Sunday, August 09, 2009

Face & Form in Rohmer: From Ma nuit chez Maud’s Talking Cinema to the Denial of Eloquence in Le Rayon vert

“What I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either, with all
due respect to the partisans of pure cinema, who would speak with images as a
deaf-mute does with his hands. After all, I do not say, I show. I show people
who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject.”
-Éric Rohmer, “Letter to a Critic”[1]


Introduction


In defending himself against the charge that his films are “literary,” Éric Rohmer admits that the verbal discourse of his work could be expressed just as well in the novel, though he hastens to add that his characters’ words do not correspond “necessarily” with his own.[2] Rohmer proceeds, arguing that neither the “text” of his films’ commentaries nor that of their dialogues appears in his work, but rather that “they are things that I film just like landscapes, faces, behavior, and gestures.”[3] Rohmer continues, proposing that if his accuser says “speech is an impure element,” he can “no longer agree,” stipulating that “like images,” speech “is a part of the life that I film.”[4] Once again, this is his ‘true subject’ – that is, to ‘show people who move and speak.’ Indeed, speech is action for Rohmer; it is quite simply what his characters do. That the precise content of his characters’ dialogues could be conveyed as easily through the voice of a novel’s interior narrator does not negate their suitability for cinema, which is to say that speaking does not indicate a transgression of filmic ontology for Rohmer. On the contrary, speech belongs to the cinema inasmuch as it possesses a spatial dimension – that is, as it involves an embodied speaker who enunciates in a particular place and time – assuming of course Rohmer’s classification of cinema as a “spatial art.”[5]

Then again, as C. G. Crisp notes, it is not simply that Rohmer understands cinema as fundamentally spatial, but that it is “the exploration of existing spatial relationships” that matters most to the director.[6] Consequently, Rohmer’s pursuit of a “talking cinema” follows this realist prototype, maintaining the spatial and temporal specificity that marks his cinema.[7] It is not only that his characters talk, but that they converse within very specific spatial and temporal coordinates. To a one, Rohmer’s films announce the place and date of their actualization, thus registering their author’s interest in documentation. At the same time, the director’s work maintains a fictional valence, which is established principally through the performances that dominate the works. With at least his contemporary narratives, Rohmer creates a diegetic world that is at once recognizable in its spatial and temporal coordinates, and simultaneously differs in the assemblage of persons that occupy these places; his films support the pretense of a conceivable alternate reality, inasmuch as they rely on our assumption that the people we see (or people like these) populate the places we know. With regard to the competing imperatives of fiction and non-fiction, Rohmer enacts this dialectic, respectively, in the bodies of his actors – as characters in the narrative – on the one hand, and in the landscapes of his specified locations, on the other.

While the above system facilitates the ‘talking cinema’ that was highlighted at the outset, the director’s emphasis on an internal set of themes – including the thought announced by the title of his first series of films, “moraux,” and also the generation of words in the context of discussion – encourages an isolation of the figure, and particularly his or her face, from the documentary space they inhabit. Hence, Rohmer not only utilizes the shot/reverse-shot system that allows for such proximity, but in fact modifies this schema to highlight content beyond that contained in the dialogue. That is, the discursive content of Rohmer’s work does not allow the director simply to shoot his actors delivering their lines, but rather requires that he extend his takes in order to show speech, the act of listening (in excess to the ‘reaction shot’ which falls neatly in the pauses of the script) and even in the frustration of not being able to offer one’s response. As such, it is not primarily the body that operates as the site for Rohmer’s discourse, but instead it is the face where the director’s narrative preoccupations are most often manifested.

Therefore, what follows is a more detailed examination of Rohmer’s aesthetic emphasizing his relation to and deviation from standard shot/reverse-shot structure, with particular attention given to the content facilitated by the director’s unique appropriations of shot/reverse-shot and two-shot strategies. After this preliminary survey of the director’s style, focusing on Ma nuit chez Maud (1969) and the first four of his “Comedies of Proverbs” respectively, the issue of the face’s centrality to Rohmer’s art will be examined in the context of Le Rayon vert (1986). This latter work, the fifth of the six-film sequence, occupies a unique position in the director’s corpus as it is the site of the intentioned aesthetic collapse of his fictional universe – namely, as the one film where his protagonist is no longer eloquent. Consequently, Le Rayon vert offers a singular expression of the face’s cardinality within the director’s body of work, to the extent that it represents a ground zero of the director’s aesthetic, where the word has been stripped of its power leaving only the human face.

However, before the face can be considered in this limit case, or as part of a system that balances realism with a concern for human interiority as in Ma nuit chez Maud, it remains to discuss the stylistic models transformed by Rohmer. As both an exemplar of classical shot/reverse-shot structure, and also of its capability for being remade according to particular rhetorical dictates, the films of Howard Hawks will be examined, given especially Rohmer’s esteem for the director: Rohmer once called Hawks “the greatest filmmaker born in America, except for Griffith,”[8] and claimed that “one cannot really love any film if one does not really love the ones by Howard Hawks.”[9] At the very least, then, Rohmer’s admiration for the American makes the following narrative of influence plausible.

Howard Hawks, the Classic Shot/Reverse-shot Aesthetic & its Abandonment

His Girl Friday
(Howard Hawks, 1940) opens with a lateral tracking shot through a busy newsroom. Hawks dissolves to another mobile take that shortly pauses on two female telephone operators who answer calls for the frantic newspaper office. With a gentleman passing through the frame, Hawks recommences tracking. Following the newspaper man, the camera eventually meets Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and her fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) as they enter the office. Hildy is a former reporter at the paper and greets a number of employees, including the two operators with whom she gossips. (Hawks uses another lateral tracking shot to cover Hildy’s transversal of the office toward the women.) After a brief chat, Johnson returns to her fiancé, to whom she informs she’ll be back in ten minutes, after a talk with her former boss and ex-husband Walter (Cary Grant).

