Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

In 1978 when we were visiting Paris for just the second time we found ourselves sitting in a plush private theatre next to a young woman who had also been invited along to a screening of Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name by our mutual friend Pierre Rissient. The producer of the film Robert Altman was in attendance.

At the end of the screening Pierre was invited by Altman to join him for dinner and we three of us found ourselves looking for somewhere to eat. Since then Mary Stephen, Karen and I have remained firm friends, our paths crossing in all sorts of places, Paris mostly, but others as well. Mary went on to make films herself, including her beautiful second feature Justocoeur (1980) which I invited to the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival and more recently she has crossed continents in her career as a film editor.

Mary has had little luck in getting her many film-making projects going but not long after arriving in Paris she did have the good fortune to meet Eric Rohmer and he cast her in one of his films,The Aviator’s Wife/La femme de l’aviateur (1980), and gave her employment as assistant to his Chief Editor Cécile Décugis. (Among other things, Cécile had edited Godard’s classic Breathless/A bout de souffle.) The acquaintance made became, as with many of Rohmer’s collaborators, a firm and lasting friendship and in the early 90s, after Cécile’s retirement, Rohmer asked Mary to edit his film Conte d’hiver/A WinterTale She continued to be his editor until his last short film.

Most of Rohmer’s features were produced by the formidable Margaret Meneghoz, the head of the production and distribution company Les Films du Losange which Rohmer himself had founded with Barbet Schroder in the early 60s. However, his last three films The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple agent (2005) and The Story of Astrée and Céladon (2007) and some shorts made in the intervening years were produced by the indefatigable Francoise Etchegaray through the smaller Compagnie Eric Rohmer. (For The Lady and the Duke, Francoise enlisted the support of Pierre Rissient and obtained finance from Pathe. Pierre Cottrell who had produced some of Rohmer’s early films was the Associate Producer.)

Eric, Françoise and Mary formed powerful bonds and it was somehow poetic that Rohmer died on Mary’s birthday thus, as she says, linking them forever. Rohmer’s bonds with Mary extended beyond her editing. As a classically trained musician she was integral in incorporating the music in Rohmer’s films and for a number of them she and Rohmer took a joint credit as composers of the score under the pseudonym of Sebastien Erms.

Before embarking on his film-making career, Rohmer was editor of Cahiers du Cinema during the years when it lead the world towards new perspectives on the American cinema and, by virtue of the fact that its key critics Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol all went on to become and remain major figures in French film-making. Rohmer also established another name for himself as well, as the co-author with Claude Chabrol, of one of the first book length studies of a major film-maker. Their study of Hitchcock is still quoted today and was a key step in taking consideration of Hitchcock’s work far beyond that of a mere master of suspense.

For many long time cinephiles the first experience of Rohmer’s cinema came in his Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night at Maud’s in 1969. Set in Clermont-Ferrand, the city closest to the exact centre of France, it told of a bachelor who commits himself to one beautiful girl, unbeknown to her, but is then tempted by the exotic free spirited Maud. After a long night of talk and tease and tantalising moments he drives away. For some it seemed the epitome of the kind of cerebral and sophisticated French cinema for which film festivals and art houses were invented.

Before his breakthrough with My Night at Maud’s, Rohmer had made two features and two dramatic shorts in the series of “Six moral tales” and an uncountable number of educational documentaries. On the latter he learned the craft of his film-making, absorbing the one shot/one meaning narrative methods of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, thus seeming to arrive in the late fifties as a fully prepared film-maker.

After My Night at Maud’s Rohmer completed his series of Moral Tales with the similarly successful Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love In The Afternoon (1972). In each of the tales, and in most of Rohmer’s work, there is a focus on an array of women who are strong, smart, beautiful, ever-fascinating, eternally tempting and eternally wise. To play these characters Rohmer discovered a host of extraordinary actresses, all of them beautiful in ways beyond classical good looks, all expressive, aware, lively and capable of delivering conversation about moral matters with an exactitude and conviction that produced a seeming instant truth. For all his films’ apparent simplicities, Rohmer’s characters always rang true and his women were an eternal life force. The actresses Beatrice Romand, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere and Anne Tesseydre among many (David Thomson estimates thirty to forty) have assumed luminous places in the memory thanks to Rohmer’s cinema.

In the mid-70s Rohmer embarked on a planned series of adaptations of classical literature, but after two films Die Marquise von O (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978), both of which flopped, Rohmer returned to his metier with two more series, the first being ‘Comedies and Proverbes” made between 1980 and 1987 and then what seems his finest work, the four films which comprise the Tales of the Four Seasons. Much of the focus of all of them was on the misunderstandings of young people in love. The contradictions between the mind the heart were never so clearly, often painfully, revealed. By this time in his life, Rohmer felt little need to travel outside Paris and rarely attended festival screenings or even the openings of his films. He preferred to hang out at near home, taking pleasure in the company of the many young Parisians who idolised his work.

Rohmer took the best part of a decade to complete the Tales of the Four Seasons. During that time he didn’t allow the grass to grow making any number of short films which allowed him, and his crew to experiment with new technologies and equipment. Many of the shorts were assembled into feature length films, most notably the delightful Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995). This experimentation bore its finest fruit in Rohmer’s first digitally filmed feature The Lady and the Duke, a film set during the French Revolution in which all the backgrounds were taken from paintings by Jean-Baptiste Marot based on the etchings of the period and digitally edited to produce a picture of Paris of quite astounding exactitude.

