Monday, October 25, 2010

Rendezvous In Paris

Rendezvous In Paris is one of Eric Rohmer's episodic films, like his sadly unknown 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. This is a triptych of three stories set in Paris, with the concept of the rendezvous as the driving force and structural foundation of all three. The three stories concern two-timers and cheaters, and revolve around O. Henryesque ironies and coincidences, the stories marked by cute twists and wry reversals that mask the more quietly emotional subcurrents running through all three tales. These are simple, even stereotypical stories — one girl discovers her boyfriend is cheating, another cheats on her boyfriend with an older man, and a painter clumsily juggles two women who aren't interested in him — told with the directness and playfulness that Rohmer typically brings to his work. It is a light film, even minor, in the context of Rohmer's career as a whole, but its simplicity is also a virtue. The dialogue, as usual in Rohmer, is refreshingly open and eloquent: Rohmer's characters don't always say what they mean, or even know what they mean, but they always speak in ways that reveal their souls, whether intentionally or not. Rohmer seems to have a profound belief in the power of talk, even when it's idle banter or lies.

In the first of the film's three stories, Esther (Clara Bellar) becomes obsessed with the idea, mentioned in passing by an admirer, that her boyfriend Horace (Antoine Basler) is seeing another girl on the side. The rendezvous here is an idée fixe for Esther: she's told that Horace meets another girl at a certain café at 7:00 on the evenings when he's not with Esther. After introducing this structuring idea, Rohmer allows the plot to meander along, with Esther's obsession with this supposed meeting always percolating subtly in the background. She tries to study for a test, confesses her worries to a friend, and then indulges a playful flirtation with a man (Mathias Mégard) she meets in an outdoor market, and all the while she's thinking about Horace's supposed meeting with another girl.

The scene where Esther flirts in the marketplace is a masterful piece of staging. As Esther walks along in the foreground of the shot, turning her head this way and that to look at the various stalls in the market, the man trails along behind her, telling her that he has a dentist's appointment and wants to pass some pleasurable time with her beforehand. Rohmer's camera drifts along with the pair as they walk, capturing the delicate struggle between them as the man flirts and tries to charm her, while she maintains a pose of faux-aloofness, pretending to be absorbed by the sights of the market around her, hardly ever even looking directly at the man who's strolling just behind her. It's a game, and a fun game to watch, this jockeying for position within the frame, this struggle to get the upper hand in a game of romance and flirtation. Rohmer captures the little details — Esther's studied air of casualness offset by a charmingly genuine smile, the way she keeps subtly cutting off her would-be suitor, preventing him from walking exactly next to her — that characterize these games between men and women, the games that are the subject of so many of Rohmer's films.

The games continue as Esther sets a fake date for the same café that Horace is rumored to frequent, a date she really has no intention of keeping. But when her wallet is stolen and then returned by a stranger named Aricie (Judith Chancel), who also has a date at that same café, it becomes obvious that Esther is meant to be at that meeting at 7:00, just as it becomes obvious to the audience what the ironic twist is going to be. The denouement is no less delightful for its obviousness and contrivance, though. It's a cutesy twist, a pat irony, but Rohmer uses it as a way of probing how the seemingly light games that men and women play with each other in love disguise deeper reservoirs of feeling. Esther plays off her confrontation with Horace as a game at first, acting as though she doesn't know him, letting herself be introduced as an old friend by Aricie, hiding bits of coded malice in her superficially playful patter. But it's obvious how much she's hurt, how shaken she is by this betrayal, and finally she can't hide behind the games anymore, and storms away. It's fitting that the final irony is also hurtful: she leaves without fulfilling her date with the man from the market, who shows up just after the drama has played out, looking around expectantly and hesitantly, already fearing the disappointment of the girl not showing up. These games of love, Rohmer suggests, are not the laughing matter that we sometimes pretend they are.

The middle story of this triptych also deals with unfaithful lovers, although from the opposite perspective: a woman (Aurore Rauscher) meets with a somewhat older man (Serge Renko) in parks around Paris, cheating on a longtime boyfriend who she almost thinks of as her husband. Rohmer's sense of geography, his attention to the nuances of place, is on full display here, as the two lovers meet in one park after another, always searching for novelty and "poetry" as they get to know one another and try to negotiate their clandestine relationship. They always meet in public, because the woman doesn't want to risk going too far by visiting his apartment, and as a result their relationship exists only in public, in parks where they walk with arms wrapped around each other, or kiss on benches in secluded areas, or playfully trot from place to place. Their conversation is at times banal, just idle chit-chat, at times touching on the deeper issues of love and intimacy that concern their relationship and the woman's continuing but increasingly loveless relationship with her other boyfriend.