Bruce, in his labored drawl, responds as Hildy begins to walk off: “even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” Hildy, remaining in the same two-shot composition, turns back in his direction asking him to repeat what he said. Hawks cuts momentarily to Bellamy in close-up as he repeats the previous line. The director then reverses to a soft-focus, tight framing of Russell. She tilts her head upward, her face beaming as she replies “I heard it the first time. I like it, that’s why I asked you to say it again.” She continues, “I can stand being spoiled a little. The gentleman I’m going in to see did very little spoiling.” Hawks immediately cuts back to Bellamy, maintaining the same framing that he used in his previous shot of the figure (as well as preserving the 180° axis, thereby avoiding “jumps” as he switches between the actors). Bruce counters, “I’d like to spoil him just once… sure you wouldn’t like me to go in with you.”

Here, we hear Hildy, off-screen for the first time, reply, “I can handle it.” Bruce then rejoins, still on camera: “if things get rough remember I’m here.” Hawks reverses back to Hildy as she turns to leave once again, “I’ll come a running, partner.” The director then cuts to a longer framing of Russell as she resumes her earlier action (that is, of going to see Walter in his office). As the woman crosses the space, Hawks follows his actress in a mobile long take that is cut with a reverse from her point-of-view that maintains the same brisk pace. The director then returns to a full-length framing of his heroine as she reaches the office.

Once inside, Hildy exchanges pleasantries with Walter and two of his business associates. After Walter concludes a heated, business-related exchange with the older gentleman, he asks both his comrades to leave so that he and Hildy can be alone, to which they consent. Following a discussion about how long it has been since they last saw each other, Walter launches into a speech where he claims, “I’d know you any time, any place, any where.” Not letting him finish, however, Hildy mocks Walter, mimicking the final lines of his speech word for word. She’s heard it before, and Hawks, apparently to accommodate the overlapping dialogue initially, converts to a series of medium two, long-takes that in fact will dominate the remainder of the scene. To be sure, there are additional instances of conversational overlap, as when Hildy emulates an auctioneer to parody her similarly fast-talking ex, which encourage the use of one take to register the dialogue. However, it is just as often that they wait for the other to finish before adding their quick-witted comebacks; to be sure, Hawks could have easily emphasized their verbal sparring by a series of Gatling gun paced edits to match. Instead, Hawks largely maintains a series of longer two’s, allowing the rhythm to be established in the verbal interchange rather than in the editing. Moreover, in making this choice, Hawks subtly reinforces the bond between Hildy and Walter by allowing them to occupy the same space, interacting and at times even touching.

By comparison, Hawks isolates his leading lady from her slower-talking fiancé in the above sequence. Even in the earlier, lone exchange where the newer couple talks over one another, Hawks maintains one of his shot/reverse-shot close-ups for three sets of lines, rather than utilizing a two as he does in conversations between Walter and Hildy. In essence, Hawks is making a case for romantic suitability both in terms of conversational compatibility, and also in his application and then withholding of a shot/reverse-shot matrix. When this manipulation is added to his use of fluid long takes to mime the fast pace of the newsroom, for instance, it becomes clear that Hawks transforms classic, analytic editing structures in order to articulate and amplify his narrative content. For Hawks, a shot/reverse-shot technique is pliable and open to interpretation.

If His Girl Friday therefore offers both a case study of shot/reverse-shot’s classical application and also model by which it might be adapted to a film’s singular discourse, the director’s later Hatari! (1962) provides a schema for a talking cinema that more closely corresponds to Rohmer’s cinematic preoccupations. Like in much of the latter director’s work, Hatari! emphasizes life’s interstices, those times when its protagonists sit around talking, drinking, playing music, etc.; in fact, these in-between times receive more screen time than do the picture’s exceptional visceral action sequences that alternate with the aforesaid passages. Consequently, the link to the French director’s cinema emerges readily, provided that it is exactly these downtimes that Rohmer so often features. For Rohmer, these moments often occur during holiday, whereas even in Hatari! these intervals bracket scenes depicting the male homo-social workplace (Hawks’ primary subject).

In terms of its mise-en-scène, Hatari! differs drastically from His Girl Friday in its virtual absence of a shot/reverse-shot structure. Here, Hawks stages his many protagonists (all but two of whom are male) in medium and long framings that connote the homo-social interactions that are the locus of the film. That is, the collective element of the workplace environment – these are men (and women) who unite to complete dangerous work – finds a spatial corollary in the director’s multiple-figure compositions; these people, bound together by a task, are united in a single spatial field, whether or not they are at work. Hawks’ mise-en-scène is profoundly democratic, and even humanist.

Moreover, even in those moments when Hawks focuses on romance rather than on work or collective relaxation – that is, in those rare instances when the scene features two actors only – the director utilizes a minimal number of medium two-shot compositions that combine the persons in a single frame, thus repeating his framing of Walter and Hildy in the above picture. For an example, during Dallas’ (Elsa Martinelli) conversation with Pockets (Red Buttons) where she confides her love of Sean, Hawks utilizes a single long take to capture the complete exchange. With the pace of conversation matching the languid summer evening, Hawks certainly could have constructed the scene as a series of languorous shots and reverses without losing the tenor of his protagonists’ thoughts and emotions. Rather, Hawks in this sequence, as he does throughout Hatari!, reveals a preference for staging his actors within a single frame, even during those moments when such a choice exceeds the representational imperatives of the scene. Again, framing has a moral dimension for the director.

Ma nuit chez Maud
: Shot/Reverse-shot in Rohmer


If the above discussion of shot/reverse-shot (and its absence in Hawks) exceeds the need to set forth its standard iteration against which Rohmer has created his individual style, the fact remains that Hawks’ stylistic development from His Girl Friday to Hatari! mirrors the transformation in Rohmer’s work, which compellingly utilizes the same two systems: a flexible shot/reverse-shot structure and later, a system of medium compositions. The paradigmatic example of the former is Ma nuit chez Maud, where once again a shot/reverser-shot structure is utilized extensively, but in a modified form – to convey meaning beyond that contained in the dialogue, as was the case with His Girl Friday, once again. In an exemplary sequence, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Vidal (Antoine Vitez) and the eponymous Maud (Françoise Fabian) dine in the female protagonist’s home. Maud pours her new acquaintance, Jean-Louis, a glass of wine in a medium two-shot. Off-screen Vidal, a Marxist professor of philosophy, explains that he is fascinated by “Christianity’s inherent contradictions,” though he is himself an atheist. Maud responds, “dialectics are nothing for me,” with the camera panning toward the woman in the right half of the frame, thereby leaving Jean-Louis outside the shot. In fact, the camera continues past her to Vidal creating a new two-shot framing with Maud on the left and Vidal on the right. Importantly, this pairing will persist for the remainder of the scene, with Jean-Louis filmed alone from a reverse-angle. That is, in choosing to align Vidal and Maud spatially, rather than Maud and Jean-Louis or the three within a single space, Rohmer pits his liberal characters (Maud and Vidal) against his conservative protagonist, verbally as well as spatially.

