SIMULTANEOUSLY CELEBRATED and overshadowed, My Uncle (1958) represents the peak of pantomime genius Jacques Tati’s career and yet earns a place in his sparse filmography as a transitional film. Located in between the earthy yet moribund “traditional France” satirized in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and the insulated postmodern fun house of 1967 debacle/masterpiece Playtime, the setting of My Uncle depicts the former world giving way to the latter, with outdoor markets and quaint three-story walk-ups slowly being replaced by automated houses and efficient industrial plants. The contrast is especially marked in the shorter, reedited version of the 1958 original, featuring alternate takes and English dubbing that further accentuate Tati’s signature theme of globalized uniformity.
Lanky, befuddled, and moving with a staggeringly stiff gait that can best be described as hastily hesitant, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is, of course, the bumbling refugee from a simpler era who must navigate the film’s different worlds. But whereas Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922) or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) commented on the disorienting modern industrial era by employing jolting, even violent slapstick, Tati’s stategy is relatively subdued in its amusement. Like much of the Tati universe, My Uncle centers around the sight gag more than the physical gag, and the film’s real protagonist turns out to be the antiseptic, button-operated home of Hulot’s bourgeois, socialite sister Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), with its inconvenient, surrealistically streamlined aesthetic—a garden that must be tiptoed through via haphazard paths, a fish-shaped fountain spewing too-blue water, a kitchen that looks and functions like a dentist’s office.
Comfortably situated in his dilapidated yet close-knit working-class environs, raincoat-attired, pipe-smoking Hulot causes chaos when placed in front of anything slightly modern, though just as often the supporting players find themselves flummoxed by the gadgets with which they’ve surrounded themselves. Disasters and visual puns patiently unfold in perfectly choreographed long shots that subordinate human beings to architecture, give precedence to aural rhythms (sci-fi hums, squeaks, and swooshes) over platitudinous dialogue, and allow the simultaneous occurrence of multiple planes of action (and bold, Pop art color, a first for Tati). As with Holiday and Playtime, the film reaches a high point in a posh party that disintegrates into anarchy as one accoutrement after another is destroyed or else wittily reconfigured for alternate use. Laugh-out-loud moments are rare but well earned; “aha” moments in which one recognizes the follies of technological absurdity are constant.
Though My Uncle’s pokes at the encroaching ersatz values and mindless consumerism of postwar France can be occasionally blunt (a drab, suburbanite couple offers another couple some plastic flowers as a gift), and though it views a vanishing era through a somewhat nostalgic lens (Hulot’s nephew breaks free from his mother and father’s materialistic existence to join a band of creatively mischievous kids who seem to have come from another time), Tati’s humor isn’t merely in the service of a reactionary Luddism. “You just have to get used to these things,” exclaims Arpel to her hopelessly old-fashioned maid in one of the film’s few important lines of dialogue. A decade later, Playtime would realize in the most radical, innovative terms Tati’s vision of a society completely overwhelmed by machines designed to make life easier, but in My Uncle he was already demonstrating that “getting used to” social estrangement—not to mention its accompanying bafflement—may be nearly impossible, even if the things that cause it are the stuff of comic malleability.
Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes.
RARELY IN A DOCUMENTARY does every shot matter as a bearer of emotion and information. Lixin Fan’s nonfiction debut, Last Train Home (2009), is just such an exceptional movie. The three opening images establish the conditions that shape the lives of the film’s subject, the Zhang family. First, an overhead camera pans across hundreds of people packed into a roofless railroad waiting-hall, their open umbrellas suggesting a field of pastel flowers. The image immediately brings to mind a digitally extended Andreas Gursky photo, but here, the space and all the people occupying it are actual, not virtual. In the second shot, the angle changes to show that the people in the hall are only a small fraction of the crowd that stretches for blocks outside the station, and now all of them are pressing forward, running toward the unseen trains. The third shot is simply a title card that explains what we have seen: During the New Year’s holiday, 130 million Chinese migrant workers pack the trains that take them from the cities to their home villages. It is the world’s largest human migration and, as we soon learn, the only time they get to see the children and parents they’ve left behind.
Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin left their Sichuan village to work in the sweatshops of Guangzhou when their daughter Zhang Qin was only a year old. Later they had a son who was also left with his grandparents on their tiny farm. At the time Lixin began his documentary, the father and mother had been working in Guangzhou for roughly seventeen years; their pay is about five dollars for a twelve-to-fourteen-hour day. They work six days a week and live in a dormitory cubicle near the factory. They try to save everything they earn to pay for the exorbitantly priced New Year’s holiday railroad tickets and to support the family back home. Their only goal is for their children to get a good education so that they can have better lives than their own. Unfortunately, the children are not cooperating.
Lixin filmed the Zhang family over a period of three years. The beginning, middle, and end of the film are punctuated by the spectacle of the migration—the camera jostling through the crowds in the station, boarding and riding the packed trains along with the Zhangs. (If any of the passengers questioned what the cameraman was doing taking up valuable space, there is no evidence of that on the screen.) Aside from these scenes, the documentary is stunningly intimate. Lixin’s technique is observational but not fly-on-the-wall. As the Zhangs go about their lives they are also engaged in an ongoing conversation with the filmmaker, confiding in him their thoughts and feelings. Lixin avoids any semblance of talking heads, keeping his camera to one side, framing his subjects close but mostly in profile. Thus it is all the more shocking when Qin, who is in the middle of a full-fledged adolescent rebellion, comes to blows with her father and then confronts the cameraman head-on, goading him to film her as, she shouts, she “really” is. Qin’s story is so typical it could seem like a dramatic cliché—she defies her parents, leaves school, and goes to work in the city, first in a sweatshop, then as a waitress in a topless bar where the female workers begin each shift chanting in unison, “The customer is always right. The boss is always right.” But the truth of her anguish and anger is heart wrenching and undeniable, as is the more restrained emotional expression of her parents and grandmother.
Elegantly edited and impeccably shot, Last Train Home builds a visual dynamic through the contrast between the gray, smog-ridden city and the gloriously beautiful countryside. One’s first reaction to seeing the Zhang children and their grandmother at home and in the fields of their tiny farm is to wonder why anyone would give up this natural paradise for the crowded, filthy city. But it soon becomes apparent that producing enough food for their own survival—a tiny harvest of bitter melons and rice—is as backbreaking as working the factories, and much lonelier. There is not even the illusion of a better future in rural China.
Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes. Zhang Qin and Zhang Yang.
Eschewing voice-over and using only minimal intertitles, Lixin manages to include some crucial information about the larger economic picture. We learn, for example, that the grandmother became a farmworker during the Mao regime—when, she says, life was even harder. Her dream of living in the city ended even before the transition to capitalism. When the father gets sick and misses a day of work, we glean from his conversation that the migrant factory workers have no health benefits, unemployment insurance, or pensions. By the end of the film, both the father and mother are forced to acknowledge that when they are no longer strong enough to work, they will end up, impoverished, in their village, their only hope being that the children will take their turn contributing to their parents’ support. From what we’ve seen of Qin, last glimpsed on a dark street wearing heels and hot pants, that’s nothing they can count on. Indeed, Qin’s feeling that she was abandoned by her parents—who, she says, care about nothing except making money—and her understanding that part of their desire for her to have a better life is so that she can support them in their old age have already, perhaps irrevocably, damaged family ties and traditions.
But curiously, the film omits two crucial pieces of information that would allow us to fully understand the dilemma in which the 130 million migrant workers are trapped. Perhaps Lixin was forced into a game with the Chinese censors, or perhaps these underlying conditions are so obvious to the Chinese that he could not believe they would not be common knowledge elsewhere. In any case, it was only by reading interviews with the filmmaker that I learned that in its rush to a capitalist, industrialized economy, China withdrew support from agricultural production, thus forcing workers to flee the impoverished countryside to find work in the cities if they were to survive. Even more important to understanding the double bind in which the Zhangs are trapped is that the children of migrant workers are not allowed to go to school in the cities where their parents labor. To obtain any kind of education they must remain in the villages where they are registered at birth. Thus, the cost of becoming an industrialized giant is not only on individual workers but also on the institution of the family.