The two lovers are unnamed, credited only as "elle" and "lui," suggesting that they are archetypes, paradigms of the dueling negotiations between men and women as they try to form relationships. They lie to one another, in small ways, telling each other conflicting stories about their desires and their feelings, never quite forming a solid bond: she's leading him on, keeping him at a distance, while he wants more but seems disappointed when she finally offers it. It's as though their relationship is perfect within the limited confines they set for it, and outside of that narrow purview it will inevitably collapse. As they slowly work towards discovering this truth, Rohmer revels in the beauty of the Parisian parks they visit, surrounding these hesitant lovers in rich, vibrant green hues that seem to enfold them at first, and which are increasingly replaced by bare trees and paths strewn with browning leaves as fall leads into the winter chill. Rohmer has always had a great feel for the seasons, around which he built a four-film series late in his career, and here he manages to film the chilly air, the coldness that makes these lovers want to cuddle closer on damp benches.

In the end, for their last tryst, the lovers play at being tourists in Paris, pretending that they've arrived for a sightseeing trip, and the metaphor of tourism in a subtle way comments on their own relationship. There's a sense of the temporary, of the scenic and superficial, in this relationship that exists only in parks. The ending is another ironic twist worthy of O. Henry, but as in the first segment, it's also an opportunity for the playfulness and games to give way to stark honesty. The woman, dropping her tourist act and dropping, too, the flirty charm with which she'd strung along her lover, finally tells him her true feelings, in blunt and painfully honest terms. It's yet another reminder that the charm and surface lightness of much of Rohmer's work can be deceptive, that the emotions at stake in these seemingly trifling stories can in fact be quite profound.

The third and final segment of Rendezvous In Paris, though, concerns much more frivolous and transient relationships than the more enduring ones in the first two stories. A painter (Michael Kraft) gets a visit from a friend of a friend, a Swedish woman (Veronika Johansson) who's visiting Paris and needs someone to show her around. He's not too interested in her, and she seems indifferent to him, and he takes her to a museum where he becomes fascinated by another woman (Bénédicte Loyen), who turns out to be married. There's a more subtle irony at work in this story than in the first two, with their broadly telegraphed twist endings. Throughout this story, the painter uses his work as an excuse, as a pretext, as a prop for conversation: when he doesn't want to do something, he says he's engaged in painting, and when he wants to impress a girl he talks about painting, pompously lecturing on form and color and history to seem intelligent. He's kind of a fraud and an arrogant jerk, like so many of Rohmer's male protagonists, absorbed in himself and so insecure as an artist that his art hardly seems as important to him as meeting girls. The irony arises because, at the end of the film, having passed an afternoon with the married girl who makes it clear that she's not interested, and having been stood up by the Swedish girl who he'd earlier intended to stand up himself, he's finally left alone with his painting, and the events of the day send him off in a new and potentially fruitful direction, injecting some life and vigor into his previously dull work.

This is, perhaps, another not-so-complex ironic twist, if a more subtly communicated one than in the first two segments. But it's Rohmer's sensitivity and wit that allows this point to resonate, as he patiently observes this cad at work and play. "I thought you were an artist, not a pick-up artist," the newly married girl observes wryly as he trots along behind her, much as the stranger in the market had behind Esther in the film's first segment. Like Esther, she seems playfully receptive, committed to her new husband but not so much that she won't indulge in a little harmless banter with this stranger, and even visit his apartment to see his paintings. And as in the first segment, Rohmer's fluency with body language is compelling to watch: the conversation in the painter's studio is a study in distance and intimacy, as the two slowly drift together only for her to abruptly break away, shattering the intimacy that occasionally threatens to develop between them. Their conversation, about art and the importance of searching for one's aesthetic, is a kind of mask for their innocent flirtation, but it's also the first time in the film, one senses, that when the painter talks about his art, he's doing so genuinely, rather than using his painting as an excuse or a tool or a symbol for his identity.

This kind of multi-leveled conversation, where surface meanings and subtexts intertwine and words are both revealing and deceptive, is typical of Rohmer. Even in such a simple, essentially light-hearted film, with its jaunty illustrated titles and interludes of street singers to introduce each tale, Rohmer is dealing with complicated emotions, with the question of how we discover what's important to us and what we want from our lives and relationships. This is, as with so many of the films Rohmer made in his later career, a youthful film made by an older man, with its cute young actresses and handsome leading men, their vibrancy and vitality bringing Rohmer's agile dialogue to exciting life. It's a fun film where even its humor and its playfulness contribute to its deeper themes.


DavidEhrenstein said...

So glad to see you writing about this one. It's minor Rohmer -- which means it towers above films made by all but a select few.

It's alos a perfect example of what we've lost with his passing. Rohmer championed intimacy and simlicity. He had an uncanny knack for making throughly charming, deeply affectign films out of stories that at first glance would appear to too insubstantial for a film at all.

Ed Howard said...

Well said, David. It's possible to imagine this film being made by any number of other directors - it's impossible to imagine it being any good in the hands of anyone other than Rohmer. He made romantic comedies the way they should be made.

Anonymous said...

