Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Sense of History

A short note on several films by Eric Rohmer

I'm not entirely sure if this blog post constitutes a 'return' in the permanent sense of the word, but I've been re-examining the films of Eric Rohmer recently and just wanted a space to jabber enthusiastically about some of his works. As much as I love Rohmer's contemporary-set films, such as Pauline at the Beach (1983), The Four Adventures of Reinette & Mirabelle (1987) and A Summer's Tale (1996) (to name a few), there's always been a special place in my heart dedicated to the director's rare historical pictures, which seem to take concepts of eccentricity and personal vision to new heights.

While his contemporary films are known for their astute naturalism - the rigorous shot-compositions, controlled editing and the use of bright primary colours often being the only hints that what we're seeing is a work of fiction as opposed to documentary - his historical films seem to push for artificiality and a more ornate, painterly sensibility.

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend [Eric Rohmer, 1987]:

The characteristic Rohmer aesthetic is usually defined by contemporary locations, young, upwardly mobile characters struggling to connect to the world and those around them, and enlivened by static, flatly composed discussions on nature, philosophy and art.

Full Moon in Paris [Eric Rohmer, 1984]:

The style of the characteristic Rohmer film is relaxed and conversational. Naturalistic settings, lighting and locations are used as a backdrop, but controlled by Rohmer's carefully arranged, often static compositions, and rigorously co-ordination colour palettes.

The first of Rohmer's feature-length films to deviate from his characteristic template, The Marquise of O... (1976) was inspired by an 1809 novella by Heinrich von Kleist. The film and its presentation teases at notions of faith and magical realism, creating something that feels very much within the traditions of German Romanticism, but in a way that belies a more sinister, psychological motivation for events.

While not as daring in its stylisation as some of the other films soon to be mentioned, The Marquise of O... is nonetheless shot in a way that differentiates itself from Rohmer's previous body of work. The lighting, while still naturalistic, seems exaggerated. While previous Rohmer films employed natural lighting (or the appearance of it), the contrast of light and shadow used in The Marquise... suggests the influence of classical painting, with a particular affinity for the baroque, romantic and renaissance periods.

More specifically, the contrasts between light and shadow evoke something of the Chiaroscuro and Tenebrism techniques made famous by artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Michelangelo de Caravaggio and Gerard van Honthorst.

The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

The Calling of Saint Matthew [Caravaggio, 1599-1600]: 
The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

Photographed by Néstor Almendros in the same hazy, lightly sepia, magic hour style that he subsequently brought to Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978), the deep shadows and warm tones give the film an ornate storybook quality that at one level suggests romanticism, while on another level creates a barrier between the audience and the true intentions of the text. The style lends itself to a film that is painterly and beautiful, like Stanley Kubrick's immortal Barry Lyndon (1975), but in a way that seems to illustrate the protagonist's inability to see the world (and her situation) for what it really is. In short, the design and photography are not merely decorative, but related to the psychology of the characters.

Rohmer would return to a similar style in his last film, the pastoral and poetic Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), photographed by Diane Baratier. Inspired by a 17th century text, Romance of Astrea and Celadon would find Rohmer ending his career on something of a seemingly uncharacteristic note; applying his same interest in characters and their interactions to a world defined by myth and legend. The magic hour cinematography and carefully composed 1.37:1 shot compositions once again bring to mind the look and style of The Marquise of O...

Romance of Astrea and Celadon [Eric Rohmer, 2007]:

Portrait of Charlotte du Val d'Ognes [Marie-Denise Villers, 1801]:
The Marquise of O... [Eric Rohmer, 1976]:

More radical was Rohmer's follow-up to The Marquise..., Perceval le Gallois (1978). This time taking its inspiration from a 12th century Arthurian legend, Rohmer shoots his film on a small soundstage; his characters traversing an expressionistic landscape that at no point attempts to disguise its artificiality. Into this, Rohmer incorporates a 'Greek-chorus' of medieval folk music and has his actors speak the stage-directions aloud. These techniques reinforce the presentational aspect of the film, not as a more conventional dramatization of events, but as a literal adaptation of the text.