Continuing, Vidal asks Maud if she’s read Pascal, which she confirms, though she adds that the author is not one of her favorites. Vidal then states that he is “odd man out here,” prompting Maud to ask Jean-Louis whether he’s read the author. As Jean-Louis is a Catholic, Maud assumes that he should have an affinity for the writer. Still off-screen, as he has been since the original pan, Jean-Louis concedes that he has read Pascal, to which Vidal quickly rejoins, pointing toward his old friend: “he hates Pascal, because Pascal lashes out at phony Christians like him.” Maud asks if it’s true, and Vidal claims that Jean-Louis is the “quintessential Jesuit.” Maud pleads with Vidal to allow Jean-Louis to defend himself, which he then begins to do with Rohmer reversing to Trintignant’s character for the first time in the dialogue.

As Jean-Louis begins, Rohmer frames the actor in a medium close-up that he sustains for the next minute and twenty-three seconds. During the course of this extended take, Jean-Louis formulates his objections to Pascal and Jansenism with Vidal and Maud frequently interrupting. In one particularly revealing moment, we see Jean-Louis struggling to interject with Vidal and Maud arguing off-camera. Eventually, he relents, lowering the hand that he had raised to signal his desire to speak, and returning to the food on his plate. On another occasion, we see his attempt to finish his thought (on Pascal’s neglect in speaking about the local wines) with the figure twice raising his hand as he is about to speak, the words ready to tumble out of his mouth, and then lowering it as Maud and Vidal commence with a digression on the subject. Consequently, Rohmer in this instance represents Jean-Louis’ thought chiefly through a series of suspended gestures, be it in the gesticulations of his hands or in the hesitations on his lips.

Then again, Jean-Louis’ inability to express himself is not limited to those times when Maud or Vidal act as an encumbrance, but emerges further in certain passages where he is otherwise free to state his piece. (It is worth adding that inexpressiveness is the exception rather than the rule for Jean-Louis; in this regard he is the quintessential Rohmer protagonist. At the same time, it is in these fissures that Rohmer’s preoccupations become clearest, which should account for the on-going emphasis on these atypical junctures.) For instance, following his confession that he was shocked by Pascal’s condemnation of science, Jean-Louis circles his fork once in midair, presumably to accompany his further thoughts on the matter. As Jean-Louis completes the rotation without having uttered another phrase, it becomes clear that he is lacking the words to express himself. Similarly, following the thirty-two second shot framing Maud and Vidal that commences after the minute-and-a-half shot detailed above, we see another moment of the speaker’s hesitation as he grapples to find the words to express his thoughts on a young couple he observed in mass: Jean-Louis even admits, “it’s hard to find the proper words.” Accordingly, Trintignant’s character appears to be searching for the words as he speaks, which is to say that he gives the impression that there is contemplation involved in this conversation. Of course, the act of speaking is less the voicing of thought than it is an unpremeditated, instinctual process. Indeed, the above passages contain both moments when the words spoken outpace the speaker’s cognition of their content, and also those times when words fail to come, forcing deliberation (though thought might not be the precise term). In Ma nuit chez Maud, it is not simply that Trintignant is delivering his lines as an actor, but instead that he is interpreting how these lines spring to the tip of his tongue as their speaker. It is about the act of speaking, which includes not only the words and their enunciation, but also the process of their invention, their coming into being.

Perhaps the most revealing instance of this procedure occurs during the aforementioned long-take close-up of Jean-Louis. With Vidal commenting off-screen that Pascal’s sister claimed her brother never said “this is good,” we see Jean-Louis perk up with that last quoted line, raising his finger and waiting for Vidal to finish the sentence. Once Vidal has finished, Jean-Louis immediately responds “well, I say this is good,” with an emphatic set of hand motions to accompaniment his declaration. Thus, Trintignant emphasizes the moment at which his character decides what to say next (after the thought pops into his head). We see him wait to deliver the line, not as an actor who has almost spoken before his turn, but rather as the participant in a dialogue, thinking on his feet. Indeed, this is the effect of Rohmer’s modification of the shot/reverse-shot structure set forth in the Russell-Bellamy dialogue discussed above: namely, to show persons in thought, struggling to formulate their intuition and as the previous example illustrates, having things to say while others are talking. In a word, Rohmer films conversations, which as Ma nuit chez Maud makes clear, are not simply the sum of the dialogues they contain, but moreover are the product of separate persons formulating their thoughts, searching for the right words to say and then delivering these lines in the midst of an unregulated exchange. Rohmer’s use of extended medium close-ups of Jean-Louis and medium two-shots of Maud and Vidal respectively, allows for this range, highlighting the acts of speaking, listening, and even the act of interruption – rather than simply showing the person speaking, and on occasion, the reaction from a second party. Once again, speech is action in Rohmer, and thought, activity. And of course, our knowledge of both is filtered through the human face.

