A conversation with Marie Rivière … Eric Rohmer’s intelligent adoration of women

Marie Rivière, Paris (2015)

Marie Rivière, Paris (2015)

Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert (‘The Green Ray’) and La Femme De L’Aviateur (‘The Aviator’s Wife’) are part of my summer blood. I watch them every August and in my mind they are like old friends, associated with clear night skies, Atlantic-ocean waves, and a mind free to enjoy the meandering thoughts of Anne and Delphine, played by Marie Rivière.

Anne and Delphine are as relevant to who we are now, as men and women, as they were to female modernity at the time. In La Femme De L’Aviateur (1981) Anne has been dumped by her married lover, and lives alone, and in Le Rayon Vert (1986), Delphine, also alone and restless, goes on vacation, believing in love and hoping to find a ‘genuine connection’ with someone.

Marie’s portrayal of Anne and Delphine show Rohmer’s intelligent adoration of women: it is difficult to find another male director who is as interested in their intellect,and their struggle with solitude and relationships.

Delphine (Marie Rivière) in Le Rayon Vert

Delphine (Marie Rivière) in Le Rayon Vert

Female motivation frequently forms the narrative backbone in many of Rohmer’s films and Le Rayon Vert is its most magical example. Born from Rohmer’s friendship with Marie, it is unscripted, an almost entirely improvised film. Delphine was created by Marie, in collaboration with Rohmer, for which he gave her a full writing credit. Marie leads the dialogue, often alongside non-professional actors; and the film, whilst concerning a delightfully stubborn and sensitive woman on holiday, is also, at heart, about her courage to have faith, to believe in ‘something’ outside our material world.

I first met Marie in London, two days after the Charlie Hebdo killings. It was her first visit in London for some time and we spoke a little about the events in Paris, ‘Je suis Charlie’ and my enthusiasm for Rohmer’s work, and in particular his portrayal of women. A couple of months later we met again in Paris, in a café located close to Place d’Italie. Softly spoken, gracious and with a gentle sense of humour, Marie talked with a winning honesty similar to the characters she plays in Rohmer’s films. During our conversation, it was easy to see why the auteur found her such an inspiring artistic collaborator and a good friend.

Marie first met Rohmer after seeing the film ‘Love in the Afternoon,’ part of Rohmer’s Moral Tales series which inspired her to make an important moral decision regarding a boyfriend she had at the time. Marie wrote Rohmer a letter. Shortly afterwards he invited her to come and meet him …

HVK: What happened during your first meeting with Eric Rohmer?

MR: I met Eric at his office in the Trocadéro. I was very impressed by him. He had just ended Le Marquise of O and was preparing Perceval le Galois. He was very impressive because he was a tall, serious director, and I was very shy. The first meeting did not last long. I was so shy that I left very quickly, saying: “Sorry, I have to go.”

I was intimidated because he was older than me. He said: “Marie, when you want to be an actress, it is necessary to stay just a little longer, to speak with people.” So when I left, I thought that I would never see him again. I thought he was annoyed, and found me stupid. But then he called me several months later and gave me a small role, some lines in in Perceval le Gallois. It was there that I met Fabrice Luchini and Arielle Dombasle who are, for me, the epicenter of my memory with Eric.

HVK: What was it about Rohmer that elicited such memorable and beautifully observed female characters throughout his career?

MR: Rohmer’s women are a great thing, because in film we never have feminine characters who show their souls. It is very rare. They always have a function: to be with a man, the girlfriend, the mother, or the daughter of someone. Eric gave the principal roles to women who are not always in connection with men.

But why? Maybe Eric felt more at ease with women. Maybe he was showing his feminine side. It was always related to him: the solitude, the ideal and the thoughts. The way he felt his perception of the world, he certainly thought that it was better transported, conveyed, through the expression of a woman. Maybe it was because he had more tenderness for women, than for men. Which I understand … (Laughs)

“The way he (Eric) felt his perception of the world, he certainly thought that it was better transported, conveyed, through the expression of a woman.”

HVK: How were you offered the role of Anne?

MR: I already knew Eric. He often wrote roles for his actors. When he stopped making Perceval and started the series Comedies and Proverbs, he thought of me because he imagined me in the role. At that time I lived in a maid’s room, which looked like the one in the film.

