Belle de Jour (Beauty of the Day)

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Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is distracted, her mind is elsewhere …

Corridors of erotic fantasies help Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) navigate the confines of her private and public life. Or, as the original trailer says: ‘a divorce between the soul and the flesh.’ Séverine has been married to her doctor husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel) for one year: she has little interest in passion, just the idea of romance and someone to take care of her. So much so, that on one occasion we see her ask him ‘to sit with her’ while she falls into sleep. Continue reading

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La Cambrure (The Curve)

Eva (Edwige Shaki) and Roman (François Rauscher) are two good-looking intellectuals who playfully discuss the curves of the female body, its symbolism and its sensuality in this short film (shot in video) which is edited and technically advised (and influenced) by Eric Rohmer, and directed and written by Shaki herself.

The two meet at a sculptor’s studio. Roman has just finished a conversation about his thesis on ‘Body Language in Impressionist Painting,’ and has been examining the curves of the female sculptures in the workshop. A woman (Eva) turns up and leans against his studio door in a way that emulates a sculpture. Roman is transfixed. Continue reading

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Véronique et son Cancre (Veronica and her Dunce)

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An acerbic, comic light is cast over the education system in Eric Rohmer’s 1958 short film. It’s a sharp arrow that strikes at the heart of all that’s rotten about unimaginative teaching, and is as disturbingly relevant to the present day as it is to post-war France.

In short, there are three bored characters – ‘Madame’ (Stella Dassas), her young son Jean-Christophe (Alain Deirieu), and the personal tutor, Véronique (Nicole Berger).

Madame doesn’t want to help her son. Sure, she has affection for Jean-Christophe (we do see her ruffle his hair, rather like a confectioner would a small boy who has just purchased a lollipop). Madame prefers to prop up a late 1950s France with bourgeois appearances: a squeaky-clean apartment and the insistence of good behaviour. ‘Don’t be afraid to be strict,’ she quips to Veronique, ‘The older he gets, the sillier he is.’

And then mother click-clacks out of the apartment … Continue reading

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L’Amour l’Après-Midi (Love in the Afternoon)

Chloé (Zouzou)  is anything but a simpering two-dimension

Chloé (Zouzou) is anything but a simpering two-dimension

It’s a small, claustrophobic world in which Frédéric (Bernard Verley) moves. He has his family at home, and his work in the office. The Paris streets are busy and full of attractive women and with all the strength and passion of youth still in his bones, he spends the long hours that divide lunch and home-time coping with the conflict caused by desire.

Eric Rohmer presents the last film of his six ‘Six Moral Tales’ series as a long cinematic Psalm to temptation. The ‘Prologue’ is a delightful combination of an allusion to sci-fi ‘magic’ and the meandering mind of the married man.

The title sequence is cut with early-seventies ‘plinky-plonky’ minimalist music, full of portent and evocative of another planet. Frédéric wanders the streets of Paris and sits in cafes with a faraway look in his eyes. Of all the beautiful women in Paris he says, ‘I dream I possess them all.’ He engages in the fantasy of a surreal magnetic necklace that ‘annihilates the others’ free will.’ We see him wearing the sci-fi jewel: some women respond, and some don’t.

The prologue is a confession (the viewer feels like a therapist or a Priest). Yet at the same time, it is space-dust which prepares us for the narrative’s first real ‘crackle’ when Chloé (Zouzou) walks through his office door. Frédéric wants what he knows he shouldn’t have (or, indeed, what isn’t good for him) and proceeds to step close to the fire.

Rohmer avoids the temptation to present Chloé as a Jezebel. Chloé is anything but a simpering two-dimension: she’s more forthright than Frédéric’s wife, Hélène (Françoise Verley). Chloé’s a lost soul: her cigarette droops from her mouth, presenting combustible desire.

Rohmer writes clean, direct dialogue between Frédéric and Chloé. Chloé says the things Frédéric is too bourgeois to say. Until Frédéric met Chloé, his class had not given him the confidence to express himself; and now she releases him a little. Frédéric’s words and narrated thoughts toss and turn in his own imagined bed of love with Chloé. ‘I’ve never been so candid, so at ease. With most of the girls I’ve loved, I’ve played a role,’ he says.