The Persistence of Shot/Reverse-Shot in the “Comedies and Proverbs” and the Emergence of a Two-Shot Paradigm


While dialogue remains a key emphasis in the director’s work following Ma nuit chez Maud and the “Contes Moraux” to which it belongs, the physiognomic representation of thought becomes less central to the director’s subsequent corpus. With the director’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series (1981-1987), shot/reverse-shot emerges as more the exception than the rule, in part due to the principally exterior setting of these works. However, when shot/reverse-shot proves efficacious for his set of themes, or when the films feature a greater number of interiors, Rohmer continues to use this structure, as for instance in the series’ prototype, La Femme de l’aviateur (1981). Here, Rohmer maintains the shot/reverse-shot structure on two occasions: first, when characters argue, for example in the frequent disputes between François (Philippe Marlaud) and Anne (Marie Rivière), which mostly occur in the latter’s bedroom. In this instance, the obvious justification for a shot/reverse-shot strategy follows from the couple’s strained relationship that consequently finds a visual analogy in each figure’s isolation and alienation from the other in space, opposed in shot and reverse-shot. Second, Rohmer adopts this technique during a number of those sequences, both interior and exterior, in which François converses with the flirtatious young Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury). With this latter occurrence, the utilization of shot/reverse-shot is dictated by the pair’s relative unfamiliarity with one another. In part, La Femme de l’aviateur is the story of a young woman (Luice) who does not know whether she can trust the slightly older boy she has just met; in reality, she is the one who deceives François, however benignly, thus restating another of the director’s central motifs – namely of a character who lies. In La Femme de l’aviateur, we are watching Lucie stretch the truth, or better yet, watching her rehearse her means of seduction. At the same time, Rohmer seems to acknowledge the emotional danger of the situation, at least from François’ point-of-view, which provides a related justification for his isolation of figures in an otherwise unpopulated frame. That is, Rohmer’s alternation between shot/reverse-shot and medium and full two-shots teases us with a potential for intimacy between the newly-formed couple, while at the same time intimating a reason to be cautious in that his use of shot/reverse-shot highlights the fact that they remain relative strangers. And as we learn that Lucie is involved with a young man, we realize the distance that Rohmer interjects was necessary.

As the “Comedies and Proverbs” proceed, Rohmer alternates the frequency that shot/reverse-shot and single-take, two-shots appear. With the third picture in the sequence, Pauline à la plage (1983), Rohmer nearly dispenses with a shot/reverse-shot scheme altogether, save for a handful of interior conversations in which the director intends to isolate one or more figures from the remaining group (thus enacting the sexual politics that form the center of the work). In its place, Rohmer sustains a series of medium and full, two-shot compositions that unify cousins Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and Marion (Arielle Dombasle) spatially. With the introduction of men into their world, such as Pierre (Pascal Greggory) during an early encounter on the beach, Rohmer continues to squeeze figures into the frame, again allowing the psycho-dynamics of his narrative to play out in a single visual field – that is until, Marion rejects past-love Pierre for another, creating both strained feelings and also shot-reverse/shot during some of their more fraught exchanges. Excluding these moments of tension, however, Pauline à la plage fulfills Rohmer’s transformation from a director of shot/reverse-shot to a composer of spaces in medium-two – that is, from faces to landscapes, from His Girl Friday to Hatari!.

Indeed, Rohmer’s strategy in Pauline à la plage also follows from the unimportance of facial expression to the narrative – unlike in Ma nuit chez Maud and La Femme de l’aviateur. In Pauline à la plage, to be sure, the content of dialogue is interrogated by the actions of the characters, and particularly those of Pauline’s worldly older cousin Marion; by comparison, physiognomy remains central to La Femme de l’aviateur, where the film’s core in established in the contrast between Luice’s flirtatious and playfully-scheming expressions and Anne’s somber, if earnest face. Likewise, one might cite Beatrice Romand’s performances in Rohmer’s films: for example, in Le Beau mariage (1982) where the actress’s Sabine reaffirms her characteristic audacity by making proclamations that strain credulity – in this case, her intention to marry even though she has no one specific in mind – we see Romand’s uncontrolled smile following her ridiculous assertion; Romand promptly pulls her grin back into her mouth, as if to tell us that we should believe her even if we know better. We are asked to believe in the mask, even though we have seen behind it.

Le Rayon vert’s
Delphine: “Remarkably Irritating Company”


Marie Rivière’s Delphine, the heroine of the director’s fifth ‘comedy and proverb’ Le Rayon vert lacks the temerity of La Femme de l’aviateur’s Lucie, Le Beau mariage’s Sabine, Pauline a la plage’s Marion or even Les Nuits de la pleine lune’s (1984) Louise, who may be the series’ most flawed protagonist prior to the fifth entry. In contrast to these headstrong women, Delphine is a shy, lonely twenty-something who finds her situation exasperated by not knowing what – or in Rohmer’s universe, who – she wants. At the same time, Rohmer’s heroine is, as Jonathan Romney puts it, “remarkably irritating company – an airhead who can hold forth inarticulately about her vegetarianism, explaining that a lettuce feels like a friend.”[10] She is, in a word, unlovable – at least on the surface.

Le Rayon vert
opens with Delphine receiving a phone call at work from a friend with whom she is planning to spend her holiday. The latter cancels sending Delphine into a panic as she attempts to arrange alternate plans on short notice. In effect, Le Rayon vert charts her many unsuccessful attempts to secure a satisfactory holiday during the month she has off: Delphine travels from Paris to Cherbourg back to Paris to La Plagne back to Paris again to Biarritz and finally to Saint-Jean-de-luz. On this last leg of her trip, Delphine follows Jacques (Vincent Gauthier) whom she had met in the Biarritz train station, after deciding to give up on her vacation for good. In approaching Jacques, Delphine acts decisively for the first time in the narrative – actually, she admits that this is the first time she has picked up a man, period – and thus appears to be nearer to happiness for than she has at any point in the film. Delphine is left to wait for the eponymous “green ray” – theoretically the final shaft of color that one can see from the setting sun under only the most perfect conditions – which legend dictates allows one to see the true nature of their feelings and those of others.

In this way, that is in Delphine’s sudden willingness to pursue her fate actively, Rohmer underscores the need to make one’s own destiny, even as he affirms the position of the magical in dictating the romantic bond. That is, Rohmer strikes a compromise between free will and predestination, commensurate with his earlier films on the subject: for instance, in Ma nuit chez Maud where the theme exists in its negative permutation – to not act – and again in Le Beau mariage, where Sabine fails to recognize the correct man to pursue with her intentions to marry. In Le Rayon vert, one must act when presented with advantageous circumstances, as Delphine finally does after a series of lost opportunities.