Omissions aside, this is a memorable movie, easily on the level of recent documentaries by Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker to whom Lixin is obviously indebted. Last Train Home is wonderfully crafted and has moments of lyric beauty but refuses the veneer of glamour that characterizes much of the cultural production of the new China. The world of the Zhang family is invisible to those who trade in Chinese art and fly in and out of art and information-technology fairs in Beijing and Shanghai. But next time you and I pull on our jeans from Barneys or Target, we should probably ponder who broke their backs to cover our asses.
Last Train Home opens Friday, September 3 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: Production shot from The March of Time (1935–51). Right: Still from The March of Time (1935–51). J. Edgar Hoover.
LONG AFTER ITS 1935–51 theatrical life, The March of Time short-subject series remained the parodic model for naive Chamber of Commerce–style ballyhoo. (One Simpsons take ended with a cart-tugging dachshund “pulling for Springfield.”) But on its seventy-fifth anniversary, these ephemera remain compulsively watchable beyond camp anachronism—appealingly eager to please, they stop at little to pack curiosities, celebrities (historical and Hollywood), intrigue, trend proclaiming, and pontification into each monthly dispatch. The loosely grouped selections screening at the Museum of Modern Art (joined by a marathon on Turner Classic Movies) show that this “new kind of pictorial journalism” reflected a version of the world back to America with a facility and a plenitude that anticipated television, ranging across Leadbelly, Palestine, bootleg coal, auto safety, World War II crises, “arson squads in action,” beauty regimes, strikebreaking, and, of course, “dogs for sale.”
The Lumières’ actualités and both studio and collective newsreels preceded The March of Time, which has been aptly characterized as the “magazine” to its “newspaper” precursors. Launched by Henry Luce’s Time magazine and the brainchild of future Life publisher Roy Larsen, it existed first as a radio show, colorfully (even raucously) reenacting news of the day with actors’ voices. Later, as with documentaries of the period, voices ruddered Louis de Rochemont’s film version, guiding us through the antifascist exposés of “Inside Nazi Germany” or providing a teen’s inside-scoop commentary on “Teen-Age Girls.” Unlike mere compilations of footage, the productions involved research, reenactments, and music, becoming so elaborate that even with hundreds of theaters participating, March of Time lost money and almost shut down.
The March of Time template persists today in invent-an-arc documentaries and TV news. (The 1950 reel “Mid-Century: Halfway to Where” becomes a nearly ludicrous exercise in all-nighter-term-paper transition as it leaps from spectator sports to music to psychiatry to total war within minutes.) And while the series was progressive in some regards, it’s hard to forget Robert Coover’s jibe in The Public Burning (1977) at its parent magazine’s role as ridiculous national historian. But a lot can be forgiven by the sight of Marlene Dietrich, in “Show Business at War,” taken for a twirl by a star-struck soldier during a Hollywood visit for the boys. As each episode declared, admirably incontrovertible: “Time... marches on!”
“The March of Time, Seventy-fifth Anniversary” runs September 1–10 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.
Josef von Sternberg, The Docks of New York, 1928, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Left: A Girl (Betty Compson). Right: A Girl and The Stoker (Betty Compson and George Bancroft).
AM I LIVING in a dream world if I say that the shadows and fog and gazing faces of The Docks of New York feel realer, more fully realized, more urgently alive with thought and feeling, than most movies aspiring to realism? Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 silent has usually been described as the first full unfurling of his sensuously lit fatalism, the consummate style that leads otherwise rational people to parrot Sternberg’s pronouncements that he was Miss Marlene Dietrich. But it’s rare to find portrayals, in or out of silents, as immediate and finely rendered as the frank desire and force of will embodied by stoker Bill (ex-sailor George Bancroft) or the hard-bitten weariness of waifish barroom beauty Mae (Betty Compson), whom he marries on a one-night shore leave that Sternberg turns into a lifetime.
