Saturday, 20 March 2010

Architecture in NYC

One of my favourite moments in Woody Allen's Academy Award Winning Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), is the scene in which Sam Waterston's character takes Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher on a whirlwind tour of New York City to visit some of his favourite architectural sights. The scene is notable because it illustrates, on a very basic level, what I love most about Allen's work. The seeming simplicity of it, the wit, the imagination, the sleight of hand, the effortless inventiveness and the ability to take moments and images that are present at any point in our daily lives - on any street, place or person - and transform them into moments of great cinema.

The scene in question is a delightful little moment that could have easily been included in the film for no other reason than to provide a brief interval or interlude between the more complicated or exhausting relationship dramas that occur throughout. Instead, it is a scene that communicates a great deal about the relationship between these two friends (the characters played by Wiest and Fisher) as they attempt to feign interest in this travelogue of buildings and places simply as a way of getting to know this dashing and successful young architect. Their reactions to these great buildings demonstrate a desperate attempt to agree or disagree with whatever Waterston's character is speaking of, while also offering a much more amusing insight into the dynamics of this relationship, as both women attempt to outdo one another for the offer of a ride home.

As with any great moment from the films of Woody Allen, this particular scene seems to me to offer a remarkable example of what cinema can achieve, precisely because it is something that could only be communicated through the cinematic form. This scene is further proof of Allen's obvious talent for expressing moments of immense depth and human emotion through incredibly simple though no less ingenious methods, and stands out, in my mind at least, as one single moment of invention from a film seemingly full of them.

Hannah and Her Sisters directed by Woody Allen, 1986:

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Pauline at the Beach

Given the recent passing of the legendary filmmaker Éric Rohmer, it seems only fair to offer a few words of consideration on possibly my favourite of the director's films; the quietly observed and brilliantly performed ensemble drama, Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la plage, 1983). As an introduction to Rohmer's incredibly rich and often surprisingly varied body of work, Pauline at the Beach is essential; perfectly illustrating the thoughtful, often leisurely and conversational approach that defines many of the director's greatest films, such as Love in the Afternoon (L'Amour l'après-midi, 1972) or Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle, 1987), which for me reach beyond the mere pleasantries of the character study or the vague categorisations of dramatisation to offer something altogether more difficult to define.

In this sense, describing the typical Eric Rohmer experience can be daunting, especially since much of what stands out in Rohmer's work is the emphasis on character interaction, location and mood. Attempting to explain the appeal of such an approach, beyond the obvious personal appeal that resonates during the actual course of viewing, seems almost irresponsible. The work, as it stands, is best experienced, so that an audience can savour the subtle development of these dramas that occur around the narrative, developing naturally from the interactions between characters, or the natural charm or personality of a particular location.

In attempting to intellectualise or over-analyse such factors the reviewer can distract from the often simple pleasures that are presented to an audience when merely spending some time in the company of these characters; getting to know them, becoming privy to their innermost thoughts and feelings, or the often-complicated web of relationships that grow and develop as they stumble in and out of various social events; or simply pass the time on beaches, in cafés or in the garden, or huddled around a television set on a warm afternoon.

Pauline at the Beach directed by Éric Rohmer, 1983:

In Pauline at the Beach, this concept of being in the company of characters as they fumble around the edges of a social predicament is perfectly illustrated through the development of that always interesting narrative facilitator: the summer holiday. The great motivator in many of Rohmer's pictures, because (we assume?) it allows the audience the room to indulge in these scenarios; to take our minds off the more urgent concerns of narrative development, action and plot, and instead see the characters at their most relaxed and apparently carefree. This as an idea is in keeping with Rohmer's central ideology of "thoughts rather than actions", dealing "less with what people do than what is going on in their minds while they're doing it." So, with Pauline at the Beach, we have characters taking a break from the rat race of work or school (or whatever) and using the getaway as an excuse to seek out relationships, connections (meaningful or not) and moments of recreation. The film, both for the characters and for the audience, is therefore an escapist pursuit, where we disengage from our own lives and instead observe the comings and goings of this particular social circle as they wrestling with the complications of everyday life.

Keeping this particular approach in mind, Pauline at the Beach could, like many of Rohmer's other, contemporary-based character dramas, be defined by the literary term "in medias res"; meaning that the drama is already pre-established and in some respect without conclusion. Instead of presenting a clear and conventional three-act structure of beginning, middle and end, Rohmer instead cuts into a story where the characters are already clearly defined (amongst themselves, at least), and where we, as an audience, have to play catch up; teasing out even the most basic of information - including who these people are and what they're actually doing here - from their earliest interactions. What this does beyond allowing the drama to unfold naturally without the usual concessions to conventional narrative storytelling is make the audience feel as though we've been invited into this scenario, into these rooms and houses, and again, been allowed to spend a limited period of time with these characters, eavesdropping on their conversations, or gathering up information as they go about their daily routines.

Illustrating this idea of a story already in progress, the film begins with the arrival of Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and her older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle) at the Normandy summer house where the story plays out. Rohmer wastes no time in cutting to a conversation between these two characters as they settle in the garden; with the dialogue soon establishing the theme of romance and relationships, and in particular the contrasts between the two individuals in how they approach these specific concerns.