Up to this pivotal moment, however, Delphine clings to the belief “in the things that crop up in life, things that happen all by themselves, things about love.” Once more, it is her unwillingness to take positive action that has assured she has remained lonely for the previous two years. At the same time, when she is counseled by a new Swedish acquaintance that romance “is like a card game, you mustn’t show your cards right away,” Delphine claims that her “hand is empty.” Rohmer’s heroine continues: “You talk of showing things… I don’t know, I don’t have anything. If I had something to show, people would soon see it, that’s all… If I had something to give people would see it.” In other words, Delphine sees herself as uninteresting and therefore as unattractive to the opposite sex. She both lacks the courage to pursue romance – prior to the film’s penultimate scene, which changes her fortune – and also believes increasingly that she lacks those qualities which ideally would inspire the right person to pursue her.

However, it is less that Delphine has drawn the above conclusion following extensive self-reflection than it is simply that she suffers from her shyness. This peculiarity places her at odds with Rohmer’s conventional heroines – for example La Femme de l’aviateur’s Lucie – who are comfortable characteristically with new people. As Delphine claims at one point, “things are not obvious to me. I’m not normal.” Thus, unlike Louise for example, Delphine cannot just go out and find a new boyfriend when she tires of her previous lover. She cannot find a lover at all so long as she remains frozen by her overwhelming doubt. Moreover, Delphine differs from Rohmer’s typically-eloquent protagonists in her inability to share her thoughts and feelings: as she shouts at Romand’s Beatrice during a particularly heated conversation, “I have a lot of things to express, but I don’t express them.” In this respect, she is the inverse of the director’s prior ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ heroines, who are to one verbose (though without necessarily possessing any real insight), just as Le Rayon vert emerges as the negative of the director’s cinema: a conversation-based film with a protagonist lacking this basic aptitude.

Framing (and Facing) in Le Rayon vert


This is not to suggest, however, that Le Rayon vert lacks conversation. As with his previous ‘Comedies and Proverbs,’ Le Rayon vert is constructed principally as a series of dialogues, many of which feature multiple speakers. Commensurate with its summer holiday setting, most of the film’s conversations occur outdoors, with the majority of these constructed in medium and full multi-character compositions, thereby reaffirming the aesthetic operative in his similarly-situated Pauline a la plage. Further, Rohmer’s utilization of these wider framings produces an unmistakable documentation of Delphine’s travel itinerary, through recognizable holiday locations on the specific dates noted by the picture’s diary-style intertitles. In fact, Le Rayon vert exceeds the precision with which he documents his places and settings in the remaining ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ – here, it is not Paris or Brittany, but Cherbourg at a very precise date and time.

Importantly, Le Rayon vert also surpasses this same corpus in its emphasis on the registration of facial physiognomy. That is, Le Rayon vert represents Rohmer’s return to the face, though within the system established by the prior landscape-heavy narratives. Indeed, unlike Ma nuit chez Maud or La Femme de l’aviateur, this focus is established principally in the medium and full compositions that dominate the picture. As such, Le Rayon vert recuperates this key feature of his earlier work, producing a form that retains the humanistic spatial connotations of films such as Pauline a la plage, while forging a suitable platform for the soul’s impression. After all, it is not simply Delphine’s love-life that is at stake, but indeed so is the fate of her soul (but more on the theological dimensions of Le Rayon vert later). Hence, Rohmer composes his conversation-dominated spaces with his protagonist facing the camera, most often in three-quarter profiles. With Rivière perpendicular to the camera, Rohmer typically locates his other speakers in positions facing the lead – for example, during the group dinner in Cherbourg where she vapidly declares that ‘lettuce is a friend,’ or in a set of more intimate exchanges with Françoise (Rosette) and Paulo respectively. (In both of these latter instances, Delphine’s acquaintances attempt to comfort the despondent, weeping lead, who nevertheless doggedly avoids eye contact.) As such, Rohmer not only balances the personal crisis and the holiday settings that shape the narrative, but also gives heed to her tortured psychology and her friends’ efforts to intercede – all within a single visual field.

Simultaneously, Rohmer’s insistently frontal framing of Rivière forces the actress to undergo the same process of concealment with respect to the spectator: when we do catch her alone in a secluded wood, framed by the director in a tight close-up, the actress’s tear-filled eyes shoot off to the side, up and then down, all-the-while avoiding the camera lens. In such close proximity, moreover, Rohmer confronts us directly with a challenge that Romney claims for his cinema generally: namely that Rohmer “can make us fall for his characters, rebarbative though they are.”[11] We are invited to share in the concern of her circle, even if we might be tempted to echo Beatrice’s tough love initially. However, we are soon won over to Delphine (rather than ‘by Delphine’), who in paradoxical fashion becomes more and more “riveting,” the “less substantial she seems.”[12] In other words, Rohmer’s mise-en-scène secures a harmony between the director’s competing (and at times seemingly contradictory) concerns, while facilitating our empathy for the heroine, forced as we into such close contact with the director’s melancholic lead.

As spectators, the peak of our sympathy for Delphine, perhaps, occurs during the previously alluded to conversation between the heroine and her new Swedish acquaintance, where the pair discusses their ‘cards.’ Significantly, this is the lone sequence in the film’s latter half which utilizes a shot/reverse-shot structure. For this scene, Rohmer’s selection of this schema both accommodates their conversation as they sit across a table from one another and more importantly, prepares for a rhetorical manipulation of the structure later in the sequence. Following Delphine’s forlorn confession, the pair is joined by two young Frenchmen with whom the buxom Swede insists they should “have a good time.” After a round of introductions that do not include Delphine, the Swede chats with the more outgoing of the two, who occupies a position to her left. With Rohmer utilizing the long take shot/reverse-shot structure that he formulated in Ma nuit chez Maud (to frame the aforesaid couple as they continue their banter), Delphine becomes conspicuously absent from the conversation – not only because she is silent, but also due to the fact that she remains off camera for an extended duration. Thus, in this most Rohmerian of sequences we see just how uneasily Delphine fits, where in order to remain a part (even when off camera) one must talk. By comparison, the Swede is perfectly at ease, and presumably willing to participate in a causal sexual encounter unlike Delphine. (Delphine is another of his conservative protagonists.