Docks of New York—set mostly in a bar and flophouse, replete with textured surfaces (cracked walls, strung netting, arcing captain’s wheel)—is in fact a period piece that looks back to an earlier age of the city’s waterfront and dock-wallopers. The Last Command (1928), too, lives mostly in the past—dominated by an hour-long flashback to Imperial Russia that’s twice the length of the story’s crass Hollywood present. The two films are grouped with Sternberg’s mercurial gangster pathbreaker Underworld (1927) in a new suite of restored silents from the Criterion Collection (whose DVD interviews and video essays demonstrate, among other things, the need for a release of his poetic, proto-neorealist 1925 debut feature, The Salvation Hunters). Sternberg was a model of absolute technical mastery—before directing, he supervised an entire film lab. Repeated migratory flights between Old World and New were undergirded by unstinting determination, readable in the American screen dreams and demimondes he wrought with a European sense of exquisite tragic decay, between Frank Borzage and Nicholas Ray.
Before Dietrich’s heavy lids there was Evelyn Brent’s “glum” and “sinister” look, as one early account had it. She’s outfitted in feathers (all over) as mop-haired Bull Weed’s moll in Underworld, drawn too by the street-professor (Clive Brook) her gangsta fella takes under his massive wing. In The Last Command, she’s a revolutionary in furs, in low-cut white, visiting-the-general gown, in slick black flip-collar radical chic (the kind that, briefly, in the future, would connote the future). “Instead of flat lighting, shadows,” explained Sternberg. “In the place of pasty masks, faces in relief.” Was it really this simple: the dazzling-shabby tiger-print blouse of Mae’s self-sacrificing friend in Docks, set off against Bill’s shiny black raincoat that’s so excitingly streaked with light, as if it’s actually visibly landing on him as he swats down a pushy bartender? And throughout and about the docks, seemingly all the steam ever exhaled by all the tugboats and trains in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921).
Underworld ends with something close to wartime bombardment—Bull versus the world, holed up in his hideout—and The Last Command too explodes with tumult: in the flashback, the psychotic czar-ejecting rabble, and at either end, the brash hustle of a Hollywood studio. Bridging the two is Emil Jannings, as the imperial general turned limelight extra with the role of a lifetime: himself. (The intertitle tends to get laughs: “And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried still another extra to Hollywood.”) Under the studio cameras, he is triggered by a czarist anthem and a wind machine: He rages forth with the full force of Mother Russia, and collapses—one more perfect moment of performance captured before dying. Pull back camera; roll end logo.
Love desires nothing but itself.
—Lycidas, in Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon
(The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007)
IN HIS LATTER YEARS, the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer—who died on January 11, at the age of eighty-nine—took on the terse, attenuated air of a Jansenist abbot. Lean, austere, his eyes a cool, penetrating blue, Rohmer embodied the rationalism and restraint for which his cinematic style had become famous. The elder statesman of the Nouvelle Vague, born a decade before Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer also served as the New Wave’s sage, resisting aesthetic and political fashion to maintain his chastely ironic vision of amorous folly. Whether Rohmer’s fidelité to a modest theme and manner, stated early and slightly refined throughout a half-century-long career that seemed oblivious to worldly tumult, was resolute or reactionary, the art of a miniaturist master or of a trivial philosophe cautiously tending his square centimeter of bourgeois insight, depended on whether one felt, as Rohmer once claimed, that the artist’s role was to organize pleasure. From the hot August streets of his first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), to the radiant arcadia of fifth-century Gaul in his last, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s sun-flooded settings signaled his congenial approach, which was often mistaken for inconsequence. Paradoxically, the very constriction of the director’s regard, the intent limitation of his style and purview, resulted in plenitude, a gracious bounty of social perception and, indeed, of highly organized pleasure.