Perceval le Gallois [Eric Rohmer, 1978]:

This idea of adapting the text as opposed to depicting it was suggested by Rohmer himself when discussing his creative intentions during the making of The Marquise of O... Quoted in World Film Directors Volume 2, 1945-1985 (John Wakeman, 1988), Rohmer states: "It wasn't simply the action I was drawn to, but the text itself. I didn't want to translate it into images, or make a filmed equivalent. I wanted to use the text as if Kleist himself had put it directly on the screen, as if he were making a movie. Kleist didn't copy me and I didn't copy him, but obviously there was an affinity."

There's a similar feeling one gets from the presentation of Perceval, where the rigorous adherence to the text (to the point that the use of language dictates the use of form, structure and pace) is reminiscent perhaps of the films of Jean-Marie Straub & Danielle Huillet, such as The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), Class Relations (1984) and Antigone (1992). Here, the space between words (and even the editing of shots) becomes a kind of verbal and visual acknowledgement of the written punctuation.

Class Relations [Straub-Huillet, 1984]:

Class Relations is another example of adapting a work that is, like Perceval, essentially unfinished. Here, Straub-Huillet's exacting update of Franz Kafka's novel Amerika (published in 1927) includes an intentionally open ending. The filmmakers also shot their film entirely in Europe in order to parallel the fact that Kafka was writing about America from the perspective of never having been there.

While Perceval is easily the most 'Brechtian' of Rohmer's films - continually reminding its audience of its own artificiality, its basis in historical text and its essentially unfinished nature - it nonetheless remains a completely engaging and affecting experience. The story is presented with a creative and often witty approach, rich in imagery and imagination, while a third-act recreation of the passion of Jesus Christ for instance (see above) is cinema at its most genuinely sacred; the combination of music, voice, text and image creating something that is an absolute revelation.

One of Rohmer's later films, The Lady and the Duke (2000), updates the artificial stylisations of Perceval for the approaching 21st century. Adapted from Grace Elliott's memoir detailing her time during the French revolution, Rohmer digitally inserts his actors into literal painted backdrops that recall the Neoclassical art of the period. In doing so, he once again creates a barrier between the audience and the work; allowing us enough distance that we're able to see the story and its historical value, as well as the parallels the same story has to the then-current political situation in France.

The Lady and the Duke [Eric Rohmer, 2000]:
The Lady and the Duke, almost remarkably, predicts a style of filmmaking that has since become dominant in Hollywood. The approach in which actors perform in front of a screen with only minimal props, only to have the world of the film digitally rendered in post-production. For Hollywood filmmakers, the technique is one of immersion and escapism, but for Rohmer it seems to have a different, more political intention.

Behind the scenes image from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [2014]:

Audiences no longer balk at such excessive artifice. The language of the modern blockbuster now feels closer to the fakery of classical Hollywood, with its painted backdrops, matte paintings and studio magic. The acceptance that the world of a film is no longer a tangible exploration of our own world, but a two-dimensional composite.

The Arrival of a Mail-coach in the Courtyard of the Messageries [Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803]:

Imagine the above painting 'chroma-keyed' into the green-screen backdrop of the Sin City sequel and you're halfway towards a recreation of Rohmer's particular aesthetic approach.

Omitted from this discussion is Catherine de Heilbronn (1980), a play filmed for television but featuring a similarly theatrical aesthetic as Perceval, and Rohmer's penultimate film, Triple Agent (2004), neither of which I've seen. I'd be interested to know how these works stack up to the ones discussed herein; specifically in terms of their stylisation, or even in how they compare to the more characteristic Rohmer films, such as Full Moon in Paris (1984) or My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (1987).

Nonetheless, the stylistic disparity between the two types of film that Rohmer specialised in remains a fascinating anomaly to me; the complete illustration of how 'content' can dictate 'form', and how 'form' can dictate 'content.'

In an unattributed quote featured on legendary film blog Film Walrus, Rohmer discussed the stylisation of Perceval in relation to his own unfamiliarity with 12th century gestures, dialogue, decoration and landscape. For Rohmer it was "more honest to embrace the artifice and deliver the original writing unaltered. Even historically-researched recreations would still be just a better lie, rather than a deeper truth." Perhaps this is the ultimate explanation as to why Rohmer approached these works in such a way.