When Rohmer finally does cut back to a close-up of Rivière, we see her swing her head to the left and to the right, with tears prepared to burst forth, before she pulls herself back together. Even so, none of Delphine’s companions seem to notice her distress, with the gentleman seated beside the Swede breaking into song for his delighted female audience. With this, Delphine dashes off. However, she is pursued by the quieter, darker gentleman (who had been sitting beside her) as she rapidly descends the seaside stairwell. Catching up to the lead, the young gentleman pleads with her to return, confessing that he is “all alone here” too. Delphine, however, again facing the camera frontally with the gentleman perpendicular to her, responds “I’m not the one for you.” Perhaps Delphine is showing wisdom here, but as spectators all we see is another missed opportunity. Either way, we feel for this woman who seems to lack even the most basic interpersonal skills. She is ‘not normal,’ which ultimately is far less irritating than it is tragic.

Redeeming a Heroine & His Ground Zero Aesthetic


With her hasty departure from her latest companions, Delphine begins her trip home, arriving first at the train station in Biarritz. There, she notices a young man watching her as she reads. Skeptically, Delphine asks if he has any interest in the book; he responds that he does, grinning as he takes the seat next to her. As he sits, the young man tells her that he knows the book, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. As such, Rohmer commences his network of semiotic codes that will establish Le Rayon vert as explicitly religious by the film’s end: in The Idiot, Christ is epitomized by the epileptic protagonist; the young man, Jacques, is a Carpenter; he is heading to Saint-Jean-de-Luz (‘luz’ or “light” is another metaphor for Christ – i.e. the “light of the world”) and so on. Consequently, Rohmer encourages us to read in Delphine’s desire to see the ‘green ray,’ not only her wish to know her true feelings and those of others, but also to see beyond the surface of things, to that which lies beyond the visible. In other words, Le Rayon vert becomes an allegory for faith, which Delphine clearly possesses. In fact, her seduction of Jacques is itself an act of faith – transposed onto romance – and the precondition for the hope (in a future happiness). Rohmer’s economy of grace depends on faith, and faith upon action.

In the end, Delphine is rewarded with the appearance of the eponymous ‘green ray.’ Delphine’s response is rapturous, gaining power by its comparison to the sadness that envelops this same surface throughout so much of the preceding film. Consistently, as a number of the above examples begin to illustrate, Delphine is brought to tears as she struggles to escape her loneliness. She continually shields her face not only from those with whom she is spending time, but also from the camera (which again Rivière is made to face). In this way, Rohmer establishes Delphine’s saddened face as the cardinal point for his mise-en-scène, around which the image is constructed. Indeed, it is the actress’s face that becomes ground zero for the director’s aesthetic, once it is denied the eloquence that defines his narrative universe – the face is all that remains, tortured by its inability to speak, and overcome with the grief of solitude.

It is therefore on this landscape that we search for signs of hope and of redemption: we wait expectantly for a flicker to appear in her eyes or for the edges of her lips to curl up in delight. It is here and only here that Delphine’s sadness can be obviated. In Le Rayon vert, Rohmer’s cinema has collapse into Rivière’s face. So it is only fitting that it is also here that Rohmer’s most deficient heroine is redeemed with an uncontrollable burst of joy and epiphanic one-word cry.

Certainly, Rivière’s ecstatic externalization evokes the same sense of a “warm emotion [that] lights [the face] up from the inside” that Béla Balázs ascribes to a moment in Lillian Gish’s Broken Blossoms (1919) performance.[13] Of course, Balázs’s point is that Gish’s face “does not change,” but instead “an intangible nuance turns the grimace into a real expression,” which is to say that as spectators we can read the authenticity in the actress’s face, a human feeling beneath the mask.[14] On the contrary, Rivière’s physiognomy emits a dramatic change, though by no means is this transformation less moored to the actress’s interiority. That is, whether or not it is possible in reality to interpret a similar feeling in Rivière’s expression, we are compelled nevertheless to read its materialization as a movement from the interior of her character to the exterior, which is to say from her spirit to her face. It is precisely a soul that we are asked to see, an intangible inner life transferred onto the surface of her face. Whereas Balázs invites us to see this manifestation of the immaterial in the ‘nuance’ of Gish’s performance, Rohmer highlights this same quality on the interface between interior and exterior.

Where Gish and Rivière, which is to say where Lucy Burrows and Delphine differ, however, is in the control that they exert over this interior transformation. While Gish’s ‘warm emotion’ materializes, rising lightly to fill the actress, and thus to produce the aforesaid ‘intangible nuance,’ Rivière’s joy gushes forth without her control, becoming the broad grin and sudden exclamation that conclude the work. She has been remade and Rohmer’s cinema restored: not only has the direct given hope to his most hopeless creature, but he has granted her the words, or rather the word to speak. “Oui!”


[1] Éric Rohmer, “Letter to a Critic” in The Taste for Beauty, Henry Breitrose and William Rothman, eds., trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 80.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] C. G. Crisp, Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988): 111.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Éric Rohmer, “For a Talking Cinema” in The Taste for Beauty, 29.
[8] Rohmer, “Howard Hawks: The Big Sky” in The Taste for Beauty, 128.
[9] Ibid., 131.
[10] Jonathan Romney, “Le Rayon vert” in Film: The Critics’ Choice, ed. Geoff Andrew (London: Aurum Press, 2001): 224.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Béla Balázs, Theory of Film, trans. Edith Bone (New York: Arno Press, 1972): 65.
[14] Ibid.

Note: An abbreviated version of this paper was presented at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2008 Conference in Philadelphia, PA.