Less aggressive, confessional, and iconoclastic than his New Wave confreres, Rohmer did, however, share their voracious cinephilia. He made his mark first as a superb critic and later (from 1957 to 1963) as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, championing such directors as Murnau, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Preminger. (One wonders whether the bare-breasted, swinging Swede in Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert [Summer, 1986] is an homage to her amoral, sunburned antecedent in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse .) Having come late to films—“Until I was sixteen I hadn’t seen a thing,” he confessed—Rohmer absorbed and exhibited his influences in a manner subtler than did Godard, Truffaut, or Rivette. Rohmer’s Sign of Leo and Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), both first features and both tales of accelerating misfortune centered on an American exile in Paris and set in a series of bohemian garrets, differ greatly in tone. Rohmer and Rivette were each influenced by Fritz Lang, but Rohmer’s Seine-side comedy of unexpected inheritance owes far more to Renoir, especially Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), while Rivette’s self-regarding yarn of intensifying paranoia showboats its determinants in Langian compositions of stairwells and rooftops and in a clip of the Tower of Babel sequence from Metropolis (1927).
Like lovesick Puritans, the Nouvelle Vague directors praised their Hollywood gods in Cahiers but maintained an antagonistic, admonitory relationship with American cinema, hewing more to the ascetic lessons of Cahiers founder André Bazin and of Roberto Rossellini, to the “moral attitude,” as the latter called it, of Neorealism. Rohmer imbibed those lessons both as a spiritual guide—he shared his teachers’ Catholic beliefs—and as aesthetic instruction. However stylized or artificial his cinema would occasionally become, particularly in his historical films and literary adaptations (e.g., Die Marquise von O . . . , Perceval le Gallois , L’Anglaise et le duc [The Lady and the Duke, 2001], and Astrea and Celadon), Rohmer maintained an almost religious adherence to realism, to a simple, unmannered rendering of the world whose clarity, plain arrangement, and quiet precision bespoke the rationality of his thought. (He shared with Robert Bresson not only an intense privateness and Catholic, conservative bent but also a formal propensity for the 50-mm focal length, “which [most] closely resembles human vision,” according to Rohmer’s longtime cinematographer, Néstor Almendros.) This lucid and unobtrusive realism employed natural light and the long takes idealized by Bazin, rarely ruptured by shot-countershot or analytic cutting, depending instead on slow, discreet zooms that pinion Rohmer’s characters within the frame, where they are prodded to disclose their inner beings, which they falteringly, sometimes fatuously do, often unable to discern their true selves in the verbiage they expend on the task.
The charm and horror of Rohmer’s films derive from closely observing that “task,” akin to Jesuitical self-scrutiny but given a solipsistic gloss. Transforming erotic possibility into moral quandary, Rohmer set out, in a semisystematic series of thematic cycles, including “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Four Seasons,” a modern version of the quest narrative. (Despite his frequent reliance on antique or archaic forms—Marivauxian badinage, the Neoclassicism of Poussin, fêtes champêtres and French farce, Racinian drama and German Romanticism, eighteenth-century engravings—Rohmer’s films feel miraculously fresh, contemporary, lightly sprung.) His characters search for happiness, truth, self-knowledge, but mostly they seek love, and for all the cool classicism of Rohmer’s mise-en-scène, they frequently desire an all-consuming, engulfing love, or one that “burns,” as Marion muses in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983). In the process, they fall prey to self-deception and disappointment. Unlike Jacques Demy’s ill-fated lovers, who smilingly settle for second best, Rohmer’s create their own unhappiness, following infatuations into folly until the surety of their world seems threatened, at which point they take refuge in what appears to be rectitude but is really self-preservation. Rohmer’s first and most famous cycle, the “Six Moral Tales,” established a narrative template—a formal manifestation of Jansenist predetermination?—in which a man who is betrothed, married, or otherwise committed finds himself tempted by another woman, usually more alluring or dangerous (and darker) than the first. After arduous equivocation, at the brink of misdemeanor, he scurries for safety to the stability of his first relationship. In the inaugural work of the series, La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963), a twenty-three-minute film shot in 16 mm in the streets of Paris—that is, pure Nouvelle Vague—a young law student has mentally devoted himself to the blond and artistic Sylvie but falls for Jacqueline, the shopgirl of the title, who is dark, fleshy, and sensual in contrast to the fair one’s ethereal delicacy. The cruelty with which he courts then unceremoniously dumps Jacqueline would become ritualized in later Rohmer, all the more vicious in its rigorous application.
Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) feels in its grace and maturity worlds away from Boulangère, much as it repeats that film’s motifs of dark and light, the unnamed hero also fastening on a barely glimpsed blond angel to be his wife before being tempted by a sexy brunette. Maud departs from most Rohmer films in its black-and-white cinematography and wintry, nocturnal setting; mountains are close, the sea distant—water is a central motif of Rohmer’s cinema—and night outlasts day. (Rohmer’s world is mostly effulgent. Though he called a film Les Nuits de la pleine lune [Full Moon in Paris, 1984], night portends less magic and infatuation in his cinema than confusion, disorder: “We need daylight to pick our way out of here,” sighs the exasperated guide of a band of pilgrims lost in the dark near the end of Astrea and Celadon.) That the director waited a year to shoot at the exact time indicated by Maud’s script (Christmas) and to be able to use his actor of choice (Jean-Louis Trintignant) signals the precision of his method, the fiercely won nature of his realism; Rohmer would similarly wait many months to capture the elusive solar ray for the final, transcendent moment of Summer. The leftist professor in My Night at Maud’s—gently mocked at the time Godard was heading into his Dziga Vertov period, Cahiers du Cinéma into Althusserian analysis—was played by an actual Marxist, Antoine Vitez, a theater director who collaborated with Rohmer on his “speech.” And speech, while not everything in Rohmer’s cinema, is its defining feature.
“A wagging tongue bites itself.” The Chrétien de Troyes apothegm that introduces Pauline at the Beach wittily suggests the logorrhea of Rohmer’s characters—their wagging tongues never tire—and their infinite capacity for linguistic snares. Captives in the realm of the senses, they attempt to reason their way out of it. In Rohmer, talk is a tonic and a turn-on, deferring desire while stoking it to distraction, as in My Night at Maud’s, where an early dialogue between the engineer (Trintignant) and the professor about the former’s Catholic faith and diffidence about Pascal’s wager serves as philosophical foreplay for the nightlong discussion between the engineer and the seductive divorcée Maud, a nonpracticing Protestant. She uses words to entice him, while he employs them for prevarication and postponement, as if caught in a horror film or an Arabian Nights tale where everything will be OK if only he can make it until daylight. In Rohmer, sex is more in the chat than in the sack, intercourse yielding to discourse, philosophical thrust and parry replacing the carnal kind, the tension between Maud’s determination and his wavering resistance—should he be good, just in case (Pascal)?—generating considerable suspense, as do the central dilemmas in Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and L’Amour l’après-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon, 1972): Will Jérôme get to touch Claire’s knee? Will Frédéric give in to Chloé’s flirtation? Rohmer coauthored a book on Hitchcock, after all, and shared his theme of dangerous misrecognition.
The protagonist of Claire’s Knee is as resolute about temptation as Trintignant’s engineer is: “I don’t look at the ladies anymore,” Jérôme proclaims. “I’m getting married.” His scruples founder on fixation. After glimpsing the knee of a teenage girl, in a shot that portends Nabokovian obsession, the smug, self-deluded man conspires with an old friend, the novelist Aurora, so that he can touch the tantalizing joint before safely decamping to Sweden and imminent matrimony. Aurora, played by an author of the same name, indicates Rohmer’s literary roots—the “Moral Tales” first existed as short stories—and as she explores the possible outcomes of Jérôme’s dilemma, the film occasionally veers toward metanarrative. Rohmer’s epigrammatic dialogue has frequently been compared to that of such writers as Marivaux, Musset, and Proust, but it is Laclos who comes to mind in Claire’s Knee, as the corrupt elders manipulate the emotions (and bodies) of the young and unformed for their own pleasure and delectation, heedless of the damage done. “There are no innocents today,” Aurora blithely declares, so Jérôme, whose vocation, terrifyingly enough, is as an international diplomat, can feel guiltless about fondling his prize, won by means of surveillance, deceit, and affective devastation. What he characterizes as an act of will and consolation is, in fact, a deed of violation.
