Saturday, January 15, 2011

Maurice Schérer

Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer is relentlessly patient with his characters. The entire molecule of his cinema seems to rise from the belief that each human being holds concealed within himself, or herself, one grand truth – the revelation of which can enrich each member of the audience separately. As such, Rohmer is an intense humanist; one who believes, more than any other director of cinema, that the entire purpose of cinema is to survey the massive debris of humanity and manage to somehow salvage a treasure from it. His conviction in the ultimate ‘truth’ is so strong that he elevates its existence to the level of a fact; inarguable and unassailable. The characters in his films are miserable bundles of contradictions, people who are eternally lamenting the condition of the world while attempting simultaneously, as is revealed during the course of the film, to become a part of it.

His approach to fact-finding or the location of the grand ‘truth’ about the lead protagonist is akin to Errol Morris’s detective interrogations of the subjects of his documentaries. The films of both the filmmakers are marked by the belief that if individuals are left to their own accord, and made to engage in a conversation devoid of any specific purpose (and thus, deprived of the opportunity of any pretense), they tend to deposit their words closest to their deepest concern – which in both filmmaker’s films, is the deepest secret they withhold.

As such, much like a documentary film, Rohmer’s framing belongs to the cinema of abandonment - of a single (only him/her and no one else) character abandoned in a lonely medium-close-up, as the only resident of the frame. As bits of sound (questions) are thrown at it from somewhere in the off-screen, it is left alone to fend for itself, and with no visible escape route, forced to locate an answer.

My Night at Maud’s might be considered the prototypical Eric Rohmer film – a lead character incapable of taking his/her own decisions, a continuous discourse between Jansenian pre-destination and determinism, and the eventual results of those decisions which really don’t even matter – it is his much later film, The Green Ray, or La Rayon Vert, that is the most effective example of Rohmer’s cinema of abandonment.

Often in The Green Ray, the lead character Delphine (Marie Rivière) is endlessly moping about the kind of life she laments – she doesn’t eat meat, she runs from tables when people around her talk about going out at night – and generally spends her time making uppity declarations that seem as uninformed as they are vain, but made nonetheless, if they can guarantee her momentary attention from those around her. But while Rohmer is patient with his characters, he is also relentless; and thus, he cannot but hold them accountable for each word they utter. They are asked to elaborate on the meaning of their statements, as much as they are asked to justify and explain them. Scenes around a table (lot of them in Rohmer films) are almost conducted like criminal investigations (like Morris’s work), with the camera representing the detective’s sharp inescapable vision as it attempts to seek out the truth. The occupants of the table are the various suspects lined up, until of course, the camera selects the primary suspect through the application of a close-up. After all, a Rohmer scene does not flow as much as it coagulates into one single medium-close-up. Having made up its mind, the camera then never leaves the primary suspect, making it captive within the edges of the frame. Essentially, as a Rohmer shot-reverse shot scheme progresses further into the scene, we arrive at a shot without a reverse-shot. The character inhabiting the shot then has to answer a barrage of questions, that can tend to sound more like pointed accusations than earnest inquiries (much like the penultimate scene of 400 Blows, which features Doinel with the psychologist). Subjected to such persistent bombardment of interrogation, the ‘subject’ of Rohmer’s inquiry finally yields the grand ‘truth’. Unlike a Morris film, however, where the revelation of the truth implicates the subject, it liberates him/her in a Rohmer film. The ‘escape’ from the frame – from a close-up to a long shot – is often literal – Delphine runs off to the beach, just like Gaspard sails off on a boat in A Summer’s Tale. Incidentally, A Summer’s Tale is Rohmer’s payback of his debt to the Nouvelle Vague (thirty years into his post-Nouvelle Vague career, he was still called, like the others, a French New Wave director). It is easily his most New Wav-ish film, with the lead Jaspard (Melvil Poupaud) created clearly in the image of the eternally lost Jean-Pierre Leaud, who seem to have invented the idea of film acting as ‘behaving like you were on the way to the market and landed up on a film set’.

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