Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Summer's Tale

(Eric Rohmer, France, 1996)

I feel a personal affinity to the work of Rohmer's that I've seen.  Not that I'm entirely comfortable with this affinity; there's a lot in these movies, and particularly about his male characters, that's quite clearly unlikable.  But like this film's protagonist, the taciturn, boyish Gaspard, I find myself often running aground on the shoals of indecision, alternately idealistic and cynical, and befuddled by love, or lack thereof.  Perhaps that's an unfair assessment, both of myself and of Gaspard, who can't seem appreciate the fact that his biggest problem is choosing between three vivacious and beautiful young women, all of whom are into him in one way or another.

The stark, rhythmic nature of Rohmer's style always strikes me as a master class in precision and restraint.  His frames are as elegant as they are canny, and become strikingly expressive with the smallest movements and juxtapositions - they both highlight the work of his excellent actors and underline his personal perspective.  It's possible to see Rohmer as a kind of buttoned-down, classical New Wave master, in that his treatment of sex is predominantly inferred and often symbolic.  And he is classical, easily the most classical of the New Wave, by interest and by temperament.  But the work is never prudish or convention-bound, even if it's never explicit.  Rather, sex is the engine of Rohmer's imagination, and his careful way with cinema can be surprisingly, torridly erotic, even if it does so through omission and implication.

A Summer's Tale works well as the story of a frustrated romance; it's clear from the outset that Margot is the right girl for Gaspard, but he doesn't realize this until its too late.  Indeed, by the time he realizes his affections, he has already decided to sacrifice it in the name of artistic purity, although there's the suggestion that this is merely an excuse to avoid asserting himself.   The film plays with the notions of fate and coincidence; while Gaspard has the kind of listlessness and empty-vessel curiosity that is often the hallmark of an artistic type, it finally seems to see his indolence as a flaw.  Does he high-mindedly choose his artistic ambitions over the possibility of romance, of sexual release and immediate bliss?  Or does he merely flee, unable to live in the moment, unable to pursue his desires, and offer up aesthetic purity as cover for his cowardice?

Besides the delicate, evocative mood, and the confidently understated philosophical musings, what I appreciated most in A Summer's Tale was the facility with behavior.  I'm not familiar with people praising Rohmer's movies for their psychological insight, but this seems particularly exemplary of that quality.  In these films, and it seems as well that the same is generally true of French culture, interactions - particularly between men and women - have a kind of theatrical air.  The tone can shift quickly, even bewilderingly, from affected nonchalance to high drama, but one gets the sense that it's never without a certain quotient of self-consciousness.  Much is discussed, very little is resolved.  Plenty of the conversations in this film were perfectly familiar, and not at all diminished by feeling a bit written.  But what can seem artificial might indeed point to a larger, cultural level of artifice that we rough-hewn and pragmatic American's simply lack.  Underneath it are emotions - raw, unpredictable, dangerous, decisive.

Rohmer's solution to this is cinematic; while we hear much straight talk about romantic "types," about love,  fate, and principles, what do we see?  Lots of lots of nubile flesh, filmed with frank ardor by a man in his mid-seventies.  It's no coincidence that Rohmer made so many of his films at the beach.  The young, mostly-revealed bodies suggest deep, oceanic currents of desire that cannot be addressed directly, either by the director or by the characters.  The camera tells the truth that the words only hint at.  This, it seems to me, is the source of Rohmer's obsession: the physical fact of strange, wild biology that troubled his exquisitely refined mind.  Sex is everywhere, but it cannot be addressed.  For some unspeakable reason, it cannot even be accessed. (It's worth noting that for all of the fetching females he finds in his orbit - barely clothed, although never fully naked - Gaspard  never actually gets laid on his summer vacation.)   It's tantalizing, even a little unsettling, to imagine what lurked within, and what movies we'd see if he'd had more direct access to it.

(It should be noted that while with Rohmer, I do think that sex is what makes spot run, you can't reduce his movies to that subject alone.  He seems equally to understand the longing for like-minded companionship, for the love that can flourish from intellectual affinity, for the soulfulness of romantic synchronicity.  It's just that he seems to see the contingency of the universe, with all of those spinning bodies, as being a kind of infernal impediment to such synchronicity.  I understand that Rohmer was married for all of his adult life to one woman.  I can't help but wonder what that relationship was like.)

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