L’Amour l’Après-Midi may well be a ‘moral tale,’ but it is more a homily to the power and celebration of free-will. Our strength to resist temptation; or, seen differently, our fear to take a risk. Rohmer lets us decide, but the director’s choice was always moral, rather than imagined fancy absent of credo.

Director: Eric Rohmer (1972)

 

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Vive Le Tour

Vive-le-TourPersistence, pain and the village parade sit solid at the heart of Louis Malle’s 1962 short documentary about the Tour de France. The cyclists pedal as fast as Malle’s camera rolls, and the result is an efficient yet poetic take on the joys and pitfalls of the cyclists and spectator’s view of the race.

We see the villagers (including an array of nuns in different habits) waiting for the cyclists to pass through a French village that looks remarkably similar, from an outsider’s view, to one that exists today. There are squinting faces, funny shaped hats and a parade featuring a huge fabricated giraffe and comic-looking ‘Butagaz’ mobiles.

The cyclists experience difficulties and face their failures. More importantly, they press-on.

Malle commits as much footage to the visual study of the villager’s responses as to the race’s competitors. It’s an egalitarian study and is indicative of a post-war French-ness, one that respects the small and meaningful in the everyday, and backboned the nouvelle vague approach to filmmaking.

Likewise, Vive Le Tour holds a perfect dramatic arc within its mere 18 minutes: set-up, character introduction, challenge, and triumph. Malle further developed this expertise in his longer, fictional films; and alongside the more ‘commercial’ Claude Chabrol was probably the most ‘conventional’ storyteller of his contemporaries.

Director: Louis Malle (1962)

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Les Témoins (The Witnesses)

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Sarah (Emmauelle Béart)

Love is a crashing symbol (and fidelity a distant drum-roll) in André Téchiné’s film about desire, control and the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in mid-eighties Paris.

Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) finds motherhood difficult: it’s hard to write with a young crying baby in the room (although easier with ear-plugs) and the father, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) is a hard-working cop. Faithfulness isn’t important to Mehdi and Sarah, just love, and in Les Témoins the two have the boundaries surrounding their mutual agreement pushed to the limit.

Love is complicated and no less so when Sarah’s doctor friend Adrien (Michel Blanc) introduces his young lover, Manu (Johan Libéreau) into their circle. They all meet by the sea, where one afternoon Mehdi rescues Manu from drowning. Mehdi finds the ‘rescue’ intensely erotic and quickly begins a love affair with Manu.

Meanwhile, Sarah continues to write despite her turbulent relationship and the demands of her (unnamed) baby. Creativity also flourishes in Julie (Julie Depardieu), Manu’s slightly nervous sister, who has just landed her first big role as an opera singer. Elsewhere, Téchiné casts a grey shadow, one that eclipses the joy. HIV is discovered world-wide and Manu is diagnosed. He is affected quickly and begins the descent. Around him, Sarah, Mehdi, Adrien and Julie, respond with fear, anger and compassion.

Téchiné asserts a visceral energy, one that is true to the passion and surprise experienced by the characters. Béart performance balances pragmatism with depression and hurt, while Mehdi’s frustration and anger reveals a humanity seldom seen in the on-screen working-cop. The trauma increases Sarah and Mehdi’s bond and takes them into a new land: one that‘s optimistic and broadened by genuine love.

Director: André Téchiné (2007)

 

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Nadja à Paris

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Eric Rohmer’s early short film is a sweet, fresh postcard from 1960s Paris, written and narrated by American/Yugoslav exchange student Nadja Tesich who is preparing a thesis on Proust. Rohmer devotes the full 12 minutes to Nadja walking the streets of Paris, observing and connecting with its characters and surrounding herself with its ambience.

Student life in the 60s ‘golden era’ is expressed as something barely recognisable in the present day. On campus, Nadja rests in innocence and gentle muse. It’s a safe haven, a place ‘where everything I need for pleasure or work are within my reach.’ Yet, Nadja knows she must extend herself: ‘the danger is that we’re so comfortable that we don’t feel like leaving.’

