December 27, 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

The below list is in alphabetical order


Any Which Way You Can (1980), directed by Buddy Van Horn

Raucously entertaining Clint Eastwood-orangutan buddy comedy in which a bare knuckle brawl tears down Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sequel to Every Which Way But Loose (1978), this one shunts tough guy Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) into a mob-backed big money fight against infamous fighter Jack Wilson (William Smith). Most of the run time is spent on the road, as Eastwood pals around with his yokel brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) on a trip to Wyoming. Ruth Gordon is on hand as their combative battle ax mother, tougher than both her kids combined. The real star, of course, is Clyde the orangutan, an expressive primate who loves Philo and despises the cops who try to break up their fun. The chaos builds into a full-on brawling blowout that tears up the Jackson Hole countryside. All that plus a killer title song sung by Ray Charles and Clint himself.


Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.


Her Man (1930), directed by Tay Garnett

Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies,” while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees,” which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation (I viewed the restoration at MoMA earlier this year). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett winds his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.


The Heroic Trio (1993), directed by Johnnie To

A deliriously entertaining Hong Kong superhero movie starring the unbeatable trio of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I went to see a battered but beautiful print at the Metrograph in NYC, and was whisked away by the elegant wirework fight scenes and breathless plot mechanics that mashes up kung fu/comic book/horror tropes. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no relation), intent on breaking the nefarious baby stealing underworld demon king known only as Evil Master. She is reluctantly joined by fast talking mercenary Chat (aka Thief Catcher – Maggie Cheung) and Ching (Michelle Yeoh), who has access to an invisibility robe (it’s a long story). The three actresses slice through the film with grace and aplomb, but Cheung is the acid-tongued standout – introduced flying over the police’s heads on a motorcycle, and then riding a dynamited barrel into a hostage situation. It’s a well-carpentered, ever surprising entertainment that I’d take over any of the Marvel movies thus far.


In Vanda’s Room (2001)

The second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, three remarkable features that depict the everyday life of a slum in Lisbon. Vanda Duarte, who portrayed one of the maids in Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. Available to view on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.


Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Paul Brickman took seven years to make his follow-up to Risky Business, and Men Don’t Leave is a finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief. But it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.


My Little Loves (1974), directed by Jean Eustache

Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahierdu Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast.

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944]). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.


A Summer’s Tale (1996), directed by Eric Rohmer

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.


Too Late For Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin

After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.


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.


July 5, 2016

Welcome to the third week of my Summer of Rohmer, in which I fill the void of my own vacation-less summer by vicariously joining the beach holidays of Eric Rohmer’s neurotic, attractive, and hyper-articulate characters. I started the series by visiting a Saint-Tropez cottage in La Collectionneusefollowed with a scenic French Alps home in Claire’s Knee, while today I scurried off to a Normandy beach house in Pauline at the Beach. We have leapt from Rohmer’s cycle of “Moral Tales” to his “Comedies and Proverbs”, as well as his shift to female protagonists (which began with his previous film A Good Marriage (1982)).

Pauline at the Beach (1983) is set during the waning weeks of summer, with Marion (Arielle Dombasle) bringing her 15-year-old niece Pauline (Amanda Langlet) to spend a few parent-less weeks before they both have to return to work and school. There is a pressure to find friends and have a fling before the holiday runs out. The waifish blonde Marion is immediately pursued by two men, the dewy-eyed romantic Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and the older, pragmatic womanizer Henri (Feodor Atkine). Rohmer frames the film around Pauline’s observations. She is a quiet, almost background presence throughout, silently weighing Marion’s actions as she falls for Henri and keeps Pierre on her string. Rohmer leads off his Comedies and Proverbs films with a quote, and here it is one from Chretien de Troyes: “He who speaks too much does himself harm.” Marion, Pierre, and Henri talk incessantly about the nature of love, but show no knowledge of how to embody it. Instead they remain irrevocably wrapped up inside themselves. I produced the DVD and Blu-ray of Pauline at the Beach for Kino Lorber (complete with an Eric Rohmer interview and a  fine booklet essay by Michelle Orange), so consider that a full disclosure of my biases.

The French summer holiday is unfathomably long to this American, who snags week-long respites if he can afford it. In Pauline at the Beach, Pauline has been vacationing for months, and wants to use the Normandy trip as a final unwinding before a return to responsibility. This is Marion’s only holiday, having spent the rest of the summer preparing her next fashion line. So there is already an inset anxiety – the fun is about to end. Pauline had spent the previous two months with her parents, and is free for the first time. Marion has started peeking at swatches for her fashion design job, which looms at the end of their stay. So the seductions and crushes seem to happen on fast forward – Marion immediately falls into bed with the mercenary Henri, and Pierre declares his undying love to her (they had a brief  fling a few summers back). All the while Pauline stays silent, unwilling to take part in their philosophical parlor games, in which they intellectualize their respective thoughts on love, a Plato’s Symposium if held by untrammeled narcissists.

