REVIEW: DVD Release: The Essential Eric Rohmer

Film: The Essential Eric Rohmer
Release date: 10th May 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 414 mins
Director: Eric Rohmer
Starring: Serge Renko, Clara Bellar, Andy Gillet
Genre: Drama/Romance
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: France

With unusual choices, this collection is an intriguing introduction for the Rohmer newbie and a refreshing reminder for the aficionado of the great man’s talents – and they couldn’t offer greater contrasts.

The Sign Of Leo (1962)
Rohmer’s debut feature tells the cautionary tale of a Paris-based American, born under the sign of Leo and confident that luck is on his side.

In anticipation of an inheritance from a recently deceased aunt, he freely wracks up debts only to find himself in dire straits when his windfall fails to materialise...

Rendez-vous In Paris (1995)
In Rendez-vous In Paris, we witness three romantic encounters. In the first, a young woman agonizes over rumours that her boyfriend is two-timing her, and through the introduction of a third party who returns her stolen purse, she is led into a revelation that will influence her future life.

Another tale takes us on a guided tour of Parisian beauty spots with two teachers who are engaged in a platonic, highly romantic love affair. She claims to be in a loveless relationship with another man; her lover waits patiently while she ponders what she will do if or when she leaves her long term partner. Will she turn to the long suffering teacher, or not?

Finally, a flirtation evolves between an artist and a young woman he encounters in a gallery. The artist pursues the girl down the street, and after engaging her in conversation they end up in his studio, discussing attraction and love. Can he win over the girl he has fallen for so quickly?

Triple Agent (2003)
Triple Agent is basically a spy movie based on a true story, set in the 1930s and given historical context with astute use of vintage news footage.

Fyodor Vorodin is a White Russian General in exile, ostensibly working quietly and lawfully for a veteran’s association. His wife, Arsinoe, is a gifted amateur artist who befriends the neighbours in the upstairs apartment. Despite knowing that her husband is fond of political conversation and debate, she is unaware that he may have a secret life beyond the mundane – until she finds out by accident that he has been taking clandestine trips to Nazi Berlin. Who is he working for, and why?

The complex espionage plot unfolds alongside an examination of several relationships notably that between Fyodor and Arsinoe, but also Arsinoe’s friendship with her neighbours.

The Romance Of Astrea And Celadon (2007)
Honore d’Urfe’s seventeenth century novel is the inspiration for the final film, The Romance Of Astrea And Celadon.

A love story set in 5th century Gaul, it opens with beautiful shepherdess Astrea rebuffing her lover Celadon - mistakenly believing he has betrayed her with another girl. Distraught at losing her love, he throws himself into the river and is believed to have drowned; in fact, he has been rescued by a trio of beautiful nymphs and nursed back to health.

Months later, Astrea wanders into his life again and Celadon is thrown into a tormented dilemma. Does he obey her last words to him to never come before her eyes again – or is there a way around her command so that he may win her back?

These films are archetypal Rohmer - gentle, beautiful, and positively academic in places. Triple Agent is more political debate than James Bond, set against a carefully reproduced historical backdrop. The characters are cultured, well educated and awfully polite to each other, even when their political views diverge wildly, but underlying this is an exploration of loyalty and truth – and the human need to pigeon-hole people (we have people living in apartments; their allegiances to various causes, and private relationships). Arsinoe’s genuine hurt and anger as she confronts her husband about his secret existence is about more than just his failure to include her in all parts of his life, it is about trust in a wider sense, and about how the innocent or naive can be manipulated by those closest to them. The vintage footage is astutely used and contributes to a growing sense of tension in the film and the colour palate used by Rohmer is subdued and gentle, and leaves one with the memory almost of an album of sepia photographs, very apt considering its setting.

Rohmer‘s artist’s eye is displayed even better in The Romance Of Astrea And Celadon. This is a gorgeous film to look at, with beautiful young characters acting in truly Elysian locations, alongside verdant meadows, delightful chateaus, and woodlands with dappled sunlight. The shepherdesses look as if they have stepped straight out of a Frederick Leighton painting, dressed as they are in flimsy versions of the Roman woman’s stola - highly impractical for the work of herding sheep (this is not a film for those who are sticklers for historical accuracy). In order to enjoy and even understand this film, complete suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential, otherwise you will be in turn bemused and irritated by what will come across as florid speeches, improbable turns of the plot and horrendous singing. For example, putting the brawny Celadon into a frock, giving him a close shave and stick-on plaits, and having him speak in a wavering falsetto should fool no woman into thinking he is female, not even the disingenuous Astrea! Concentrate instead on the sheer beauty of this film, its gentle humour and the Shakespearean turns of the plot, and let it wash over you – and when it has finished, you will also be prompted into thinking about its underlying messages of the nature of love, loyalty and trust. There is more to this film than at first appears.

More young and beautiful actors can be found in Rendez-vous In Paris, and yet more ponderings on the nature of love, trust and betrayal. This time, set against the backdrop of modern Paris, the scenarios are more accessible for those who like realism in their films - although not many real-life lovers will wander the streets engaging in philosophical discourse to the extent that these characters do. Paris is important in the film, but it is the choices that the characters must make which stand out. This is a polite comedy of manners, with pretty speeches and little twists in each of the three stories for the characters to stumble over. However, not all the characters are appealing; the female teacher in the second story can be downright irritating and behaves shabbily towards her lover, but then even Rohmer can’t have universally nice folk in his films – life just isn’t like that (except in the world of Astrea and Celadon). Underlying these stories is the seamier side of relationships - sadness, broken trust and heartbreak - but offered to us in Rohmer’s deceptively gentle way.

Although these films have some themes in common, they are sufficiently contrasting to make this collection an intriguing introduction to Eric Rohmer. Don’t forget to look for the hidden and in some places unsettling messages to make the most of these films from the French master. GR

1 comment:

  1. I've always wanted to explore this director's work after seeing My Night With Maud last year which is pure poetry