“What I call a conte moral is not a tale with a moral,” Rohmer cautioned, “but a story that deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it. A cinema of thoughts rather than actions.” To that Bressonian end—giving cinema an interior movement—Rohmer’s visual style, which many commentators treat as transparent well nigh to invisibility, relies on artless means and immense suggestiveness. The bracing plein air plan of Claire, for example, employs circumspect pans and mid-distance shots to establish a pristine landscape of lake, mountain, and trees, a bucolic backdrop for the courtly stratagems of the Laclosian older couple. The compositions, often in flat, Cézannesque planes, and in face-to-face rather than traditional over-the-shoulder shots, appear inconspicuous but divulge a great deal. With his simple semiotics, Rohmer emphasizes the vulnerable exposure of the youths in their bronze deshabillé—nascent star Fabrice Luchini turns up as a blond and boneless teenager—and the conniving natures of Aurora and Jérôme in literal cover-up, she in a succession of patterned dresses, shawls, and unseasonal long, dark coat, he in full beard, sweater, and straw hat, their physical insulation implying moral imperviousness.
“The color picture is ugly, I agree,” Rohmer wrote in an early essay, a comment as ironic as this most loquacious of directors’ persistent yearning for the silent era. (He considered Murnau the greatest director in the history of cinema.) For few directors equaled Rohmer’s expressive use of color, with Mondrian-style primaries deployed to hint at complexities of character. The color-coding of Claire’s Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon associates assertive women with red—the brash and mannish Chloé bursts into Frédéric’s life in scarlet sweater and coat—complacent, self-justifying men with conservative blue. (Frédéric’s navy turtleneck serves as both armor and talisman against Chloé’s seductive wiles.) Told that green is her lucky color, the dithery Delphine of Summer wears anything but—the closest she comes is a tealy beret—a subtle signifier of her determination to refuse good fortune. Intractable in her unhappiness, Delphine incarnates the director’s ars poetica, stated by Aurora in Claire’s Knee: “Insignificant characters can inspire good stories.” Rohmer, not only the great paysagiste of the New Wave but also its most incisive social portraitist, often fastened on “insignificant” characters, variously misconstrued by critics as idle, rich, or disengaged. Shopgirls, secretaries, artists, and students figure more frequently than roués in Rohmer’s world, and though often en vacances, they are hardly idle. Or rich: The grandfather in Summer never saw the sea until he was sixty because he was a hardworking cab driver.
The phrase toute seule—“all alone”—echoes throughout Summer, as Delphine, desperately searching for a companion to share her summer vacation, shuttles weepily between Paris and Cherbourg, its Demy-haunted harbor now inhabited by oil rigs and ghastly marinas; a mountain resort she immediately abandons; a crowded beach at Biarritz. Rohmer’s authorial omniscience, at once aloof and empathic, captures with stinging acuity the anguish of the unattached in a culture centered on le couple. Largely improvised and shot in grainy 16 mm, Summer features a classic Rohmer type: a bit of a pill, thin with a frizzy nimbus of hair, oblivious and self-defeating in her pursuit of love and awareness. When Delphine attempts to explain her vegetarianism at an alfresco table piled with roast pork—“I like to aerate myself,” she exclaims to her balking hosts—Rohmer’s intent camera yields her no leeway as she expounds on her kinship with lettuce. The tone could be merciless, but under Rohmer’s ironic, affectionate gaze, Delphine achieves a kind of neurotic splendor.