They all have different manners of self-regard. Henri believes himself to be a “nomad” who “can’t stand a woman who makes me think of her as furniture.” This is a flattering way for him to justify his serial womanizing, enabling their freedom instead of justifying his pursuit of pleasure. Marion, recently divorced, is not interested in freedom. She wants love to manifest physically (“I’ve never burned with love except in dreams”), and transport her beyond herself. It is a storybook vision. Pierre says that “passion that flames too quickly burns out too fast.” He is trying to position himself for Marion’s sake, as he knows she has never “burned” for him. He is playing a longer game, “for a deep and lasting love”, one that unfolds over time. His is the most grounded version, but he is too jealous and petty for him to realize his noble goals. He is always focusing on his own pain, his own feeling of being slighted, to have time to cultivate his higher emotions. Pauline only chimes in with, “I don’t agree with any of you, except maybe Pierre…You must know people to love them.”

Rohmer might have tweaked her phrase to say that he had to know people before they could act in his movies. He had first worked with Arielle Dombasle and Pascal Greggory in his 1979 stage production of Kleist’s Catherine de Heilbronn, which suffered withering reviews. The actors, however, were thrilled with the experience, and were eager to work in Rohmer’s collaborative, intensely rehearsed style once again. The story’s origins went back to some of his plays in the ’1950s, but it didn’t begin to take true shape until the late ’70s for a group of scenes he titled Loup, y es-tu? (Wolf, Are you There?). The totality came together on a train ride filled with loud soldiers. Rohmer is quoted in Eric Rohmer: A Biography:  “under those conditions, I couldn’t read, it was impossible to read, but at the same time, ultimately, it’s easier to write. So I concentrated; I had a notebook and I began writing very fast without listening to what was being said around me and I really had the idea of the continuity of the film.” He kept tinkering with it up until the start of shooting on A Good Marriage. 

In terms of casting the biggest question mark was Pauline. He found a photo of Amanda Langlet in the French Production Society’s file of child actors, and after a brief telephone call with her cast her on the spot. Fifteen years old, Rohmer treated her like any other member of the cast, consulting “her regarding the psychological details of her character”, recording her thoughts on a tape recorder. According biographers Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, who listened to the tapes, “it is hard to distinguish directed improvisation from desultory conversation”, as Langlet blurred into the character of Pauline. Through all of this collaborative work Langlet gives a wonderfully subdued performance, a watcher and thinker not yet ready to take center stage in her own life.

Once again Nestor Almendros was the director of cinematography, though he had begun to get tired of Rohmer’s thrifty ways. Head camera operator Virgine Thevenet told de Baecque and Herpe: “In the United States, Nestor had become a star. Back in France, it drove him nuts to find Eric still quibbling about paying for his coffee.” The reigning visual influence on this film was Matisse, specifically his painting Romanian Blouse. The red, white, and blue color scheme would be adopted, and counter to their usual insistence on not altering locations, they would repaint hallways to keep the motif intact. Rohmer hung a reproduction in Langlet’s room, and Rohmer was delighted to find that she shrugged her shoulders in a manner similar to the painting in a restaurant scene with Greggory.

Pauline at the Beach was poorly received by French critics, with Le Figaro calling it “a strong contender for the prize for the most ridiculous film of 1983″, reserving the most damning insults for the “illiterate” dialogue and Arielle Dombasle’s performance. Perhaps the schematic nature of the dialogue plays better in translation, but Dombasle is a delight, a frothy, lightly comic performance around which the men circle and Pauline observes with bemused interest. The film was a still a financial success at home and abroad, and stands as one of Rohmer’s purely pleasurable works, from the location (the sad loveliness of an emptied out beach town) to the outfits (I don’t have the language for fashion, but my wife exclaimed any time Arielle Dombasle appeared in a new ensemble), to the romantic nettle woven by  their pretty words. Marion, Henri, and Pierre cannot live up to those words, but Pauline, with her reflective, penetrating stare, offers the possibility of authenticity, and an enduring love.


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.


June 5, 2012

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Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.


The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.


Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.


Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).


Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.


The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.


Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.


Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.


Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.


June 8, 2010

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The greatest cinephile deal going right now is for Arrow Films’ 8-Disc Box Set of Eric Rohmer films, which includes all six entries in his Comedies & Proverbs series, along with Love in the Afternoon and The Marquise of O.  At Amazon UK (a region 2 disc, you’ll need an all-region player to spin it), it’s priced at 11.93 pounds, which is 17.27 USD. That’s the highest sublimity-per-dollar ratio you’ll find anywhere! Guaranteed.

