takes place within the span of a summer holiday, this time on Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie. Instead of enjoying the transcendent view of the Alps, Rohmer’s characters debate the nature of love, whether it is an act of will or something more…elusive. Summer is once again used as a crucible to test one’s belief. La Collectionneuse depicts the curdling of male desire outside of Saint-Tropez, while the male protagonist of Claire’s Knee is trying to trigger his lust in an attempt to overcome it.


The man is Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) a rakish diplomat living in Sweden who returns to Haute-Savoie in order to sell his family’s vacation home. While there he runs into Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a writer and provocateur who challenges Jérôme to pursue a flirtation with the reflective teenage girl next door, Laura (Beatrice Romand), who harbors a crush on him. This adventure will help Aurora invent an ending for her unfinished novel, and kill the remaining time left on her holiday. Jérôme accepts Aurora’s invitation, to help out a friend , indulge his baser instincts, and to test the strength of his love for his fiancee Lucinde. His puppy-love flirtation with Laura, which they both quickly tire of, further cements his love for his betrothed, but then he spies Laura’s half-sister Claire, a waifish beauty with a distractingly sculptural knee. Jérôme pours his remaining energies into touching that joint, for if he can channel his unwieldy desire into that one chaste locale, it will re-confirm his feelings for Lucinde. With Lucinde he does not have the same power over his will, his emotions emanate from something beyond. Lucinde “is everything. You can’t add to everything.”


Like all of the Moral Tales, Claire’s Knee originated as story Rohmer had written years earlier, one from the ’40s  entitled, “Who is Like God?”. It started with the de Sade epigram, “It is not pleasure that makes people happy, but desire and the obstacles that are put in the way of realizing that desire.” The basic set-up was already present, of a thirty-something about to marry who dallies with two teenagers near his vacation home. In the final version of the story, also titled “Claire’s Knee” (1949), the man, Jérôme, spies the girls playing tennis, and hides their balls to lure them to his home. This is a more predatory scenario than that in the film, and Rohmer has Aurora present this earlier version as an idea for a novel she was never able to complete. So in the film Jérôme agrees to playact the character from her book, adding to the blurring of reality and fiction that Rohmer was so skillful at with his performers.


Aurora Cornu, a Romanian writer, essentially played herself. According to Eric Rohmer, A Biography (Columbia University Press) Rohmer, “had known this woman of letters for many years and liked her frankness and anti-conformism. Together, they spent whole afternoons reorganizing the world on the second floor of the Cafe de Flore or visiting Parisian churches.” In the film Rohmer has her recreate their lively discussions with Jean-Claude Brialy, whom Rohmer liked for his dandified looks. He only gave him one instruction before shooting: “to let his beard grow.”  Laurence de Monaghan, who played Claire at the age of 16, was spotted coming out of the Royal Saint-Germain hotel, a non-professional actor who had the ethereal look Rohmer was seeking.


The most striking performances in the film come from the youngsters, especially Beatrice Romand as Laura and Fabrice Luchini as her motormouthed friend Vincent. Romand looks like a sly sylph under a mop of curls, and is one of those rare actors who can convey the act of thinking without saying a word. Her face is a seismograph of reactions to Jérôme’s flirtations, at once ecstatic, disbelieving, and suspicious. It turns out the latter is correct, and midway through the movie she pivots her attentions from the debonair Jérôme to the gawky, overactive Vincent, embodied in a thoroughly charming performance by Luchini. His body has not quite balanced out yet, so he speaks as fast as possible to distract from his awkwardness. He impressed Rohmer by reciting Nietzsche to him the first time they met, and “made the whole Claire’s Knee group laugh until they cried by imitating Rohmer or by developing one of the far-fetched theories that were his specialty – to the point that Rohmer let him improvise his own text in front of the camera.”


Following the success of La Collectionneuse and My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer was granted his largest budget to date, thanks to an investment from Bert Schneider (of BBS Productions), who had just produced Easy Rider. Though it filmed in a rapid six weeks, Rohmer had a full crew for the first time, complete with set photographer and camera dolly. He had so much time to prepare that, according to co-producer Barbet Schroeder, “the maddest case of anticipation was for the sequence in which Jean-Claude Brialy leans down to pick a rose. A year earlier, Rohmer had planted the rose at the spot where it was supposed to bloom, calculating the date when it would open, which was written down in the work plan…Everything happened as planned!”

Once again Nestor Almendros was the director of photography, opting for a cooler mountainous palette than the hothouse of La Collectionneuse. Still utilizing the 1.33:1 frame, the film unspools in a series of calm centered two-shots, as Jérôme determinedly goes about his seductive business. For Jérôme his love for Lucinde has been sanctified as something beyond desire while for Claire and Laura he is a rather clumsy, if handsome, intruder upon their still developing amorous adventures, which often spill outside the frame. Jérôme and Aurora hold the center, with Laura and Claire going beyond. They have their own affairs to get in order and desires to slake.


