The dog in Pauline à la plage
Narrative art often imitates life; just as often, the attempt will stumble on the looseness of life’s “plots” (or maybe it’s the total lack thereof). This may be an impossible problem; after all, coherence and control are among the most traditional and enduring defining characteristics of narrative art. It’s very difficult to think of “story” without immediately thinking of structure, and organisation. It’s certainly not unthinkable,though; for instance, much of the literature of the 20th Century strived to weaken or altogether break precisely that link. (I said 20th Century, but what about Brás Cubas? or his acknowledged grandfather Tristram Shandy?) Such striving, however, can feel awfully strained, and unless your attempt to open your plot out to the vagaries of the vaster world is very convincing, you will only draw further attention to the finitude of your story.
The received wisdom about Éric Rohmer goes that “nothing happens” in his films, which are just “people talking”, which isn’t “cinematic”. Well, provided you’re not a hermit, a polar explorer or someone who lives a life of danger, I think you’ll find that a sizeable portion of what happens in your life is people talking. (Even lives of danger tend to have plenty of dialogue.) Unless God has blessed you with ubiquity, most events will reach you through reports, just like characters in Greek tragedies get their news from the chorus. (Even if the chorus these days is sometimes Facebook.) Perhaps the line between dialogue and action isn’t quite as clear as one might assume. So much for the notion that people talking are a poor choice to point your camera at. If you’re not convinced, think of any Howard Hawks comedy: His Girl Friday, for instance. The way those people go through page after page of relentless overlapping dialogue without pausing for breath, you’d think the cast was picked from the Olympic diving team. And yet, I don’t recall having ever seen Hawks criticised as not “cinematic” enough. He wasn’t alone either; if Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson are perhaps extreme examples, few characters from 30s-40s Hollywood comedies – often adapted from Broadway plays – ever shut up.
True, it would be disingenuous to brush aside the question of what all those garrulous people are doing while they talk. In the comedies I mentioned, they are mostly very busy indeed, running around, not necessarily like headless chickens but usually at a similar pace. This is never the case in a Rohmer film. His characters can hardly be said to overexert themselves multitasking whilst in conversation; they’ll be as often as not ambling down some lovely park or garden, sitting down at the table, leafing through magazines (no, wait, that last one is Godard) and other such unhurried activities. They will most definitely not be running against the clock to save an innocent from the electric chair, trying to recapture a pet leopard, evading gangsters or anything of the kind. This, of course, is why people say that “nothing happens” in a Rohmer film.
Well… never mind Harry Moseby, his opinion is wrong. So in Rohmer the action is mostly dialogue, and the dialogue is action. (“Je ne dis pas, je montre.“) Some may be confused because what he shows is mostly people telling, but as he himself frequently explained, he did not think of sound as separate from image: it was what they do together that he was after. He also said he was less interested in what people did than in what was going on in their heads while they did it. In other words, the stories behind all the ostensible stories, the greater world.
Once you bear that in mind, it’s impossible not to notice just how much is actually going on in these “quiet” films. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (L’ami de mon amie), for example, is as intricately – and meticulously – plotted as any play by Molière or Marivaux (and complication is not the only grounds for comparison). Much of this intricacy is delivered visually. For instance, the wardrobe of the four main characters is colour-coordinated to signpost their evolving relationships. Clothes mirror or contrast with each other within the same scene and echo one another at different points in the film, underlining or commenting on the characters’ shifting attractions and sympathies. The main opposition is between green and blue, which are also key colours in the mostly open-air setting. The effect is beautifully balanced, unsubtle enough that it will be noticed but still miles away from a semaphore (nothing as primary as relating a particular colour to a particular character).
No, it couldn’t have been done onstage, as it only works because of how the characters interact with the architecture and the open spaces. Public spaces, especially: Rohmer was tremendously sensitive to those, and a master at filming them. He would immerse you in the settings, make you feel you’d be able to move around them afterwards without a map. This is an illusion, of course. (Another filmmaker that does this very well is José Luis Guerín, on the evidence of En la ciudad de Sylvia.) Other notable examples would be the seaside resort in Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale), and the Normandy beach where Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach) takes place.