We were in Paris at the time when Triple Agent premiered and its release was accompanied by an astonishing burst of activity – the cover stories of both Cahiers and Positif, lengthy interviews in both, a retrospective of almost superhuman completeness at the Cinematheque (it included most of the aforementioned educational documentaries and several sessions devoted to discussion of his art and craft) and adulatory reviews everywhere. Given this attention I was later astonished that most of the major Australian film festivals weren’t interested in screening that film, nor his last feature, but it’s never too late.

For those who might want to track down Rohmer on screen I can advise that a couple of years ago I was attending a film festival where Jacques Rivette’s 12 hour television series Out One was being screened. For various reasons I only managed to sample one episode. In it the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was playing a man unable to speak who was conducting an interview with an expert on the novelist Honore de Balzac. The questions were being put by handwriting them on cards. Undeterred, the expert extemporised at great and sometimes droll length on Balzac’s themes and style. It was a performance to treasure and, as far as I recall, the only time I saw Eric Rohmer in a dramatic role on film. He made cameo appearances in many other movies, including Mary’s Justocoeur, but otherwise there is a wonderful edition of the French TV series Cineastes de Notre Temps directed by Janine Bazin and Andre S Labarthe devoted, with much love, to Rohmer and his work. Subtitled copies of it on DVD are in private circulation so it’s a matter of asking around among the cinephiles and collectors if you want to see it.

Eric Rohmer is not merely a key figure in the cinema, providing a rich legacy for review and contemplation. His work is also a testament to the uniqueness of French production which gives its key film-makers the freedom to make their own way and seek out new and personal ways of telling tales. Many follow in his footsteps though none has his unique combination of grace, serenity, affection for beautiful women, bemusement at love’s foibles and elegant simplicity of filming.

Eric Rohmer was born Maurice Scherer in 1920 and died aged 89 in Paris on January 11. For an intimate appreciation of him can I suggest that you look at the tributes on Mary’s Facebook page in which her sadness is lyrically expressed.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

DVD Dialogue - You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, USA, 1936)

So why this film to kick off a new series?

A series? Hmm. We’ll see how far the enthusiasm of the new year lasts.

As a DVD it does several things brilliantly. The copy is superb. The film is a Walter Wanger production and without knowing exactly what’s happened there seem to a lot of Wanger’s productions being circulated in very poor copies. The bootleggers have had a field day issuing his films in cheap editions using very poor material. For years there were copies of Algiers and Scarlet Street being offered cheap but the copies were terrible. Even SBS played a copies of those films that were very poor indeed. I think Wanger’s productions may have gone out of copyright and anyone could put them out. The only problem was that the material available, which needless to say wasn’t being supplied by the legitimate heirs and successors of Wanger’s immensely high quality output, was in very poor shape. So it’s a pleasure to see that Universal has been putting Wanger’s productions out on DVD using material clearly close to the original negative.

As well the single extra on the film is magnificent. So credit where it’s due.

Was it a Wanger project or Fritz Lang’s?

Well according to David Thomson, it arose when Wanger and Sylvia Sidney bumped into Theodore Dreiser who said he was writing a piece about Bonnie and Clyde. Dreiser said it would make a great movie and Sylvia a great Bonnie Parker. After they had a script, Sidney suggested Lang. She had just been in his first American film Fury (1936) and no doubt saw him as perfect for the task of making a movie about a guy hit with the full force of the law for something he hadn’t done. The Bonnie and Clyde aspects got played right down. Henry Fonda, always brilliant playing troubled, virtuous men, is an ex-con trying to go straight but defeated at every turn. A decision, prompted by an excited new wife, to go house-hunting instead of turning up for work on time proves a fateful moment. Then there is the long elaboration of a robbery and its aftermath for which Fonda’s Eddie Taylor gets the blame. The sequence involving a pair of eyes looking through a gap in a car windshield in pouring rain, the attack using tear gas, the single unknown man who drives the armoured car away and the heard but not seen accident, is magnificent.

One of Lang’s best films?


What about this single extra?

It’s a piece in which Claude Chabrol, all of 70+ plus, looks at the film on a viewer and analyses Lang’s film-making skills with quite remarkable perception. Chabrol is also interviewed and these sequences and bits and pieces of illustrative material from the film are incorporated into a very fine piece of film criticism. Whatever you thought you knew about You Only Live Once you know a whole lot more after seeing this. Chabrol has this fascination with Lang’s staging that enables you to get much additional meaning and much greater appreciation of Lang’s skills. This would not have been an expensive film. Most of it, even the outdoor post robbery and flight sequences are done in the studio or with back projection.

Chabrol’s analysis is most acute. There is even one lateral tracking shot, when Eddie is being escorted towards Death Row and is flanked by a guard and by the kindly priest Father Dolan where Chabrol notes how the camera loses the characters from the middle of the frame. He is perplexed as to why the shot is there in this fashion as he doesn’t concede that the clumsy look is intentional. This is film criticism of a very high order and, as I guess as I have been saying for ever, the opportunity that DVD has opened up for new methods and techniques of criticism has added immensely to the sum of our knowledge and broadened the way we can actually dissect films.

Chabrol was once a critic and has no doubt retained these skills.

Yes. Mind you very few film-makers outside that small coterie of French critics cum film-makers, mostly from the fifties and sixties, have ever had these dual skills capable of closely-argued and rigorous analysis and fine film-making. Maybe Lindsay Anderson and Peter Bogdanovich qualify. Hasn’t been anyone else who has come to film-making from these roots for decades.

Chabrol actually made a film that seemed to be a homage to Lang’s Mabuse character?

Indeed. I think it was called Doctor M. I may be one of the few in the world to have seen, it at a market screening at a festival in the early 90s. The less said the better I’m afraid. Chabrol is a true inheritor of Lang’s legacy. As an imitator he failed.