June 21, 2021

Éric Rohmer’s four film seasons, the definitive summer film and yesterday’s world

More or less similar to what happens with other film masters, such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer, the popular reception of the work of Éric Rohmer is conditioned by some topics. The French director’s films have a reputation for being very verbal (they are) and slow, potentially leaden (something much more debatable). Director Arthur Penn contributed to the topic by including poignant dialogue in his neo-noir The night moves: one of the protagonists affirms that seeing a Rohmer film was similar to observing how the paint dries (in the Spanish dub, the reference was adapted to “see the grass grow”).

More than once it has been assumed that Penn, an admirer of the new trends in French cinema in the late 1950s and the following decade, attacked his colleague. That meant mixing the opinion of the character with that of the author, but certainly the phrase has not helped to open the doors of the mass public to Rohmer. Even so, more than one fan of his cinema would be willing to resignify the appointment. Because that cinema makes free use of long takes without turning them into dogmas, it does not fear downtime, although something rarely stops happening within the shot, however small it may be. And it allows you to taste the passage of time in an impossible way in many audiovisual products that tend to the frenetic rhythm and fleeting images, run over by new images that alternate rapidly in syncopated montages.

Beyond his penchant for formal austerity and meticulous scene preparation, the veteran Rohmer was a rather playful storyteller, making an uncomplexed and astute use of ellipses and chronological jumps. He anticipated situations and delayed their outbreak, launched all kinds of complicit threads with those audiences that wanted to enter his games. The love stories came to touch the tradition of vaudeville and its confusions, often thanks to the appearance of heavenly characters. And although fictions were often bittersweet like life itself, the possibility of a happy ending was not ruled out (see Winter’s Tale, for example).

In full centenary of the author’s birth, A Contracorriente Films has opted to launch the pack Tales of the four seasons, which includes the well-known film cycle formed by Spring tale, Winter’s Tale, Summer tale and Autumn tale, presented in Blu-ray format. The movies have been restored in high definition. And they are generously presented accompanied by a short and medium-length film signed by Rohmer himself, a 76-page booklet by the critic Carlos Heredero, a documentary feature film about the filming of Summer tale and from several interviews with regular collaborators.

Spin love under the sun

French cinema has its little tradition of movies about summer vacations, about that moment when daily life is put on hold and is replaced by rest and love affairs that usually have expiration dates. The green ray or Pauline on the beach, by Rohmer himself, or the much more recent The combattants, by Thomas Caillley, are examples of this. And authors from other latitudes, such as Felipe Vega de Summer clouds or Pere Vilà de Pass to level, they have taken up those codes. Director of The Florida project, Sean Baker, has also recognized his influence.

The last summer narration directed by the French director was Summer tale. Its author used a scheme repeated in the cinema, from the Allenian Memories to Five men for Lucy: a person meets several possible partners, representative of different models of men or women. Gaspard is a young man with musical concerns who travels to the coast to meet his supposed seasonal girlfriend, Léna, despite the fact that she has not assured him of the meeting. While he waits, he meets Margot, a charming ethnologist employed as a waitress, with whom he goes on long walks. But Gaspard also meets Solène, who is willing to have an affair with him.

During long talks, Gaspard turns to the desires, wishes and contradictions that these three women generate in him. Léna is the ethereal and elusive girl to live a romantic love with fragile perspectives. Solène, more sexual, more restrictive, claims and offers a clear relationship. And Margot could be the friend-lover, mentor at times of the immature antihero who, in her company, partially frees himself from the seductive register to maintain more frank exchanges of ideas.

The viewer accompanies Gaspard on his odyssey, at times exasperating, of self-centeredness and small pettiness covered with a thousand theories and rationalizations that range from self-pity to narcissism. His comprehensive ethical reference, Margot, becomes embarrassed and angry at the protagonist’s attitude, so eager to live his summer love affair that he makes incompatible promises to all those women he does not want to reject for fear of being alone. Although his sensibilities are different, Gaspard matches the romantic heroine of Winter’s Tale in the tendency to value and criticize their friends from a demiurgic position not exempt from a certain cruelty: the other becomes the necessary instrument for experiencing adventure.

Winks of Breton maritime culture appear among this tale of potential loves, and with the excuse of the studies of the young ethnologist and the boy’s melomania. The tour sifts through some almost Buddhist threat about the undesirability of desire, and some explicit claim (among several implicit claims) of friendship as “something serious, perhaps more than love.” The result is a beautiful (moral?) Tale about not well digested desires, about the impatience of wanting to love at all costs, and about the self-centeredness typical of adolescence and beyond. Perhaps it is also a warning about the little attraction that the possibility of a relationship based on companionship and honesty can awaken without the illusions of seduction.

The world of yesterday, or never

In some respects, Rohmer’s cinema does not transfer to a parallel world where the personal and social life of his characters dominates. Where love is the central theme of conversations between characters who are philosophers, psychoanalysts, dreamers and charlatans in varying proportions. And where the material component of income and jobs hardly seems to matter in the lives of citizens.

A somewhat gentrified vision may underlie these fictions, because even the workplaces are not spaces of great dedication or tiredness: they all seem to have a moment to chat during the working day, or a garden where to sunbathe when it ends. Beyond a possible Rohmerian bias in his way of looking at the world, or in the rules of creation of his own fictional universe, his Tales of the four seasons They are stories where the mixtures of the personal and the professional do not devour the intimate life. The filmmaker’s latest works of contemporary setting explored the last moments of a society where mobile phones were not yet ubiquitous, where the slavery of permanent availability still did not appear.

From our social and audiovisual present, Rohmer’s work offers us the possibility of a getaway. In fact, from several escapades. We can enjoy, for example, some images of nature presented without the forced admiration typical of our contemporary audiovisual, intoxicated by the promotional inertias of advertising language and its inertias hipster. The author of Clara’s knee He shoots a vineyard without the somewhat silly markers of admiration of the urbanite surprised by the rural world.

Furthermore, his films conjure up a world from yesterday, still close and somewhat idealized. A time when we were not in such a hurry, even with the trap that its inhabitants used to be middle-class professionals with privileges in this area. As the critic Jean Douchet thinks in one of the interviews included in the videographic edition of Tales of the four seasons, Rohmer arrived at the truth through a certain artifice. Even with their not very colloquial dialogues, more or less implausible, these late works offer us an anthropology (crossed by the imagination) of the world of twenty-five or thirty years ago, when technological capitalism had not yet risen one more gear in the neoliberal acceleration.

Without fuss, without forcing or underlining a documentary look, Rohmer immortalized the scenes of that past. Simply by filming the characters in their context, he gives us a cartography of places that were and are no longer, prior to the almost total globalization of the most unifying tourist event. Rohmerian cinema, nothing given to ideological proclamation, can help us think about another possible life where personal life is not completely infested by dedication to work and where we all have the right to moments of pause. And of love, also of love.


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