Also, I have published a list of my twenty favorite
Éric Rohmer films on affiliate site, Ten Best Films. The Rohmer choices are the second in a series following those of director Clint Eastwood.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Nicholas Ray's Least Seen Signature Features: Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl and The Savage Innocents

Is there another American director of a stature comparable to Nicholas Ray whose major films are as intermittently available in the United States? Given that Ray may have been the key figure of 1950s Hollywood, reinterpreting and renewing nearly every genre he touched while providing one of the boldest challenges to the decade's decisive consensus, the answer would seem almost certainly to be no. Not that the director's partial neglect is entirely inexplicable: the estimable Rebel Without a Cause (1955) aside, virtually none of Ray's films manifest those qualities that might make his work more AFI-ready. Rather, the virtues of Ray, and in particular those major works currently seen least in the US, center most on making resistance and the libidinal palpable, within a mise-en-scène that alternates between poetical landscape photography, attractive high-50's artifice and utter indifference. Ray does very little to make his films "good," while so often producing something great, whether across the totality of a work or more modestly in a single sequence.

Representing the latter case, Wind Across the Everglades (1958), scripted by On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) scribe Budd Schulberg, who apocryphal account has it took over direction for the heroin-abusing filmmaker, represents the absolute apex of Ray's drive toward contradiction. In visual terms, the director's elegant mobile framings of the South Florida landscape stand side-by-side with perfunctory multi-figure set-ups and degraded second-unit style inserts of the area wildlife. The last of these, especially in the frequent inclusions of alligators submerging and emerging from the Everglade swamps, assures the film's connection to the recent Hollywood cycle of the safari picture, popularized by King Solomon's Mine (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950), with its human subjects sutured into an often dangerous wilderness. While Wind Across the Everglades provides for a similar fauna-based spectacle, it remains less the source of adventure that it is in the purer safari iterations than a signifier of the Everglades status as wilderness. Indeed, the Everglades are here, in this turn-of-the-century set narrative, a Western-style frontier with the Law contending against the Lawless (plume-hunting poachers), who claim as their watchword, the very un-50s notion of "protest."

In Ray's hands, there is sympathy for both, with each located comfortably outside of a cultural hegemony that the opening, kitschy (at least from our present perspective) voice-over establishes - namely the craze for plumes in ladies' hats. Christopher Plummer's Audubon Society hero Walt Murdock fights against the consumerist-inspired environmental destruction wrought by this trend, with outlaw poacher Cottonmouth (Burl Ives) and his libertine cohorts the principle source of his quest. The latter faction, however, promotes the pleasures of the flesh that one senses quite clearly Ray himself endorses - busty women, swamp game cooked over an open flame, homemade liquor - while taking the freedom of the individual to his logical conclusion: "eat or be et." (Their ultimate spirit-addled confrontation with Murdock on Cottonmouth Key represents the aforementioned great moment.) They are, in other words, the perfect 1950s dissidents, while Walt is a strident opponent to the unassailable value of commerce, which is to say he is the perfect 1950s dissident. Whatever the role that Schulberg played in Wind Across the Everglades, the film manages to fully embody Ray's cinema.

Party Girl (1958) is a Nick Ray film of quite a different sort. While Wind Across the Everglades invents a new form in the matrixed combination of safari picture, Western and topical film, Party Girl reinvents the dormant form of the 1930s gangster picture within the director's melodramatic mode (displayed in Rebel Without a Cause and his supreme masterpiece, Bigger Than Life, 1956, among others). In looking to this earlier source, prohibited by the same Production Code to which Ray's films uniformly applied stress, aiding in its ultimate collapse a decade later, Ray also finds a politics to challenge 1950s consensus thinking: an advocacy for the little guy that promoted physically impaired attorney Tommy Farrell's (Robert Taylor) original association with gangster Rico (Lee J. Cobb). In the narrative's present, Tommy has become an advocate for the guilty, adroitly manipulating juries to acquit the clearly criminal. His comfort with this arrangement, however, decreases after he meets the eponymous 'lady of leisure' and dance hall girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), with whom he eventually becomes conjugally involved, in spite of the fact that he is still supporting a wife at the time of the original meeting. In short, Party Girl revives pre-code subject matter as much as it does the gangster genre itself.
Moreover, Party Girl pushes the limits of what is permissible on screen: Charisse, who is subsequently glimpsed nude briefly behind a semi-opaque screen, engages in a striptease - the same year as Julie London's infamous Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958) strip - amid a series of on-camera dance set-pieces that collectively mark the film as a work of mixed cinema. Ray notably shoots these sequences in Cinemascope, from a variety of angles that include overheads with Charisse staring directly into the camera, thereby highlight the picture's decisive artifice. Then again, Party Girl contains none of the cheapness apparent elsewhere in the director's work (as for instance in The Savage Innocents, discussed below): Party Girl's set designs are often intricately constructed and its color palette immaculately chosen, as for instance in Ray's inspired layering of Charisse's red dress on a differently toned red couch. Throughout, Ray and director of photography Robert Bronner's cinematography is characteristically sinuous, fluidly registering the film's memorable interiors much the same as Howard Hawks's and Lee Garmes's mobile camera work achieved a similar effect in the definitive Scarface (1932). And as the film's earlier source, Ray's remaking of the gangster genre even includes a machine-gun montage.

The director's European-financed The Savage Innocents (1960) synthesizes Wind Across the Everglades's predilection for poetical, aquatic-dominated landscapes, here often approaching a surreal beauty, with Party Girl's highly constructed spaces, here conveyed through the film's igloo interior and matte-painted Arctic snow-scape sets. (This striking convergence of the real-world and studio aesthetics corrobrates Jean-Luc Godard's suggestion that the whole of the cinema could be exumed from Ray, along of course with its combination of sex and violence.) Ray pairs these spaces with a Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)-brand electronic score that combines to make The Savage Innocents an apogee of both the director's distinguishing artifice and his taste for the palpably odd. Then again, the film's subject insures the film's strangeness far more than its expressly unreal sets: an Eskimo Anthony Quinn finds a salve to loneliness in "laughing" with a comely native girl, whom he then exchanges for her more attractive sister, Asiak (Yoko Tani), after becoming jealous of the latter's "husband," and his principal rival. With Asiak in tow, Quinn's Inuk encounters white traders and discovers that his in-born ability to hunt fox could mean the chance to buy a fire arm or "thunder stick" (the director's ecological concern returns in the film's suggestion of the practice of over-hunting). Here, Ray combines the primitive and modern in this place to startling effect, with its juke box, Elvis-look-a-like native and the aforesaid pelts all introduced in a single setting, wherein Asiak, moreover, performs one of the silver screen's most memorably bizarre dances. Nevertheless, the young Eskimo woman remains skeptical of the white man, who "doesn't approve of naked people," and who in one later instance refuses Inuk's generous invitation to 'laugh' with his wife.

