Monday, August 25, 2008

A Tale of Springtime


Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Springtime opens with a dialogue-free five minute stretch that is, from a director known for his endlessly talky, conversational films, notable for its quietude and simplicity. Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) drives to an empty, messy apartment, putters around briefly, and then leaves in apparent frustration after half-heartedly attempting to clean up. She next drives to another apartment, to which she also apparently has a key, and walks into a room as orderly and symmetrical as the previous room was disordered and chaotic. The first lines of dialogue after this leisurely, uninformative opening come from a young man who walks in wearing only boxer shorts, obviously flustered to see her. These first few minutes are puzzling, minimalist and austere even for a director whose films were once famously likened to watching paint dry. But the symmetry between the two scenes establishes immediately one of the film's key themes, the importance of space and place to the individual's identity. Jeanne, though, remains an enigma throughout these near-silent scenes and the subsequent ones in which she chats briefly with the young man, who turns out to be her cousin's boyfriend.

The importance of these opening scenes only becomes apparent slightly later, in a startling moment when an offhand analogy unexpectedly crystallizes another of the film's underlying themes. When asked why she came to a party for an old acquaintance, where she knows no one and is obviously ill at ease, Jeanne cites Plato's story of the ring of Gyges. Even if someone had worn this ring, which grants the bearer invisibility, and watched silently everything she said and did during the course of the day leading up to this point, she says that they would still not understand why she had done what she did. What she's describing, of course, is the opening of the film itself, and the ring of Gyges is an ingenious metaphor for the cinema: the audience, granted an invisible vantage point by Rohmer's camera, voyeuristically spies on this woman as she goes through her prosaic day, coming no closer to understanding her thoughts or the rationale behind her actions. The cinema, with its emphasis on surfaces, actions, and words, is necessarily as limited as the senses of sight and hearing themselves; we all rely on appearances and the truthfulness of words to understand our fellow beings.

It is certainly appropriate that Rohmer, always very concerned with the ways in which place affects character, has made a film in which place is the central dramatic device of the story. As Jeanne soon explains to Natacha (Florence Darel), a younger girl she meets at the aforementioned party, she is currently shuffling between apartments because of a set of complicated circumstances. She has lent out her own apartment to her cousin, because Jeanne normally does not stay there in the first place. She lives with her boyfriend, who is currently away on a trip, and in his absence, the compulsively neat Jeanne finds that she can no longer tolerate the messiness that she usually puts up with out of love. The result is that she finds herself feeling at home nowhere, not comfortable alone in her boyfriend's place, and unable to stay at her own place either. This is why she goes to a party that she doesn't really want to be at, and her situation is resolved when Natacha offers her a place to stay instead. Even then, the idea of one's own place remains important to the film. Rohmer has always been aware of the ways in which people jealously stake out and guard their own bit of personal space; he pays tremendous attention to the decoration of his characters' apartments and homes, hanging paintings on the walls and using color to convey moods and personality traits. In this film, especially, the small, quiet dramas that Rohmer traces arise from the characters' possessiveness and defensiveness of those spaces that they consider their own.

The apartment that Natacha decides to share with Jeanne actually belongs to her father, Igor (Hugues Quester), who is rarely there since he, in a bit of symmetry that recalls Jeanne's situation, mostly lives with his girlfriend Eve (Eloïse Bennett). The apartment bears evidence of Natacha's parents' divorce, in the form of a curiously designed kitchen that was installed by an architect who her mother was having an affair with. And Natacha's room also holds the evidence of her not-so-long-ago childhood, toys and mementos that keep her surrounded by the past. Jeanne, for her part, is uncomfortable occupying Igor's room, despite the assurances that he will not return — and she is even more embarrassed when he shows up anyway. Natacha is also especially concerned with the protection of a country house that her family rarely uses now, but which is nevertheless associated with her happiest childhood memories. For this reason, she dreads the idea of Eve (who she dislikes intensely) setting foot in this place. The film's plot, sketchy and breezy even by Rohmer's standards, revolves around such trivialities. The film is at its best when these petty dramas provide an excuse for subtle, charming conversations that touch on philosophical and emotional issues with the same light hand, and at its worst when the characters take it all too seriously, exploding with melodramatic anger and tears.


Fortunately, the former predominates, and as usual Rohmer manages to make quite a bit out of relatively little material. The relationships among Jeanne, Natacha, Igor, and Eve are allowed to develop naturally and slowly, with Rohmer's observational camera maintaining a polite distance. The film is continually pointing out the opaqueness of its characters, and of people in general, as they chat and occasionally argue and react to one another in unpredictable ways. In two separate scenes, positioned as rough mirrors of one another towards the beginning and end of the film, Jeanne sits listening quietly to a Schumann piece, her eyes gazing blankly at a point somewhere off to the side of the camera, Rohmer photographing her from an oblique angle rather than staring directly. In both cases, her expression is blank, not at all as animated and expressive as she often is in conversation. She is obviously lost in thought, a condition that Rohmer respects by allowing her the silence and unknowability of private space. In the first of these scenes, in fact, his camera even gracefully pulls back, creating further distance between the audience and the woman's thoughts. These scenes, like the silent opening of the film, reveal nothing but their own surfaces and appearances, with none of the emotional or psychological insight that one would normally expect from such a moment. Rohmer is subtly, but explicitly, rejecting the facile movie convention that people in deep thought reveal themselves through their faces. The thought in this film is resolutely internal and unseen, and Rohmer reveals only as much of these characters' thoughts as they themselves can (or want to) express in their fumbling, uncertain phrasing.

