The Comforts of Home

Twenty-four hours of watching paint dry with Eric Rohmer

 

Rohmer's best movie--1970's La collectionneuse (screening Wednesday and Thursday, June 13 and 14, at 9:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively)--is also his nastiest. I'd like to think this is not a coincidence. In it, a purchaser of art objects for collectors--a sort of glorified flea-market middleman--rooms with a buddy in a country house. The two find themselves sharing a room with a blank, sullen teenage girl who somehow--it's hard to describe why--possesses a sexual power that suggests a hydrogen bomb held in the hands of a baby. As the hero tries to get next to her without getting emotionally scorched, he narrates his ploys in would-be-sleek voiceover. The whole thing has the tense feel of watching chest-puffing characters try to avoid the dreadful accidents that they know are zooming right toward them. And Rohmer's penetration of the protagonist's preening makes this the best movie ever made about the male sexual pretensions of the "liberated" era.

In Rohmer's most celebrated film, 1971's Claire's Knee (Friday, June 15 at 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 16 at 7:30 p.m.), a self-possessed, 40-ish man of the world, about to marry, spends his summer by the seaside, where (does this sound familiar?) he lustfully fixates on a wised-up nymphet who won't have him. Unsated, his desire moves on to her blank-faced sister--or, rather, to the sister's lithe knee. The movie's seaside locations are so sumptuously sensual they're almost pornographic; they give the sense that a Hitchcockian mayhem may be on the verge of erupting. It isn't, but the climax of Claire's Knee does tell a different story than the rest of this cool, blithe little picture--an ominous, O. Henryish one about the price of unfulfilled male desire. Still, one can't help feeling perturbed by scenes in which males nod in ironic agreement as their little cherry pies intone earnestly, "Really, I'm a very old soul." Rohmer even has a menopausal (and, hence, genially washed-up) female eyeing the aging rake's frustrations and having a classically Gallic laugh at the human comedy of it all. And the ending--in which the man's cruelty is undone by the innocence of youth--is seriously creepy, like a self-assuring entry in Humbert Humbert's journal.

Landmark cinema: Françoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's
Landmark cinema: Françoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's

Rohmer beginners looking for painless one-stop shopping could do worse than his comparatively rough-and-ready short from 1963, "Suzanne's Career" (a.k.a. "Moral Tales II," screening with another short on Friday and Saturday at 9:30 p.m., and on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.), the unblinking account of a kid's obsession with--and torment of--a homely young woman who bankrupts herself on the hero and his pseudo-Casanova buddy. When Rohmer wrote unreliable, self-deceiving narrators like this one, and the protagonist of La collectionneuse, his movies had tension, and the potential for real emotional injury. "Suzanne's Career" ends with an appraisal that's uncharacteristic of the Rohmer to come: "Her total lack of dignity justified the scorn I heaped on her looks and behavior. [But] this girl for whom I'd managed to feel a kind of shameful pity was beating us all to the finish line." The hero's awareness of his errors at the end of this short isn't "charming"--it's sobering. Like the best art, "Suzanne's Career" sends you into a tailspin of self-reflection.

But then what? Aside from the tantalizing but copout-laden Chloe in the Afternoon (Friday, June 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.), there isn't much. Stung by the commercial failure of his late-Seventies period pieces The Marquise of O and Perceval, Rohmer retreated into the realm of smut swaddled in wisdom: He called a series of movies "Comedies and Proverbs," and proverbial is the word for it. Where other male directors fetishize their actresses, Rohmer ornaments them, forcing his pert virgins into holier-than-thou postures. The Izod-clad naiads in The Aviator's Wife and Pauline at the Beach are so straight-laced, they're weirdly unreal, like the idealized concoction of some eerily becalmed Balthus.

Not that the director's core audience cares: They're there for that tone of civilized pleasure. Seeing Rohmer movies years ago at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, I used to marvel at all the happy, elderly faces around me, full of deep smiles and fluttering eyelids. (The movie and the air conditioning were one.) Rohmer's willful obliviousness to the agenda of his New Wave peers, and to the vagaries of his own time and place, is so extreme that it's almost admirable. Indeed, some see in him a parallel to the great French composer Olivier Messiaen: an artisan from another century plunked down into this one, with no apologies and no regrets. I'd be willing to buy that analogy if the auteur's work weren't so obliging, so conventional, so sly in tucking complacency beneath a "rigorous" exterior. Rohmer began his career by probing the minds of deluded old men who thanked heaven for little girls. Then he became what he beheld.

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