In consequence, Rohmer’s films have a strong documentary feel, which is perhaps the tightest stylistic connection his films have to the nouvelle vague (the only certain tendency of French cinema Rohmer’s films may be typical of is that of Éric Rohmer’s films). Actors often seem to be improvising their lines, which was never the case (Rohmer’s dialogues were strictly adhered to), and their movements are always fluid, always right for the moment, whether the actors are professional or not. Much has been said about how Rohmer didn’t care much for blocking, how he directed a remarkably long (and wonderfully unshowy) tracking shot on the beach in Conte d’été without actually looking at the actors, saying that if the dialogue sounded right, they would be moving as they should; and yet, this was the same man who, in preparation for a scene in La collectionneuse (The Collector) where a character picks up a rose, actually planted said rose one year in advance, so that at the time of filming, it would be at the right height and place for the scene he had already blocked in his head. All of this was in the pursuit of naturalness, at which Néstor Almendros, his DOP in 11 films, excelled. Almendros used natural light in all but the most intractable circumstances, loathed artifice and trickery, and contributed greatly to the unwavering feel of solid reality that anchored even the most abstract conversations in Rohmer’s films.
To achieve a feel of reality in what is by necessity one of the most contrived ways of telling a story is no small feat; and it is perhaps no accident that Rohmer came up with the best example I have yet seen of allowing the “outside world” in.
More or less halfway into Pauline à la plage, Marion (Arielle Dombasle) bumps into Henri (Féodor Atkine), having just left his house in distress because she has seen Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse) making out in bed. As she tells him the news, we notice a dog in the background, on the right corner of the frame. It stands on its hind legs and leans its front paws against a wall through which it looks intently – to the outside.
Whatever lies beyond the frame, it has the dog’s undivided interest. Clearly, it is far more important to him than anything Marion might be telling Henri. Such attention cannot fail to affect us, especially as we are only interested in the form of Marion’s report, having witnessed its contents together with her. The object of the dog’s curiosity, however, we ignore. And so we become curious ourselves, disturbed by that which is not part of Pauline’s plot, and which we will never know. And then, with perfect timing, just as Marion finishes her story, the dog decides it has seen enough, drops off from the wall and comes to the foreground. Up to this point, you might still be entertaining the idea that the dog might have just wandered into the scene by chance, a visitor from the wider world. It all looks so plausible, it throws you for a moment.
The most beautiful thing, to me, is how this was done: through pure framing – which is exactly how the humblest of holiday snapshots departs from reality to become narration. Through framing, Rohmer has reversed the operation by which you extract a moment from real life and insert it into your personal narrative (whatever was to the left of the Eiffel Tower at the moment you took your wife / boyfriend / child / best friend’s picture is no more, and the Eiffel Tower – that part of it that made it into the frame, that is – is now a backdrop for your little tale) and reminded you of how much more there is beyond what you can see: a story, all the stories, all of life outside the confines of Pauline’s, Marion’s and Henri’s stories – and by extension, of your own story. None of which, as you’re only too aware, mattered in the least to the dog.
 Yes, it’s that “watching paint dry” quote. Context, as always, is everything: when you think about the kind of person Harry Moseby is, it really wouldn’t make sense that he should be a Rohmer fan. I don’t know whether the writer of Night Moves, Alan Sharp, has ever gone on record as to what he really thinks of Rohmer: according to Roger Crittenden, in the original draft it was Robert Bresson, so it might not be too far-fetched to assume either to be merely standing in for “art-house cinema”. Arthur Penn, on the other hand, has made it clear that he admires Rohmer’s work.
 The story of the roses comes from Almendros’s memoir A Man with a Camera, where he discusses his collaboration with Rohmer at length. The memoir is now out of print but some lovely extracts can be found on the Museum of the Moving Image’s website.
 Even in Perceval le Gallois, shot in a soundstage with cardboard-cutout castles and trees, you still feel grounded to the concrete fact of those people parading about as if in a school play (that is to say, the reality of stylised, undisguised representation). This is surely one of the factors that makes watching Perceval such an unsettling experience.
Tags: cinema, En la ciudad de Sylvia, Éric Rohmer, framing, His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks, Jose Luis Guerín, L'ami de mon amie, La collectionneuse, Néstor Almendros, Pauline à la plage, Perceval le Gallois