Monday, April 4, 2011
The Tree, the Mayor and the Médiathèque
Eric Rohmer's The Tree, the Mayor and the Médiathèque is a charming country film, a kind of political romance centering on a rural mayor's plans to build a comprehensive cultural center in a small rural town with a declining agricultural tradition. The mayor, Julien (Pascal Greggory), is a socialist who believes that his bold plan for a big center combining a theater, a cinema, a sports complex and a library will revitalize the countryside. Not everyone agrees, from his novelist girlfriend Bérénice (Arielle Dombasle), who's skeptical of the project's ambition to be modern while blending into the country, to the local schoolteacher Rossignol (Fabrice Luchini), who's mortified by the project's prospective erasure of a whole tract of beautiful green land. The film consists largely of a series of conversations, between these characters and others, that become debates on the oppositions of right and left, city and country, progress and conservation, tradition and modernity.
Julien's project, his grand ambition to reshape the country, is posed as a leftist idea, as a way to invigorate a countryside that's been decimated by the changes of industrial agriculture — the few small farms left are struggling and it's obvious that many more will have disappeared within a few more years. Thus Julien can position the ecologists, the nature-lovers and conservationists, as "reactionaries" in his political vocabulary: the left wants to develop the country, to institute progress, while the right gets hung up on a few trees that would be uprooted, a few picturesque views that might be tarnished. It's a neat reversal, one that illustrates just how fluid the definitions of right and left can be, and how inadequate such dialectics can be for encompassing the complexity of real politics. The magazine editor Régis (François-Marie Banier) and his reporter Blandine (Clémentine Amouroux) also identify as leftists, but they have very different visions of this leftism from one another and from Julien. Régis is a political dogmatist who seems to think in terms of taking sides, and thus looks on Julien's local politics as a distraction from the broader theoretical dialectics that define political philosophy on a national scale. Blandine, on the other hand, keeps her own opinions largely to herself, arguing first one way then another, a true journalist who seeks to clarify and identify the views of others.
These conversations circle around the same issues again and again, using this small local issue as a focal point for discussions that are often very dense and theoretical but never dry. There's something charming, even playful, in the film's endless dialogues. In the early scenes, Julien walks around his garden estate with Bérénice, explaining his project to her as they examine the plants, flowers and vegetables growing on his expansive grounds. The two are talking about abstract and political issues, debating the importance of the proposed cultural center and quibbling over the authenticity of a modern building that would be styled to blend in with the aged local architecture, even appropriating stones from disused local buildings. Their conversation is thus impersonal and political, at least on the surface, but the way they talk to one another is flirtatious and charming, as though they're courting one another through talk that seemingly has nothing to do with romance or love. The quick-witted repartee is fluid and spontaneous, establishing the comfort of these lovers with one another and their intense interest in one another: they're talking about rural development and local electoral politics, but the subtext is much more personal.
Just how personal is revealed in Bérénice's references to the beach: "I don't do anything at the beach either, but I don't get bored there." Sure, because for Rohmer the beach is the site of sexual intrigues, of dalliances, of fleeting loves and summer romances — the territory of Pauline at the Beach or the sensual opening of A Winter's Tale. Of course, Dombasle herself was a star of Pauline at the Beach, and Greggory was in the film too, so the reference seems especially self-conscious, an acknowledgment that, as in many of Rohmer's films, these particular actors have been chosen for the continuity they provide with the director's previous work. The rural paradise of this film is thus connected to the seaside retreats of past films, and these characters who charmingly chat about politics are associated with other Rohmer heroes and heroines who were more overtly concerned with love and sex.
Rohmer also uses the landscape itself as a counterpoint to all these words. Julien can be very eloquent about the appeal of his project, very convincing, but his vision of reinvigorating the countryside is continually belied by the vigor all around him. The beauty of the country, its peace and warmth, seems to be mocking his belief that anything further is needed. The early scenes when Julien walks around the garden with Bérénice are especially bucolic and lovely, but the whole film is an ode to greenery and lushness, as the bright hues of the countryside provide an evocative backdrop to the characters' perambulations. It's as though the landscape is conspiring to subtly support the perspective of Rossignol, with his passionate, verbose defenses of unspoiled natural beauty. (Luchini, another Rohmer veteran, delivers a lively performance as the schoolteacher with an activist's angry conviction and a defeatist's pessimism.)
By the end of the film, it's obvious that Rohmer is having a bit of fun at the expense of political conviction itself, suggesting that "the people" about whom everyone purports to care so much will just continue to make their own way through life while grand political ambitions thrive or fail with little concrete impact. Julien is pompous and loves to hear himself talk, and a big part of his project is certainly the feeding of his own ego. Rohmer absolutely demolishes the character in a scene where he stomps back and forth, delivering a grandstanding political oratory to a ten-year-old girl who has just thoroughly out-argued the politician. But Rohmer doesn't eliminate the character's appeal; Julien is at least refreshingly unconcerned with being the "right" kind of socialist or politician, an issue that concerns the much more dogmatic Régis a great deal.
That dogmatism is a leftover of the sectarian squabbling of '60s leftists, even though Régis himself castigates that very mentality. At one point, Régis makes reference to the "totalitarianism" and Maoism of 1968, which seems to be a bit of a jab at Godard and the other New Wave filmmakers and youths who fully embraced the radicalism of that era. It's also an acknowledgment that all extremism — all idealism, perhaps — is ultimately totalitarian to the extent that one wants to impress one's own vision of the world onto others. Everyone in the film keeps arguing for their own way of thinking, their own perspective, based on their relative weightings of the values they hold dearest, without pausing for a moment to consider other ways of thinking, other possibilities.
That's why it's so refreshing when Blandine, gathering material for a story on Julien's project, doesn't just talk to Julien and Rossignol, but wanders around the rest of the village, talking to farmers and local residents, asking them questions that are more theoretical than directly about the project itself. It turns out that people have their little dissatisfactions and their big problems, that they have some small ways they could imagine improving things, that they're as stumped as the politicians about the big issues, and that none of these people align neatly with the clichés imposed upon them from outside. After all the circular debate and philosophical blather of Julien and Rossignol and Régis, it's great to hear real people talk about their real lives, and these sequences have the quality of a documentary interlude spliced into the fictional film. The locals provide an alternate perspective to the more dogmatic competing ideologies of "progress" and "ecology" represented by Julien and Rossignol, respectively. The women, too, provide a counterpoint to the men, as both Bérénice and Blandine play the role of "devil's advocate," the latter quite literally in her role as a reporter asking questions, and the former more subtly as she deflates Julien's ambitions with deliberate provocations while playing the part of the unapologetic urban woman of the world.
The film ends with what's basically a shrug, as the project falls through and country life returns to normal. The finale takes place at a park where the locals are holding a community fair, everyone picnicking and having fun, children running around, playing games, the beauty of nature surrounding them all. In the midst of this idyll, all that's left for the principal characters to do is to sing, to face the camera in some of the film's very first closeups, brazenly breaking the fourth wall as they narrate this saga's disappointments and lessons in song. It's a wonderfully unexpected finale, playful and flippant, but also so very wise. Sometimes, it's far better to cast all the politics aside, to play in the meadows and sing. At the end of the film, these characters put aside their debates and their rhetoric and allow themselves to be seduced by the sensual pleasures that had been wrapped around them, verdant and ripe, throughout the film.