June 21, 2016


Summer has officially arrived, along with the mounting pressure to enjoy it before it passes. The filmmaker who  most deeply investigated the contradictions of the sweaty months is Eric Rohmer, whose summer films contain placid surfaces rippled by violent speech. His characters are surrounded by beauty and inevitably beset by anxieties of how their time there is being wasted, ticking away. Since I have no summer getaway planned, I have chosen instead to get away with Rohmer, by viewing his summer-set films, and writing about them throughout the season. My guide will be the door stopping Eric Rohmer: A Biography (Columbia University Press), by Antoine Baecque and Noël Herpe (newly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal). First up is La Collectionneuse (1967), part of his series of Six Moral Tales, a chronicle of a poisoned vacation near Saint-Tropez. Two men attempt to subsume themselves in nature, but instead resort to their true selves when a young woman joins the house, whereupon they descend to macho posing and bickering.


La Collectionneuse originated in a short story that Rohmer wrote in 1949 entitled, “Chantal, ou l’épreuve” (Chantal, or the test), and was the third of his “Moral Tales” to be filmed (after The Bakery Girl of Monceauand Suzanne’s Career, both 1963), though it was the fourth in Rohmer’s intended order. He had to delay My Night at Maud’s for funding issues, so the cheaper Collectionneuse, which takes place almost entirely at one location, went first. The story was about two dandies who stay in a villa with a young woman of dubious reputation who had “an angelic face, a dazzling complexion, and the manners of a middle-school student.” Rohmer adapted the basic scenario for Collectionneuse, and brought along friends to make it on a shoestring. Having recently come off making a string of educational films for French schools, Rohmer was especially interested in documentary experiments, which, he wrote,

“A welcome development is emerging in the domain of informative film that resembles less and less a picture album accompanied by a sonorous and hollow commentary. …The means used are very direct, drawing mainly on the speech of the interview, on debate, on conversation, all of which are means, despite what people have said, that are highly cinematic and modern. Thus alongside the fiction film, a domain that is infinitely vaster than that of classic documentary is being constituted.”

He would carry over some of these lessons to Collectionneuse, on which he would record “remarks made by his actors, who had been asked to speak freely about their passions and love affairs.” Rohmer bent the fiction to fit the reality of his performers, who were mostly non-professionals.


Adrien (Patrick Bauchau, A View to a Kill) is an art collector in the process of raising funds to start his own gallery. Needing a break from the stress, he accepts a friend’s offer to stay at his vacation house outside of Saint-Tropez. Also there is Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a mercurial sculptor with time to kill, and Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a young woman who is playing the field, heading out with a new man almost every night. Adrien undertook “to really do nothing”, Daniel was his partner in embracing the void, while Haydée went about her nighttime searches for love. Daniel and Adrien have reached a state of decadence and rot, ready to concede the end of the ’60s dream. They wear ratty nightgowns  while Haydée is grasping for the future. Daniel and Adrian treat their life as a game, and Haydée as a pawn, a diversion from their boring adult lives, not realizing that she has already surpassed them.


Bauchau was a friend of Rohmer’s producer Barbet Schroeder, and had been a co-producer on the French New Wave omnibus films Paris Seen By…, which Rohmer organized. He is a lithe, leonine performer, a man aware of his own beauty who can easily convey Adrien’s perplexity when Haydée does not swoon over him. She becomes a curiosity and a puzzle to Adrien’s narcissistic mind.  Daniel Pommereulle was an artist friend of Bauchau who was essentially playing himself. He was also a sculptor of strange objects on a break, but instead of going on vacation he made a film. He is of a similar slim body type as Bauchau, but less commanding. He recedes where Bauchau pushes forward.


Haydée was cast after Rohmer met her at a party at his his pal Paul Gégauff’s house. She was working in real estate, and had never acted before. Her inexperience is appropriate for the role, as both actor and character are thrust into a strange situation without much prior experience. Haydée is presented first in the prologue as a visual element, the image of an ingenue with Louise Brooks hair and kewpie doll features. Rohmer breaks her down in a series of close-ups of torso/knees/feet, an objectified image that the film will undermine as she toys with the juvenile games played by Adrien and Daniel. Rohmer would run the three actors through multiple rehearsals before shooting a frame, where they would “invent the text they were going to perform”. The rehearsals were an artistic choice as well as an economic necessity. Not willing to waste a frame of film, Rohmer rarely shot more than one take. His DP Nestor Almendros recalled in his autobiography, A Man With a Camera, that, “We were able to keep the ratio of footage taken to film length at only 1.5:1. A record! We used only 15,000 feet of negative…in the laboratories they thought they were the rushes of a short.”