So with summer approaching, ready to expunge sweat from heretofore unknown pores, I watched Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986, titled Summer in the U.S.) in my un-air conditioned apartment on a 90 degree day. Delphine (Marie Rivière) is planning a vacation to the Greek isles when her friend backs out two weeks before departure. Scrambling to find an alternate getaway, she gloms on to another friend’s trip to Cherbourg.

This begins a frustrating, lonely journey as Delphine bounces from resort town to resort town, each densely populated sun-dappled spot making her feel more alone than the last. She refuses to mask her pain with play-acting or empty flirtations, holding firm to her ideal of romantic love. Her interest in superstitions and the supernatural is curiously stoked by the fortuitous appearance of green playing cards and a mention of Jules Verne’s novel The Green Ray. She senses a pattern in these shades (the kind of game playing one is used to seeing in Rivette), which leads her to embrace the spirit of the Rimbaud epigram that begins the film: “Let the moment come/When hearts will be one.” (“Song From the Tallest Tower”, translated by Wyatt Mason)

For most of the movie though, her attitude resembles the second stanza in the poem:

Just say: let go,


Without hope

of greater joy.

Let nothing impede

August retreat

Delphine would like nothing more than to disappear. The three fulcrums of the story are her walks into nature, in which she’s trying to fade away. In Cherbourg, she wanders around a leafy path, stopping in front of a wooden gate. Alone with her thoughts, Rohmer cuts to a montage of tree branches swaying in the wind, before cutting back to her face. In a film that’s mostly two shots, or shot counter-shots, of people conversing, these quick cuts to empty spaces are privileged, emphasizing her oppressive solitude. She cries in close-up. Unable to disappear, she leaves town instead – and the second shot finds her strolling through the Alps, pausing to graze her hand against the hard-packed snow. In a rare long shot, her silhouette is visible against the backdrop of craggy peaks, her tears elided. She cuts her visit short, and soon finds herself in Biarritz, strolling down a stone staircase in a red poncho, hoping to find some kind of peace by the caves – but the tide is high. In an interview on the DVD, Rohmer calls this her “descent into hell”.

Rohmer uses splashes of red throughout the movie – on Delphine’s bag, a suitor’s sweater, a Cherbourg dress – and finally ending in the poncho – marking her lowest point. While the reds spiral downward into despair, the greens offer a way out. She finds a green-backed Queen of spades on the streets of Paris, a green ad for a seance  that reads,”Regain contact with yourself and others…”, and a green-backed King of Hearts. She even mentions that a medium told her that green would be her color for the year. Finally, she overhears an older group of tourists discussing Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, in which she hears that the final ray of light the sun emits before sinking below the horizon is green. It is only visible on perfectly clear days, and according to Verne, a Scottish legend claims that:

“this ray 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.”

Helena Campbell, the heroine of The Green Ray, refuses to marry the pretentious knob Aristobulus Ursiclos until she sees the ray and understands her own heart. Rohmer clearly pulled some aspects of Delphine from Helena. Verne again:

“De Maistre has said, “there are in me two beings: myself and another.” The “myself” of Miss Campbell was a serious, reflecting being, looking upon life from the point of view of its duties rather than its rights. The “other” was a romantic being, somewhat prone to superstition…”

Along with this similarity of temperament, they share a fractured itinerary. Helena forces her two Uncles to travel from isle to isle, in order to find the perfect sea horizon to view the ray which Aristobulus keeps clumsily blocking. They are constantly on the move. Delphine is on her own jagged path, seemingly more out of lassitude than romantic intensity, but both girls end up searching out the ray for a kind of transcendent self-determination.

Delphine encounters a series of Ursicloses along the way, from the strapping and shirtless to the meek and leather-jacketed. She dismisses them all with skittish indeterminacy, running away rather than causing a scene. It is only when exhausted in body and soul, collapsed in a molded plastic seat at the Biarritz train station, that she opens herself up, as open as her copy of Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT (and she very well may aspire to Prince Myshkin’s absolute lack of self-regard and Christ-like innocence…she at least relates to his rejection by society).

An exchange of looks with a cabinet-maker leads her to an impulsive jaunt to  St. Jean de Luz, where she passes the gift shop “Le Rayon Vert” (The Green Ray), until  she settles on a bench with her man and tries to answer a question. She’s just waiting for the light…

The beauties of this final sequence ought not be put in words (or I’m not the one who’s capable), as it captures the moment “when hearts be one” with a joyfulness and lack of artifice that would make Rimbaud and Myshkin weep. I’ll let Jules Verne and Rohmer have the last act:

Helena felt instilled with new life as she inhaled the fresh breezes; her beautiful, clear eyes sparkled with health as she gazed on the rippling waters of the Atlantic stretching far and wide, and her pale cheeks were faintly tinged with pink. How lovely she looked! And how charming her whole appearance! Oliver Sinclair walked a little way behind, and regarded her in silence; he who had often accompanied her in her long walks without the slightest embarrassment, now scarcely dared look at her for the wild throbbing of his heart!

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