In this latter regard, The Savage Innocents appears to prefigure the sexual emancipation that would emerge subsequently in the nascent 1960s, and allies with that period's broader challenge to bourgeois Judeo-Christian values. In The Savage Innocents, itself an extreme form of the Western according to film scholar Lisa K. Broad, sympathy is purely on the side of the uncivilized, on the side of those who pursue the pleasures of the flesh without succumbing to the temptations of greed. For them, a woman is new every time she reenters the igloo, whether or not she has 'laughed' with another. As always, Ray's film is about sex. However, the imperatives of civilization, whose laws are stronger than any individual, and therefore flawed according to Ray's way of thinking, will demand that Inuk experience punishment for acting according to his own, anti-Western ethical, free-love code.

The Savage Innocents is the ultimate Nicholas Ray film. Perhaps it is only fitting that it should initiate a decade (from outside the US) that would move toward Ray's own worldview, rather than occurring in a second that found him at odds with the America around him, which he may have defined, but in negative.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Film: Public Enemies

As a star-driven biography of celebrated anti-hero John Dillinger that the Chicago-born director shot in a number of the actual locations of Dillinger's Midwestern crimes, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, from a screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, intrinsically promises an elaboration of one of the director's most distinguishing features as a filmmaker, namely his self-reflexive emphasis on the places depicted in his films, within a genre that has found Mann at his slightest: the biopic. With Public Enemies, Mann does not manage to reverse this latter trend - though it is also worth noting that even slight Mann is better than the vast majority of new studio releases - due largely to the relative lack of stress placed on the film's real-world locales, in addition to the slow even for Mann pace and the surprising lack of verve displayed by Johnny Depp in the role of Dillinger. Michael Mann's Heat-lite (1995) could have used a little of Al Pacino's histrionics - or a bit more of Jack Sparrow.

Public Enemies opens in an Indiana state penitentiary in the fourth year of the Great Depression. In this initial location, Mann and director of photography Dante Spinotti mimetically limit their high-definition DV palette to drab blacks, whites, greys and tans, to which they will add a washed-out sky blue in a subsequent exterior of the prison. (Public Enemies's attention to color builds on Miami Vice's [2006] primary aesthetic achievement.) In this latter set-up, Mann and Spinotti opt for a strongly horizontal, static framing that the director repeats in other views of the big Midwestern sky, whereas their camera relies heavily on hand-held tight framings within the interior itself. This alteration between hand-held DV close-ups and wider angles, be it the wide horizon meeting an Indiana dirt road or the fluid steady cam that follows the bank robbers into a marble-filled Wisconsin place of business, provides Public Enemies with a visual rhythm that is further accented by a cutting pattern that remains unpredictable in its choice of future angles.

However, in visual highs like the film's first bank robbery, bathed in a warm, phosphorescent yellow, Mann's camera is not permitted to cutaway and linger on the setting, as it would so often on the Chicago skyline of Thief (1981) or that of Los Angeles in the director's masterpiece Collateral (2004). Here Dillinger and company have their "minute forty... flat" to get in and out, thereby requiring the film's spectators to get their fill of the space in the crew's short time in the bank. In this regard, though Public Enemies announces an emphasis on place that again is among the interesting features of Mann's art, it fails to add this emphasis to the film's narrative, which ultimately is the key to the Collateral's achievement in particular. Then again, Collateral's sequence of spaces, always calibrated to highlight its nocturnal views, structured the film's narrative as it moved toward daybreak, and thus according to the film's internal logic, to the picture's end. Here, there is no similar rationale, save for the non-fiction itinerary of Public Enemies's principle subject.

Nor does Mann altogether maintain his focus on procedure that is apparent throughout Thief, for example. Whereas that film opens with a lengthy safe-cracking scored with a period-defining synth soundtrack - the entire work is period-defining in the mood it establishes, and ouevre-defining for America's signature (action-oriented, Chicago- and Los Angeles-based ) 1980s director - Public Enemies rarely focuses so resolutely on the interworkings of Dillinger's profession. The primary counter-example, of course, is the extended second escape from prison, wherein Mann follows Dillinger from room-to-room as he systematically breaks free, aided initially only by a hand-carved and tinted fake handgun. The film's bank-robbery set-pieces again do not allow for the emphasis on process that many of the director's finer crime pictures depict.

Mann's focus on criminal endeavor belongs, surely, to his larger, genre-inflected treatment of American masculinity, as Lisa K. Broad notes, which itself accounts for both the drift toward myth contained in his films, and his attraction to your Muhammad Ali's and John Dillinger's, on the level of subject. Or to put it another way, Mann's films are always about American narratives, and thus about film, which is no less the case for Public Enemies as it is for any of his previous efforts. Here, the director's self-reflexivity finds some of its most direct expression in a trio of nocturnal set-pieces: his arrival on an Indiana tarmac, illuminated by exploding flares and cracking camera flashes; Dillinger's low-key, albeit spotlit escape through the Wisconsin woods; and finally, the aftermath surrounding his assassination outside the Biograph theater. In each of these passages, artificial lighting, gushing in from strong directional light sources, traces if not engulfs Depp's protagonist, recurrently in characteristically grainy - and therefore, DV-specific - images. Thus, Dillinger is transformed from bank robber into (digital-era) movie star.

Michael J. Anderson's Michael Mann feature-film taxonomy:
Career Peaks: Collateral, Heat
Exceptional Films (Just Below Peak):
Miami Vice, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Manhunter (1986)
Good (If Comparatively Lesser): The Insider (1999)*, Public Enemies
Sub-par: Ali (2001)
Haven't Seen: The Keep (1983)

* Note: I have not seen The Insider since shortly after its initial release, and as such, trust my judgment less in its case than in that of any of the others. I guess I would say that The Insider is at least "good," where I will rank it for the time being, and quite possibly even "exceptional," though my instinct tells me that it does not belong among the "career peaks." But that's all it is, instinct.