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.