So she steps out, a sponge, a doe, unprotected and committed to responding to what she sees. We see her in cafés observing Parisians doing nothing (‘I have no specific purpose, I just sit’), on the left bank watching old men smoking and reading, listening in on other people’s conversations, and having chats with people much older than herself in Montparnasse bars.

Nadja is a voice of reason: her narration is delivered with rational serenity, rather like a doctor telling you your illness is nothing to worry about, that life is beautiful and you should go out onto the street, and observe and appreciate it. After the recent attacks in Paris Nadja’s comments are even more poignant for the contemporary viewer: ‘People know I’m a foreigner, but they accept me. It’s a truly open city.’ Nothing surprises here, but that’s okay, as the film is more a reassuring ‘wave,’ and it still feels ‘new.’ Nadja à Paris reinforces all that is pleasurable in the simple things: a cup of coffee, a good conversation and the characters with which we share our cities.

Paris is Nadja’s first love and her wanderings are a solid indication of Rohmer’s interests, ones to which he remained faithful as a film-maker throughout his career: his adoration of the female voice, and its freedom to explore life without judgment. Truly meandering and a reflection of mind.

Director: Eric Rohmer (1964)

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Le Souffle au Coeur (Murmur of the Heart)

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Mother Love: Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) comforted by his mother, Clara (Lea Massari)

If you’re a teenage boy in a post-war bourgeois family, struggling with a cold father, a Catholic education and two mischievous older brothers, there are three pleasures in life: a mother’s love, Jazz music, and the slow, self-conscious introduction to girls.

Le Souffle au Coeur is a semi-autobiographical comedy in which Louis Malle directs the wiry Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) as a young teenager who’s cheeky and dissatisfied with his place in the family. Laurent has enormous energy with a sulk to match. We see him running to school, late for altar-service at chapel and bounding up the stairs at home like a lolloping puppy.

The adults in Laurent’s house are comic acts whom he dodges and adores. On the ground floor, his father uses a large room as his gynecological surgery, which Laurent observes from afar with irritation and trepidation. The matronly housekeeper attempts to assert discipline (with little effect), while the mother, Clara (Italian actress Lea Massari), is beautiful and playful. She’s the kind of mother who is put on a high pedestal by her sons, whom then spend a frustrated lifetime searching for a woman who can match her radiance. Clara is ignored by her chilly husband yet receives the adoration she needs from her sons.

And, of course, Clara has a lover. One day Laurent sees his mother getting into a young man’s car, and retreats into a mood. Laurent is a true teen: his feelings are huge, but he is never taken seriously. Most memorable is the evening when his two older brothers decide it’s time Laurent lost his virginity. They take him to a brothel, set him up with a young blonde woman, and burst in during the act. And so it comes as no surprise Laurent’s youngest-brother status makes him frustrated and a little angry.

Laurent then goes on a scout-trip and develops a heart murmur, brought on, quite possibly (although never alluded to) by the trauma in the brothel. His mother takes him away to a sanitarium to recover. It’s a nice one, though. There are tennis courts, pleasant bedrooms and pretty girls to flirt with. And there’s also his mother to spy on naked in the bath. Her back is shaped like a cello and Laurent finds it fascinating; this leads the film into new territory, usually only treated by cinema with a grey, heavy hand.

Malle is directing weighty themes here, but not once does the film seem leaden. It is as light as the Jazz-soundtrack, a breezy comedy. The relationship between Laurent and his mother is directed so it is as normal as the day-to-day eating of dinner and going to sleep. Malle avoids judgement. It’s not shocking, and sits surprisingly simple in our minds. A sweet rhyme with little shadow.

Director: Louis Malle (1971)

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Madame Bovary

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MADAME BOVARY, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Francois Balmer, 1991, (c)Samuel Goldwyn

Destroyed by dreams and addicted to sensation, Emma Bovary is a heroine far more complex than a bored housewife who likes a pretty frock in Claude Chabrol’s triumphant adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel.

From the beginning Chabrol’s feathery wit and Isabelle’s warm shadows present  Emma as a woman in whom marital promises have commenced a slow death. Emma calls it ‘a fog.’ Charles (Jean-François Balmer), her husband is pitifully dull, yet adoring. His conversation, the voiceover (dry, measured) tells us, ‘is as flat a pavement.’

