Friday, August 21, 2009

Triple Agent

Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent is an elusive, enigmatic spy thriller, one in which all the actual spy action takes place offscreen, unseen but much talked about afterward. Rohmer, hardly known as a director of spy pictures, structures the film much like one of his much more characteristic observational relationship dramas, except that in this case the characters' relaxed, naturalistic conversations dance around the edges of political intrigues in 1937 France, just on the verge of World War II. The film centers on a single couple: the White Russian exile Fiodor (Serge Renko) and his Greek wife Arsinoé (Katerina Didaskalou). Fiodor is a political attaché with a right-leaning group ostensibly dedicated to providing aid to exiled veterans of the White Russian Army, who had fought against the Bolsheviks. In fact, he cavorts around Europe on shadowy tasks, courting contacts with the Nazis, the Soviets, various national Communist parties, and other groups of varying political allegiances. His purpose is mysterious, even to his wife, who catches only momentary glimpses of his activities. He is reticent with her, but in conversation with others he is constantly making references to his mysterious activities, sometimes seeming to be supporting one side, sometimes another. He is intriguingly opaque, especially since he more or less admits to Arsinoé that he often lies when speaking to others, deliberately making them think he's doing one thing when he might be doing another. He says that he doesn't want to lie to his wife, but throughout the film it becomes increasingly clear that this, too, is not true, that he is not only keeping secrets from her, which would be expected in his line of work, but is actually telling her lies as well, like disguising high-level meetings in Berlin as a minor detour to Brussels.

The way Rohmer explores this enigmatic figure is fascinating to behold. Never once does Rohmer ever actually show Fiodor on his trips or spy missions, or whatever it is he's doing in the long stretches of time where he's away from home. His activities and allegiances are left entirely to the imagination. The only information Rohmer doles out about this man comes from the spy's elliptical, often frustrating conversations with his wife. At times, the normally reserved Fiodor becomes positively animated, spilling out complicated torrents of information and heading off on so many tangents that the main point of the question he was supposed to be answering is quickly forgotten. It's apparent that he's an expert talker, that this unassuming man can be dazzlingly clever and manipulative. He knows it, too, and in his conversations with his wife he sometimes takes on an attitude of gleeful pride in how he is able to control and manipulate world affairs. According to him, a word from him — or the lack of a word — can change the course of events for entire nations. Since Rohmer never follows Fiodor away from his wife, it's impossible to know how much of his patter is truth and how much lies, how much he's exaggerating his own importance.

Who is he working for? What is he up to? What's his agenda? What does he really believe? Fiodor is extraordinarily difficult to pin down, especially since his ideas, as expressed verbally anyway, are constantly in flux. Talking to his Communist neighbors (Amanda Langlet and Emmanuel Salinger), he espouses rightist ideas and sardonically points out the contradictions in the Soviet party line, enjoying the Red couple's squirming. But when speaking to his royalist Russian cousin (Vitalyi Cheremet) he disparages the fascist regime of Franco and calls the Communists reasonable. He seems to be deliberately blurring his allegiances, and never more so than in the breathless monologues directed at his wife, punctuated with his curt assurances, "let me explain," a disclaimer almost always followed up with lengthy and ludicrously detailed stories, complete with to-the-minute timetables. His wife, in any event, is less interested in the details of his stories than in the mere fact that he seems to be opening up to her for once, letting out glimpses of the emotions he usually maintained clamped shut behind his bland demeanor. Arsinoé is the film's heart, as confused and out of the loop as the audience, and placed in the same position: forced to either disbelieve Fiodor entirely, or take his tortured explanations and rambling discourses about his political actions at face value.

Thus, while the film is seeped in politics, set in an era of extreme political turmoil, possibly the most tense and uncertain era in European politics, its center is actually another relationship drama from a director who has long explored the complex interplay of deceit and desire between men and women in love. Arsinoé is devoted to her husband, sometimes nauseatingly so. Every time he leaves home on one of his mysterious trips, she acts out a repetitive ritualistic goodbye: she holds his coat for him, cuddles close for a warm, loving goodbye kiss, and then watches him with smiling eyes as he leaves, seeming to savor this glimpse of him to last for a while. The slightly stylized romance of these goodbyes begins to unravel, however, when Arsinoé starts to become more suspicious of and frustrated with the extreme secrecy of her husband's lifestyle. She hears him casually telling other people things she never knew about, and hears stories from her friends that contradict things he has told her, and she realizes that in many ways she is entirely shut out from his life. Rohmer, always subtle, leaves much of this unstated, communicated by the expressions on Arsinoé's face and the kinds of questions she starts to ask her husband with probing interest.

Rohmer observes these scenes from a calm, languid distance, never quite breaking the surface of these characters but carefully catching the nuances of what they choose to show, and what they're unable to hide. In Fiodor's case, what primarily becomes apparent about him is his eagerness, his love of the spy's life, his image of himself — whether imaginary or accurate — as a bon vivant man of action with the fate of the world in his hands. There's an excitement and energy in his voice when he talks about his spy activities, and even in his posture, eagerly leaning forward to explain what he does and why. This danger-loving spy seems to emerge only occasionally from Fiodor's Walter Mitty exterior, his guise as a bureaucratic "pencil pusher" bored by his job. One wonders which is the truth: is Fiodor a bored office drone playing at being a spy, or is he really a top-level agent playing everyone against each other? Arsinoé, meanwhile, is patient and loving, though she does, in a moment of characteristically Rohmerian subtlety, let out a brief glare of annoyance when Fiodor, in his eagerness, interrupts her to tell a story of his own. The moment passes and Arsinoé silently forgives her husband, her annoyance fading into a smile, but the audience sees the truth: Fiodor is self-absorbed and doesn't much care what his wife has to say about her own life. He never takes the interest in her, or her artistic activities, that she takes in him.

Though this relationship is at the core of the film, Rohmer is also dealing with the historical context of the pre-war era, when the pieces were slowly shifting into place for what would eventually become World War II. He peppers the film with genuine newsreels, artifacts of the time, documents that provide a sense of verisimilitude. As with the unseen spy action, history seems to be happening elsewhere, at the fringes of the story, only sporadically commented upon by the characters. These people are not oblivious to politics, to the state of the world; quite to the contrary, they are constantly engaged with it. And yet even they seem to be on the periphery, not catching the significance of what's happening, unable to understand where things are heading — and incapable of grasping just how ancillary everything they do really is on the historical scale. After an abrupt and startling conclusion to Arsinoé and Fiodor's story, Rohmer finally pulls back for a more objective, large-scale observation of the events going on in this era. The ten-minute epilogue condenses the post-1937 build-up to World War II, and the invasion of France by the Nazis, into a dense collage of newsreel images, history taking over from the small-scale personal drama of one Parisian couple. The film's final moments are an irreverent, morbidly comic final tweak at Rohmer's characters, indeed at the entire story he's decided to tell, exhibiting a deadpan wit about just how pointless it all is, how so much talk and talk about politics could actually say so little about concrete realities.

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