The radical rationalist of the Nouvelle Vague, Rohmer was always identified with the Age of Reason, but Summer, with its host of omens and superstitions and the numinous phenomenon that gives the film its name (translated literally, it would be The Green Ray), looks back to the gothic séance with the spirit of Don Juan in La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963) and reminds one that the subject of Rohmer’s dissertation was Murnau’s phantasmal Faust (1926). Rohmer’s supposedly apolitical nature also proved suspect. The left-baiting of L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque, 1993) and The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s revanchiste account of the French Revolution, which treats slavering Jacobins and lumpen revolutionaries with less delicacy than Christ’s tormentors in Bosch, made explicit the director’s profoundly conservative vision, as suspicious of the vagrant and changeable as was his beloved Hitchcock. The itinerant Chloé, who bounces from Spain to the United States to Paris, from job to job, man to man, apartment to apartment; the nomadic, deracinated ethnologist Henri in Pauline at the Beach, who wants life light and instantly “movable”; the youth-seducing Romanian novelist Aurora, with her heavy accent, hooded looks, and manipulative ways—all reflect Rohmer’s mistrust of unfettered freedom, which he equates with instability. In the emotional codas of Chloe in the Afternoon and My Night at Maud’s, the ceaselessly smiling wife of the former succumbs to tears, secretly grateful for her errant husband’s capitulation to security, while the dismayed épouse of the latter registers her man’s lingering regret about Maud after a chance encounter with her while on vacation. Maud has remarried, but she acknowledges that it won’t last long because of her unmoored nature, while the engineer and his wife head into the Rohmerian sea holding onto their child, an image of familial coherence and constancy. In both cases, the rootless seducers (Maud, Chloé), associated with night or drift, are left abandoned. For the uncommitted, love might desire nothing but itself, and thus end in desolation.
A version of this essay appeared in the March 2010 issue of Artforum. A retrospective of the films of Eric Rohmer runs August 18–September 3, 2010 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more details, click here.
Yael Hersonski, A Film Unfinished, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 89 minutes.
IN MAY 1942, a Third Reich film crew arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Nazis’ heavily guarded urban enclosures designed for the separation, containment, and inhuman deprivation of Jews before their ultimate transfer to extermination camps. It was there that this unit shot an unfinished propaganda film titled Ghetto, footage of which was first discovered in 1954 in an East German film vault. To this day, despite the Third Reich’s meticulous record keeping, little is known about the production.
Israeli director Yael Hersonski has now made this document the center of A Film Unfinished, a profound and disturbing investigation into the uses of cinema. Here the original footage is interwoven with transcripts from the official questioning of cameraman Willy Wist, the only Third Reich crew member ever identified from the production; entries about the filming from the diaries of Ghetto inhabitants, including Jewish Council director Adam Czerniaków; alternate takes and outtakes of the “final” product found separately in 1998; and reactions to the film from Ghetto and Holocaust survivors. “In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims?” Hersonski writes in a statement. “And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?” Ghetto is filled with images of the Nazis twisting the extreme plight of oppressed Jews toward perverse anthropological and racist ends: as documents of customs and religious practices of a soon-to-be-destroyed race (in the case of scenes featuring circumcisions and ritual bathing) and as proof of the Jews’ inherent barbarity (via scenes focusing on the few people able to live in some measure of comfort even as their fellow citizens were starving in the streets).
As proven by Wist’s admissions, Czerniaków’s diary entries, and the alternate takes, sequences were carefully fabricated by the film crew (some of whom were accidentally captured in the frame), who, with the aid of SS troops, forced Jews into demeaning performances at gunpoint. The Nazis also ended up documenting the atrocious results of the very conditions they created: emaciated citizens living in abject squalor, corpses lying in the middle of crowded markets, the dead unceremoniously shoveled into mass graves. Hersonski has stated that the anguished gaze of the Jews caught on camera attests to their resistance against oppressors who tried to strip them of dignity, even on celluloid. But the most moving moments of A Film Unfinished attest to the perseverance of that dignity after living through the evil so callously delivered by the Nazis. While watching the unbearable images from Ghetto, one elderly survivor admits to a time during which she was so traumatized by what happened she couldn’t even cry. “Today I am human,” she whispers. “Today I can cry.”
A Film Unfinished plays August 18–31 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.