I think it reminded Eric of his youth. He also used to live in old maids’ rooms, which are similar to the one in La Femme De L’Aviateur. La Femme De L’Aviateur came first from Eric’s personal history, but was also inspired by me and the situation I was in at the time.

HVK: How did Rohmer direct you in La Femme De L’Aviateur? I imagine it was a very different experience to Le Rayon Vert, which is almost all improvised.

MR: Yes it was very different. In La Femme De L’Aviateur, there was Eric’s script which was quite difficult to say. Although, in fact, it was very simple. But there is ‘music’ in the script, which was difficult for me to express. It was hard for me at first although my male partners, like Philippe Marlaud, who plays François, portrayed it very well. But in the end, we hear the nice music very well.

In Le Rayon Vert there was no script. They are my own words. Eric didn’t really direct the actors. While in La Femme De L’Aviateur there was specific direction, because my studio room was very small, and so there were very precise instructions on how to move. One of the instructions was that I should not be static, but move my body to accompany the text I was saying. It was very important for Eric. Whether it was in the coffee shop, the office or in the studio room. I learned a lot personally.

HVK: I love Anne’s studio apartment: the wallpaper, the wardrobe behind a curtain, the little kitchen on a shelf, the drawings on the wall, the goldfish and the ornaments. It is small, private and simple, a liberation for women at the time. How much were you involved in deciding what the apartment would look like?

La Femme d’Aviateur: Anne (Marie Rivière) and François (Philippe Marlaud). “They are people who have no money, who live scantily while having a plentiful spiritual and intellectual life.”

MR: Eric spent a lot of time in his youth in these kind of rooms. We find them in ‘Love in the Afternoon’ and ‘Charlotte and her steak.’ They are people who have no money, who live scantily while having a plentiful spiritual and intellectual life. The wallpaper came from the room of someone who worked on the film. It was his room. He was not very rich.

The kitchen area is a common Eric set. In ‘Love in the Afternoon,’ we find the same kitchen area. Those things do not exist anymore but they existed in that period. The small objects belonged to me. We took them from my small room, which was on boulevard St Germain, and Eric put them in the Anne’s room which was in the 16th.

My personal touches are the children’s drawings that I had when I was a teacher at the nursery school in St Germain des Prés. I’d kept those paintings and had put them in my home.

We shot the film in the years of the Women’s Liberation, the period when women claimed the right to live by themselves and not be married. At that time, a woman saying “I do not want to get married,” had significance. But it was even more surprising, more original, during the period of Eric’s youth, years before. But as Eric always placed himself in the context of his youth, a woman not wanting to get married was very original for him.

 “Eric always placed himself in the context of his youth.”

HVK: There are close to 4 or 5 years between La Femme De L’Aviateur and Le Rayon Vert. How did your professional relationship with Rohmer evolve during this time?

MR: We kept seeing each other and we became really good friends. His visits were frequent, sometimes several times a month, although irregular. Either he came to my home, or I went to his office in Alma Marceau. Our friendship gave him the idea to make another film with me where I should totally improvise the dialogue, Le Rayon Vert. It was a logical result of our friendship and connection.

HVK: I imagine Rohmer was very good at making you feel relaxed so Delphine could develop with authenticity. How did you and Rohmer work together to create the character?

MR: I felt at ease and there was a real authenticity and complicity with Eric because I had known him for several years. It wasn’t an actress’ role, which she received from the director at the last moment before the shoot. Delphine was built out of the friendship we had.

HVK: Delphine is a rather exasperating woman. Some people may find her a bit irritating! However, she has charmed both male and female audiences for close to 30 years. Why do you think this is?

MR: For me she is not annoying because it’s me! (laughs) She can be irritating but it’s deliberate, on behalf of Eric. She’s always repeating the same things, in particular the scene of the meal in Normandy: she does not like the meat, she does not like the swing and she does not like the sea. But it is a way for Eric to accumulate Delphine’s rejection by her family and Delphine’s rejection by the audience. And then, when the feeling of rejection is reached by the audience, Eric takes Delphine into the countryside where she begins to cry. The audience understands that she feels rejected and from this is born the feeling of condolence.

HVK: So maybe in Le Rayon Vert Rohmer directed the audience’s reaction more than he directed the actors.

MR: We have a mixture between the perception that people who are close to Delphine in the film and the perception of the audience. It was Eric’s recipe, to make the audience feel at the same time rejection but also condolence.

HVK: The scenes at Cherbourg, with Rosette, show a special ‘female solidarity’ – there is a strong connection between the two of you. How did you establish the rapport?