Pauline at the Beach directed by Éric Rohmer, 1983:

Marion, a recent divorcée, seems to crave intense relationships; relationships with the power to move, but also the power to destroy. Pauline on the other hand is far more pragmatic, viewing relationships in a realistic context, hopeful, but also somewhat cynical. The contrast between these two characters is immediately apparent, with Marion, the eldest of the two, really seeming to be the more naive and perhaps even more adolescent in her view of male and female courtship, while Pauline, still in puberty, already knows what she wants and what to expect. As the story progresses we're introduced to the various characters that exist within this world; chiefly, Henri (Féodor Atkine), a single father and womaniser who Marion begins a casual relationship with, and Pierre (Pascal Greggory), a wind-surf instructor who is besotted with Marion, but eventually ends up spending more time with Pauline as a kind of unintentional confidant.

Pauline at the Beach directed by Éric Rohmer, 1983:

Pauline at the Beach was the third instalment in Rohmer's highly acclaimed series of films grouped together under the collective banner of the Comedies and Proverbs; an otherwise unrelated series of films each based on (or inspired by) a specific proverbial phrase. In the case of Pauline at the Beach, it is the opening quote from Chrétien de Troyes that establishes the theme; 'A wagging tongue bites itself.' The quote introduces not only the conversational structure of Rohmer's film (or the broader conventions of his character dramas in general), but also the various he said/she said situations, where gossip and hearsay are motivators for the plot. To further illustrate this notion, Rohmer develops a story that is, on the one hand, a relationship drama - focusing on a complicated series of inter-relationships, including two couples of differing age-groups and at least two potentially inter-linking love triangles - and on the other, a coming of age story. In presenting both aspects of this dilemma, Rohmer is able to utilise the element of comic misunderstanding, as these characters distort truths and misinformation leading to the usual arguments and falling outs that are typical of the genre.

Through Rohmer's approach to his characters is at times distant - as they are positioned as fully realised human beings, independent of any potential manipulation of the filmmaker - there is nonetheless a very real feeling for these people; a warmth and a charisma that is obvious, even if the more apparent character traits, such as vanity, deceit or self-delusion offer less attractive aspects of their true personalities. Nonetheless, these people, already formed and well developed before the first introductory scene, are allowed to express themselves naturally as characters, revealing their thoughts, feelings and philosophies, either through dialogue or through the choices they make. The clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the people they choose to meet and hook up with all add texture to these characterisations, giving a greater weight to their creation as people that exist beyond the self-contained drama that takes place between the first scene and the last; reinforcing that particular idea frequent throughout Rohmer's work where we sense that these lives and these relationships will continue to thrive or stumble long after our experience with the film has come to an end.

In terms of the actually filmmaking approach, Pauline at the Beach is characteristic of Rohmer's visual approach to his character dramas, drawing mostly on a naturalistic look, with costumes, cars and architecture that is very much of the period, and a loose, observational style, where the camera, often in close-up or medium shot, examines the drama from a fixed perspective. As a contrast to the less well know but no less essential historical dramas that Rohmer directed, such as The Marquise of O... (Die Marquise von O..., 1976), Perceval (Perceval le Gallois, 1978) and The Lady and the Duke (L'Anglaise et le Duc, 2001), where the actual cinematic style was often more ornate, imaginative or deliberately artificial, the look and style of Pauline at the Beach is defined by its location and the natural mood and impression that it inspires. In collaboration with his crew, Rohmer perfectly capture the atmosphere of the seaside setting, from the sun-kissed beach where the blue of the ocean stretches out to meet a bright white sky, to the casual comings and goings of the characters' houses, where the doors remain unlocked (because there's nothing worth stealing) and where the flowers bloom brightly through windows or in the background of idyllic garden scenes.

The Marquise of O... directed by Éric Rohmer, 1976:

Pauline at the Beach directed by Éric Rohmer, 1983:

Through drawing our attention to these seemingly minute details, which define the time and the place and help to create a world for the characters that is entirely convincing, Rohmer is able to make the experience tangible enough for an audience no doubt experiencing this drama from the confines of a cinema seat, or at home, on DVD. So, although the drama might be observational, and the characters at something of a reserve, we're nonetheless able to fully immerse ourselves in the creation of this world made real by our own associations and memories of summer holidays or trips to the seaside with family and friends, where the ritual of walking back from the beach, later afternoon, with your shoes and socks off - bare feet on the gravel path or the grass of the garden - has a real sense of nostalgia.

Though Rohmer attempts with these films to be as unobtrusive as possible, there is still some clear element of stylisation. For example, the extraordinary use of natural sunlight in several scenes, capturing the sense of an endless summer day; from the blue wash of dawn, to the bright whites of high noon and the warming reds of just-before sunset, the lighting of the film, in both the interior and exterior scenes, is perfect. Likewise, the casting of the film and Rohmer's particular skill in creating these characters and allowing them the room to express and emote, is incredibly well defined, with the use of the dialogue and the effortless delivery of the performers, seeming very real and unrehearsed. The intentions of the dialogue and what it reveals about these characters as human beings is never improvisatory or meandering; every expression, no matter how seemingly trite on first experience, gives us some clue as to the purpose of these characters, their dreams and their desires.

Like the other films of the Comedies and Proverbs series - which includes The Aviator's Wife (La Femme de l'aviateur, 1981), A Good Marriage (Le Beau mariage, 1982), Full Moon in Paris (Les Nuits de la pleine lune, 1984), The Green Ray (Le Rayon vert, 1986) and The Boyfriend of My Friend Could Be My Boyfriend (L'Ami de mon amie, 1987) - Pauline at the Beach is crucial to defining the image of Rohmer as a complete artist. Not just as a filmmaker, but as a sometimes novelist, teacher, thinker and critic, able to point his camera at the supposedly ordinary, day after day activities that make up the inter-connected meetings and moments of everyday life and bring out the extraordinary colour and feeling of an actual human existence that many fail to appreciate.