“Riding the New Wave” revisits the seminal films of the French New Wave movement in cinema that helped to redefine the art form in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series aims not to question the films’ places on cinema’s highest pedestals, but rather to view them with an eye for the modern audience to try to determine if they could still entertain today.
My plunge into the New Wave this week extended further than expected, the momentum from the first (and what was intended to be the only) film of the week carrying me through two more. In these films, all three directed by Eric Rohmer, I found, for the first time in this series, works of cinema that can be praised as fully realized versions of themselves, rather than my usual praise for inventiveness and cinematic-standard boundary pushing. My trifecta of Rohmer films this week all built around the same premise: A man is with a woman, he is tempted by another, yet he returns to the first – the three films capturing this push and pull each in their own ways, philosophically and even physically; in the first, we celebrate a flurried holiday in the provinces of Southern France; in the second, we float through our Summer on the lake in the cradle of the Alps; in the third, we hurry through the streets of Central Paris, spending an afternoon playing witness to the closed-door intrigues of office life.
Rohmer is the fourth of five “Cahier’s du Cinema” — the quintet of original New Wave directors who get their name for the magazine they all wrote at where they met. Unlike the others I’ve watched (Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard), Rohmer doesn’t seem as keen on experimenting on the screen, looking to experiment instead with the depth to which a subject can be explored if poked and prodded multiple times in multiple different ways. I did not happen upon my three Rohmer’s this week by chance; the three films, “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee,” and “Chloe in the Afternoon,” are the back half of a sextet of films Rohmer titled (astutely if not very creatively) “Six Moral Films.” The films share the most basic of story beats, but it is the unique ways in which Rohmer makes them differ that makes the set of six special. Rohmer makes a point, as well, not to take sides as to the philosophy in the films. In some way or another, he always includes the character’s own self-reflection as to their actions in the film, making the films not so much about the story events themselves, but about how the characters choose to respond to the choices they make.
The first leg of my Rohmer-romp was in the holiday spirit, a visit to the provinces, to the town of Clermont around Christmas time in his 1969 breakout film “My Night at Maud’s.” “Maud’s,” a film firmly rooted in the discussion, dissection, and (when necessary) rejection of Pascalian philosophy, dwells on the romantic choices of a self-isolated, middle-aged man whose prospects of love open up two-fold when faced with a decision between the woman of his dreams and a spontaneous lover. “Maud’s” looks at the provocative circumstances it sets up through a religious lens, much of the film consisting of very freely earned existential dialogue between the main characters. I appreciate the film, as well, for it’s respect to the time on screen. Rohmer seems to stay ever-conscious of the ticking seconds on his films’ clocks. No moment is wasted, nor dwelled on, making even a conversation piece like “Maud’s” move with affecting pace. He isn’t tempted, for instance, to make the ever-important night-at-Maud’s last longer than it needs to, whereas a less adept filmmaker might have saw his title and dragged on the scene longer than it should.
Following my holiday with “Maud,” I continued on to a summer lakeside retreat and Rohmer’s 1970 film “Claire’s Knee.” Before I even get into the plot and the conclusion, I have to touch on the sheer beauty of the film — “Claire’s Knee” is transporting. The film, shot and set on Lake Annecy in the south of France, is a barrage of striking mountain landscapes and French fields. And maybe what I like most about this aspect of the film, is that it never feels forced, it never really feels like it’s even on purpose. The wonderful images of the film exist fully within the scope of the story, Rohmer never cutting away from his characters to show something just because he likes how it looks. The photography is effortless. The plot of “Claire’s” revolves, similarly to “Maud’s,” around the protagonist veering away from his committed love before returning to her, in this case the her his fiancé. The leading man arrives at the lake to sell an old piece of property and by chance runs into a childhood friend. The friend introduces him to the family she is staying with and to the wielder of Claire’s knee (Claire), the joint that quickly becomes the object of his desires. The story plays out over the month of July in 1970, the days marked by little white cards – maybe the faces of marked envelopes, which appear on screen as time goes by. Instead of loading the drama of the film all on a few chosen days within the thirty, Rohmer spreads the events of the plot out very evenly through the month, creating the atmosphere of the long, sun-bleached days of summer.
The final installment of my Rohmer trifecta was also the final installment of his Six Moral Films: “Chloe in the Afternoon,” released in North America in 1972. Rohmer returns to his sextet with the most mature film of the lot. “Chloe” follows characters rooted in Bourgouis city life, the protagonist a well-to-do business man with a wife and child and another on the way. Though unable to be tempted by the many Parisian girls he sees on the day-to-day, his will is eventually broken by an old fling who returns to town. “Chloe” didn’t strike me as much as the two films former. It moves at a slower pace, and the will-they-won’t-they romance between the leading pair doesn’t feel nearly as inventive. Nevertheless, it works thematically as a bookend to Rohmer’s ambitious series of films.
Rohmer stands the test of time.
Sometimes, a classic movie will feel atmospheric because of how awkwardly lodged in its own time it remains. Rohmer creates a unique atmosphere for each of his movies, taking the audience somewhere they’ve never been before, and somewhere different than just however-many decades ago. “Claire’s Knee” especially built a world to let the story develop in. The only other movie I can think of that comes close to the same type of atmosphere would be the 2017 picture “Call Me by Your Name;” they each have the same type of setting and vibrance. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out that “Claire’s” is one of “Call Me” director Luca Guadagnino’s favorite films all-time.
Rohmer never lets his stories become theses. Often, I’ve found a film that aims at philosophy ends up structured more like an essay than a drama involving characters; it’ll have a main idea, a bunch of body arguments, and a conclusion, but there’ll never be an opportunity to experience those arguments with the bodies on-screen. For instance, the 2017 Swedish film “The Square” (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) had a lot of intriguing ideas behind it but telling a story that felt cohesive was not its strength. “Square” suffers from that common plight of essay-ness in a movie theater, becoming an assortment of scenes that come together as interesting social criticism over compelling narrative. Rohmer’s films have no fear of losing the philosophy if he doesn’t mention it at every point along the way. “Chloe” is wonderfully devoid of any audience hand-holding, his belief in his viewers’ ability to snatch up the ideological bread crumbs along the way coming at the benefit of his films’ viewing experience.
Well made philosophical films have added longevity because the topics they root their drama in were already old, already established as important, long before the idea for the film was conceived. The Pascalian musings that anchor “Maud’s” are relevant enough to have a film made about them centuries later. I don’t think they’re going out of style any time soon. I don’t think Rohmer is either.
“For one never makes a film out of nothing. To shoot a film is always to shoot something, be it fiction or reality, and the more shaky the reality, the more solid the fiction must be.”
Eric Rohmer, Six Moral Tales