MR: It was necessary for the story. Rosette was my friend in real life. So it was easy.

“It was easy. She was my friend in real life.” Marie Rivière on the female solidarity between Delphine and Françoise, played by Rosette

HVK: The scene where you are followed by the young man in the string vest, the gold chains and the tanned muscles, always makes me laugh. Your two characters couldn’t appear more different! Was he an actor, or someone you met on the street and persuaded take part?

MR: I know. He’s gay, maybe Eric didn’t notice! He was Rosette’s friend. I don’t have anything to say, it’s very funny.

HVK: How did you meet Lena, the Swedish character? She is very natural has some clear ideas on how to meet men. She challenges Delphine in the café scene by the sea in Biarritz. Was it easy to persuade her to take part?

MR: Lena was a friend of Eric. I didn’t know her before. It was not easy to do improvisation, especially with somebody like me. She arrived at the end of the film. I had a lot of training, and I felt at ease in my improvisation. Lena shouldn’t have felt at ease, because she was new. But she was great at once.

Everyone who played in the movie was great. But for Lena, as she was an actress, it could have been a handicap. But it wasn’t. It is thanks to her that the scene at the bar exists. Lena was the opposite of me because Eric asked her to be the girl who is alone, but who likes to be alone, who does not want a husband. She is willing to meet people, she likes to go into dance halls and have fun. So she was the opposite of me.

Eric asked her to be confrontational, to challenge me, so the scene could exist. If Lena and I had agreed about men, we wouldn’t have had any cinema.

HVK: Were there some ‘real-life’ characters that you wanted to improvise with you, but they refused?

MR: Oh no, generally people like to play in films, they like the camera to be on them. And also, it was Eric Rohmer. They knew that they were going to play in a beautiful film. He wasn’t someone that they didn’t know. He had made big film before. So they were flattered to take part.

HVK: How much planning was involved in the film schedule, and how much was left to chance?

MR: There was only a script for very precise things. For example, when I met a friend in Paris, and she suggested I go to Biarritz, Eric instructed the girl to say to me: “Oh I have a studio in Biarritz, I can give you the keys.” I had to look very surprised and answer, “Oh fantastic, it’s very kind.” It was written in the script that the young woman had to tell me that. But, she said it in her own words.

“Eric instructed the girl to say to me: ‘Oh I have a studio in Biarritz, I can give you the keys.’ I had to look very surprised and answer, ‘Oh fantastic, it’s very kind.'”

Eric gave me some very precise instructions and I followed them, but using my own words. In the scene with Lena, the instruction was simply that I did not have to agree to stay at the table with the boys and Lena.

I had to run away. I would have stayed in reality, because I thought they were nice. But Eric absolutely wanted me to get up and leave. This was the only moment when he asked me to do something, mainly because he wanted it to be clear.He always wanted everything to be very understandable and clear for the audience.

If I had stayed with the boys, the audience would not have understood, and it would have been another film. It had to be clear that Delphine was waiting for the real sign that would bring her to real love. It was Delphine’s faith. It was necessary to be faithful to this faith. It was Eric’s crédo.

“It was Delphine’s faith. It was necessary to be faithful to this faith. It was Eric’s crédo.”

After we finished recording Marie asked if she could film me ‘just doing nothing.’ She said that she likes to film people being ‘ordinary.’ “Imagine I’m not here” she said, gently. And I did just that, and it came naturally, as I checked the messages on my phone, sipped some tea and   opened a paper map. And then Marie asked me:  “Speak to me as though you don’t know me.” And so I did just that too, and oddly didn’t feel remotely embarrassed. These were just a few moments, but during this time, I understood, in a small way, what it must have been like to work with Rohmer. A series of relaxed, ordinary moments, relevant, yet outside of time.me and marie

With many thanks to Fanny Mazoyer (Paris-based Director of Photography and graduate of the Louis Lumière. www.fannymazoyer.com) for translating my conversation with Marie, and also Isabelle Lecat, here in London, for additional help.

For further reading about Eric Rohmer 52frenchfilms recommends: Geoff Andrew on Rohmer by Simon Hitchman Holiday Blues and the improvised magic of The Green Ray by Geoff Andrew Eric Rohmer for Beginners by David Parkinson

La Femme De L’Aviateur is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

Le Rayon Vert is available to buy at the BFI online shop