I'm sick of people accepting that Rohmer is dead and simply moving forward. We can bring him back! We have the technology!

In other news, I haven't seen this one, but I love how Rohmer tends to take a sketch of a taboo situation and teases the fun out of the taboo. It's like the opposite of a discouraging provocateur like Noé or Haneke (who essentially attempt to create taboo), but no less important, and perhaps more influential, their being capable of being enjoyed perhaps no small part of this phenomena. Rohmer may be gone (may being the important word here), but at least people having sex with people they shouldn't be will live on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not sure exactly what "Taboo" situation you're referring to. Moreover Rohmer protagonists are
often blocked from getting accces to the objects of their affection.

Anonymous said...

'one girl discovers her boyfriend is cheating, another cheats on her boyfriend with an older man, and a painter clumsily juggles two women who aren't interested in him'

There is nothing taboo about sleeping with an older man when you have a boyfriend, no, you're right. My mistake. Ignore the word 'cheating' with the inherent implication of taboo.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Cheating" is certainly applicable. "Taboo" is far too grand and all-encompassing,IMO. Rohmer's characters frequently make mistakes, but he never lowers the "Morality" boom on them.

Ed Howard said...

"Taboo" is certainly too strong a word for Rohmer, who's interested in exploring his characters' struggles with morality and right/wrong (think the forever dithering protagonist of My Night At Maud's) but doesn't judge these people too harshly, whatever their foibles and missteps might be. Although, now that I think of it, some of Rohmer's characters DO create taboos for themselves, like the male antihero of Claire's Knee, who becomes obsessed with the should-he-or-shouldn't-he of touching an underage girl's knee. But the key point is that morality is a very complicated thing for Rohmer, never a black-and-white split between taboo and goodness.

Anonymous said...

I think we're agreeing in different words. Taboo refers to social acceptability - certainly sleeping with someone else when you are in a relationship is a common social taboo. I enjoy the way Rohmer treats such situations playfully, as in Claire's Knee, as opposed to pedantically, and he is then able to reveal the human complexities of the situation instead of obscuring them for the sake of ideological clarity. Part of exploring taboo is creating, rather than avoiding, any complications that arise. Again, I haven't seen this particular film, but I think this well describes Rohmer's typical approach.

One person doesn't make a taboo. I'm saying Rohmer doesn't attempt to create taboo. In that we are in agreement. My point is this: a girl having sex with an older man in a relationship is a social taboo. Period. It has nothing to do with Rohmer. Second point: Rohmer approaches these situations in an interesting manner, in my opinion. That's all I'm saying.

Jake Cole said...

I just watched this last night and loved it, as I have the handful of other Rohmers I've seen. I love that you highlight the push-pull movement of men and women; I've been struck not merely by the rich, sophisticated-yet-natural dialogue in Rohmer's work but his subtle aesthetic mastery. (My Night at Maud's manages to employ POV shots of characters the camera is facing!) I loved the gamesmanship of one person constantly pulling ahead of another, carefully repositioning the other, not only in the women keeping men at arm's length but the painter slyly pulling his conversation with the Swede closer to the other woman. It's a constant series of reversals that suits all the ironic twists well, and damned if Rohmer isn't fast becoming one of my favorite comic directors. I'm especially impressed how he can juggle those blunt reversals not only as punchlines but revealing, earnest, even hopeful insights into where these characters are emotionally and where they could conceivably go.

Also, even with the shortened runtime for each, I was so invested even from the start that I felt this strange hope that Esther somehow got Aricie's contact information and kept in touch later. They seemed to get along!

Ed Howard said...

Glad you liked this one, Jake. As I've said many times, even "minor Rohmer" is a delight on par with many other directors' best works, and this film is really lovely. I especially love that first segment with Esther, it's really charming and probably the best example of the push/pull framing that Rohmer is exploring here.

It was a truism for a long time that Rohmer's films are merely talky and stagey, but of course that's ridiculous, and totally misses all the subtle aesthetics at work in his films, in terms of design, color, composition, geography, and so on. His aesthetics are very subtle, which is what makes his work so exceptional, but it also means that a lot of people misunderstand or miss the complex formal play that's always going on around and beneath the surface chatter. He's one of my favorites, I'm glad he's becoming one of yours.

Jake Cole said...

I'm routinely impressed by the complexity of his work in its interweaving of dialogue with composition and editing (I think I laugh almost every time he cuts to a title card because of how and when the last shot ends). Years ago, when I set out to watch Godard's work, I did it because I felt so behind, but now I worry I've neglected all the other New Wavers, and Rohmer has gotten under my skin as much as Godard did when he finally clicked.

Of course, I fell for the two most prolific ones. I want to binge on Rohmer but I still need to resume my Godard watching. I stalled out after King Lear because I loved it so much I wanted to rewatch it a few times before moving on, but I'm equally eager to watch all the Comedies and Proverbs because The Green Ray hit me just as hard in a totally different way.