This was Almendros’ first feature film, and it displays a sumptuously beautiful use of natural light, most of which was due to budget constraints. You can see the gradients in the summer sunlight and textures in the shadows. This use of natural light was both an aesthetic choice and a budgetary necessity. They didn’t have big arc lamps , so usually used whatever light was at hand, pushing the limits of the 35mm film stock. For all its rivers of dialogue, La Collectionneuse is a remarkably tactile feature, of terry cloth robes against the skin, rocks under your feet, a shaft of light entering the room. Like most of Rohmer’s work La Collectionneuse has a piercing lucidity, conveying an understanding of background birdsong as well as the labyrinthine self-delusions of aging artist-lotharios.


April 5, 2016


“The release of Paris Belongs to Us is a score for every member of the [Cahiers du Cinéma] team – or of our Mafia, if you prefer…For Rivette is the source of many things. The example of Le Coup de Berger, his short film of 1956, made me decide to shoot Les Mistons, and Claude Chabrol to be adventuresome enough to make a full-length film from Le Beau Serge; and at the same time it moved the most prestigious short-subject filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, to try their first full-length films. It had begun. And it had begun thanks to Jacques Rivette. Of all of us he was the most fiercely determined to move.” – François Truffaut

Paris Belongs to Us presents the city as a labyrinthine stage which invites its residents/performers to invent and inhabit vast conspiracies. Mysteries lie behind every open door, if only an intrepid investigator would crack it open and peer behind. It is a paranoid Alice in Wonderland in which its Alice, here called Anne, goes down the rabbit hole with a group of poor actor-artists staging Shakespeare’s Pericles. Every door Anne walks through expands her vision of the world as she is drawn into the macabre fantasy life of artists with too much time on their hands. The film lays out ideas that Rivette would explore the rest of his career, from the nature of performance to the city as game board. Jacques Rivette began shooting Paris Belongs to Us  in 1958, though it would take two years for it to be completed and released in 1961. The 400 Blows and Breathless both made it to cinemas first, and their phenomenal success relegated Paris to the background. The film, like many of Rivette’s features, would become cult cinephile objects, beloved because of their rarity. But that is slowly being rectified, as the legendary 13-hour Out 1 is now streaming on Netflix, while the Criterion Collection has released Paris Belongs to Us on beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.


Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is a literature student preparing for her exams whose life is tipped off its axis when she is invited to a party by her brother Pierre (François Maistre). It is a gathering of  artists haunted by the death of Juan, a Spanish musician with links to everyone in the Paris avant-garde theater scene. He was preparing the score for a production of Pericles to be directed by Gerard Lenz (Giani Esposito) when he took his own life. The only recording of Juan’s Pericles compositions has gone missing. Juan had been dating Terry Yordan (François Prevost), a secretive American who is now seeing Gerard, and who may have been involved with the conspiratorially minded Philip, an American journalist exiled due to the McCarthyist blacklist. It is Philip who inducts Anne into this strange tribe, by implying that Juan’s death is not what it seemed, connecting it to a grand international conspiracy, like something out of the Illuminati. Anne is skeptical but curious, and is alarmed at Philip’s insistence that Gerard is in danger. She seeks Juan’s recording in the hopes it will contain some secret to it all, but it just leads her in circles, as well as landing her a role in Pericles. She keeps pushing until the whole edifice collapses upon itself.


It was Rivette’s first feature, and though he would later rely on his actors to improvise and create his worlds on the fly, Paris Belongs to Us was a more traditionally constructed feature, hewing closely to Rivette and Jean Gruault’s script. Rivette was dissatisfied with the result:

When I began making films my point of view was that of a cinephile, so my ideas about what I wanted to do were abstract. Then, after the experience of my first two films, I realized I had taken the wrong direction as regards methods of shooting. The cinema of mise en scene, where everything is carefully preplanned and where you try to ensure that what is seen on the screen corresponds as closely as possible to your original plan, was not a method in which I felt at ease or worked well. What bothered me from the outset, after I had finally managed to finish Paris Nous Appartient with all its tribulations, was what the characters said, the words they used. I had written the dialogue beforehand with my co-writer Jean Gruault (though I was ninety per cent responsible) and then it was reworked and pruned during shooting, as the film otherwise would have run four-and-a-half hours. The actors sometimes changed a word here and there, as always happens in films, but basically the dialogue was what I had written — and I found it a source of intense embarrassment.

The performances are without filigree, and there can be a sameness of tone and delivery that makes all the characters blend together. Just compare the rehearsal scenes in Out 1 to those in Paris Belongs to Us to see how the shift in how much he put his faith in his performers. Paris Belongs to Us is more fascinating for its complicated blocking, in which characters re-orient themselves in the frame so the focal point keeps shifting. Shooting all over Paris from grotty apartments to abandoned factories, Rivette gets across the concept of Paris as a stage, and one in which his characters get lost inside. Reality is too banal for them, so they invent believable fictions and turn their lives into movies. It is a void from which they choose not to escape.