If A Tale of Springtime is generally interesting and enjoyable in its very Rohmer-like treatment of character and incident, it is less consistent on a cinematic level. Rohmer's films are often accused of having nothing going on visually, which is certainly not true, neither here nor even more so in his 70s and 80s work. His economical camera moves and crisp, often elliptical editing establish a very precise, well-defined aesthetic that only seems like an absence of style on first glance. The opening minutes of the film, with the subtle symmetry of the editing and the visual contrast between the apartment of Jeanne's boyfriend and her own place, cleverly use purely visual storytelling to set up both the central character and the everyday dramas that will occupy her throughout the film. In the penultimate scene, Rohmer plays with a visual rhyme between a pale green vase and Natacha's torso in a green blouse — the kind of subtle details that frequently enrich his mise en scène. Elsewhere, though, he employs a flat, even ugly aesthetic, making some scenes — particularly in the first third or so of the film — seem disinterested and slipshod. The scenes at the party where Jeanne and Natacha meet, as well as the subsequent conversation at Natacha's apartment, have a workmanlike, television gloss that would make it difficult to defend Rohmer as a visual craftsman to someone who had never seen, say, My Night at Maud's. Rohmer fares better when the scene shifts to the countryside, and the springtime colors of flowers and greenery give the film a warm, pastel glow that he exploits to its fullest, both outdoors and in the colorful wallpaper of Natacha and Igor's country home.

The film also suffers, in part, from the performance of Quester as Igor, who is variously described as "youthful" and something of a ladies' man, but who instead comes across as simply awkward and inscrutable. Rohmer's characters are often purposefully unlikable, or even annoying, but Igor doesn't even have that much depth. He's simply a cipher, self-consciously closing his eyes when he talks, scrunched up like a clumsy little boy when he finally gets the seemingly inevitable love scene with the calm, self-assured Jeanne. One suspects that when the characters call him "youthful," they didn't quite mean childish, though that's how he comes across. It's difficult to tell, in the context of the film, if this is a fault of the script, Rohmer's direction, or Quester's performance, but the character simply fails to fill the role that the dramatic arc clearly requires of him. The women fare much better, as is often the case even in Rohmer's best films. The friendship between Jeanne and Natacha develops quickly but believably, and they have a rapport and chemistry that's almost instant. Even Eve, in a relatively minor role, becomes a concrete presence in the film. She is introduced, before she is seen, by Natacha's mean-spirited, wholly negative description of her as "vampiric." It's to Rohmer's credit that once she actually appears on screen, he is able to draw out a nuanced and even sympathetic portrait of this woman without completely obscuring what Natacha sees in her. A Tale of Springtime may not be Rohmer's best or most consistent work, or even anywhere near the top, but this sensitivity to character and relationships keeps the film from being totally forgettable.

9 comments:

filmbo said...

At this point, isn't criticism of Rohmer's visual choices a bit outmoded? Not that there isn't reason to critique his transparent camera, but I never liked the way some simply wrote-off Rohmer as a poor visual auteur. Rather, his entire approach, which seems to avoid any type of conscious "look" (aside from the art direction), is maybe the least insecure of any of his contemporaries.

And I would agree, this particular film is a bit on the weak side, but the two that follow are pretty terrific.

Ed Howard said...

Quite to the contrary, as I thought I made clear, I generally have nothing but praise for Rohmer's visual choices. I think he's a very visually interesting director, whose subtle use of color, design, and purposeful camera moves are every bit as stylized, in a more subdued way, as his New Wave contemporaries. He achieves his seeming naturalism through a very meticulous, precise visual style. There are moments in this film that have that same clear-eyed assurance, like the way he zooms out from Jeanne's blank stare as she listens to music, or the outdoor shots at the country home. But then there are other passages that have all the panache of a TV show, which is not an impression I've ever gotten from any of his films before. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the Four Seasons series, though, since even the weaker Rohmer films are always worth seeing and the great ones are some of my favorite films.

DavidEhrenstein said...

There are diakogue free temps morts in The Aviator's Wife as well.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, there are moments like that here and there in Rohmer -- I recall the similarly quiet, meditative sequences of Marie Riviere getting undressed for bed in The Aviator's Wife, which is incidentally one of my favorite Rohmers, if not my absolute favorite.

filmbo said...

Oh, I wasn't directing my complaint at you, just in general. Your post reminded me of what others have said.

James Hansen said...

Did you see "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon" yet? Lots of these criticisms are the same I have with that film, although, after seeing the film only once at NYFF last year, there is plenty memorable about it. Saying things like youthful and bittersweet can be good, but for Rohmer they can quickly turn into a small chide as well. Just wondering where you thought his most recent (and final) film fit into these discussions. I really need to see more of his work...

Ed Howard said...

I hope to see the new (last?) Rohmer soon, James. I don't think that the subject matter of Rohmer's films is much of a limitation though. Yes, they all tend to explore similar circumscribed areas -- youth, love, philosophical debates, introspection, loyalty and affairs -- but Rohmer generally gets a lot from these recurring subjects. There are a few that are weaker than others, like IMO this one and Full Moon in Paris, but for the most part I find his films endlessly rewarding. I don't know which films you've seen, but I'd heartily recommend the whole Six Moral Tales and Comedies and Proverbs cycles.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I found it rather weak -- particularly after the amazing Triple Agent

Anonymous said...

Nice review! I found it a bit funny that you compared this to Maud's since that's one of my least favorite Rohmer films and I was just thinking about how the visuals here were only slightly better than the ones there but other than that I think I agree with you.

I don't have an account here, but I don't want to be totally anonymous; this is me: http://www.imdb.com/user/ur14003708/boards/profile/
You can also find my brief review over there on imdb.