As Emma’s domesticity with Charles grows more intimate, the more distant she becomes. Huppert constantly casts Emma’s mischievous gaze elsewhere, beyond the boundaries of her small society. She could be anywhere: in a field beyond the garden wall, in the arms of lover, or wearing beautiful dress, dancing at a grand ball.

Emma is certainly calculating, selfish and materialistic; yet Huppert gives her more, making her curiously carefree, coquettish yet melancholy. Barely beyond the title sequence we see Emma in front of a male visitor, sticking her tongue in a crystal liqueur glass, cleaning it of its last drops of fortified wine.

A short while later, Huppert pendulums Emma’s mood towards a petulant sulk. It’s almost comic (helped by Jean-Michel Bernard and Matthieu Chabrol’s breezy score). However, we know there’s a sad stone in Emma that will never move. And so she swings between these two states, without control.

Chabrol writes Emma’s desperate state of mind as something more related to who she is, instead of the restrictive epoch into which she was born. Her mindset is her ‘code’ and there is nothing she can do about it.

We know little of Bovary’s childhood. This is a characteristic of Chabrol’s films. His characters, whether adapted from novels, or new creations, exisit always ‘in the moment.’ Chabrol’s characters react to circumstance, to what they see and what is happening around them. These moments build up, becoming more intense, and then they break into a ‘final confession.’

In Madame Bovary, Emma’s confession is narrated, confirming her inside cog  has turned her towards a place where she no longer exists. A place where Emma has chosen the ultimate sensation, from which there is no return.

Director: Claude Chabrol (1991)

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Charlotte et Son Steak

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Walter (Jean-Luc Godard) with Charlotte

The simple preparation of a steak by a woman intellectually resistant to the dry charm of an intense man (played by Jean-Luc Godard) comprises this neat 10-minute short, directed and written by Eric Rohmer at the very beginning of his film-making career.

It’s snowing and we’re in Switzerland. During the opening moment the on-screen text tells us that Walter (Godard) is introducing Clara to Charlotte in order to make her jealous. Charlotte refuses to rise (externally, at least) and the three trudge through the snow for a bit, before Clara heads off. Walter follows Charlotte back to her small apartment.

Charlotte is clearly in a mood about something, and proceeds to make a steak while Walter stands there, wanting her to kiss him. Charlotte, quite rightly, refuses. Walter is young and clumsy and he has a lot to learn. He lacks charm, commenting that ‘Clara is more beautiful than you. But I don’t like comparisons.’ Charlotte defends: ‘That doesn’t bother me at all.’

All the components of Rohmer’s fascination with the playful, indirect exchanges between men and women are carved out here: Charlotte et son Steak is a charming and succinct exposition for almost all Rohmer’s later films. In Walter is the intellectual man who loves to theorise, largely because he is unable to directly express his feelings. Versions of Walter crop time and again. They are men who stumble in their awkwardness, saying things women don’t want to hear.

And likewise, we see Rohmer’s profound interest in women and how they assert their independence. Rohmer shows how Charlotte open-plumes her opinions and strong will in a tiny domestic environment. The restless Ann (Marie Rivière) in La Femme d’Aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife) does the same in her ‘Maid’s room’ apartment, and likewise the luminous Chloé (Zouzou) in L’Amour l’Après-midi (Love in the Afternoon).

Most memorable is Walter’s line: ‘I’d like to be dead so you’d think more of me.’ Charlotte responds: ‘I’d think of you even less.’ However, at the end the two come together in an embrace. Credo was important to Rohmer, and here it is evident, within just ten minutes, that Walter and Charlotte believe in the simple connection achieved from an embrace. Faith in its power (alongside the sound of a passing train in the distance) upholds Charlotte et son Steak as Rohmer’s most conventionally ‘Romantic’ film.

 

Worth knowing: Eric Rohmer directed this in 1950/1. However, it was only widely seen ten years later, when the uncredited actress who played Charlotte was dubbed by the voice of Stéphane Audran.

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