Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale; De Niro in 15 Minutes

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

"Are three
girls at one time enough?" That’s the unnerving question at the heart
of A Summer’s Tale, the 1996 Eric Rohmer movie that will finally
have its American premier March 14-15, wrapping up Film Forum’s Rohmer
retrospective. This would seem to be the most accessible segment of Rohmer’s
Tales of the Four Seasons–his quartet’s allegorical view of psychology
and nature. It exults in the hedonistic expanse of summertime, beaches and windswept
idylls. Yet the film’s inability to get distribution before now proves
movie culture has moved past the interest in human complexity that welcomed
Rohmer’s previous releases. Not even a trio of girls in bikinis can assure
Rohmer a hit anymore. In the era of There’s Something About Mary,
Rohmer’s loquacious, indecisive romantics seem not conscientious but weird.
Yet, just at the time most moviegoers lack a seasoned, well-reasoned view of
love troubles, this delayed exhibition of A Summer’s Tale reminds
one how Rohmer makes romance exquisite.

Flipping the
gender-geometry of that Farrelly brothers hit, A Summer’s Tale shows
a young man’s head-swimming uncertainty once his romantic options increase.
Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) waits for his errant girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin)
to show up at a resort in Brittany, but two other women complicate his life–Margot
(Amanda Langlet), an ethnologist working as a waitress, and another vacationer,
Solene (Gwenaelle Simon). Gaspard’s dark, curly hair suggests a head full
of question marks. Poupaud portrays fecklessness superbly–from Gaspard’s
awkward clapping during a sing-along to his shyness when sitting in the passenger
seat of a car driven by Solene, who stops to speak to Margot. Liberated from
his lonely beach wanderings and guitar-playing, Gaspard tries justifying his
every casually desperate move. He vacillates between Solene’s no-nonsense
tigress, Margot’s insightful soul mate and hard-jawed, selfish Lena. Rohmer
sees these young adults as animals in a sensual world; he follows their beachcombing,
steadily observant of the gleaming, indifferent, natural environment. The camera
moves with them (each couple has a particular rhythm–Gaspard even walks
differently with each woman) and every pause reveals a composition that is a
scenic beaut. The late, blessed cinematographer Nestor Almendros defined Rohmer’s
sun-bright style (I had occasion to tell Almendros that Pauline at the Beach
was the most beautiful comedy ever filmed in color), and every shot here (by
Diane Baratier) is fittingly simple but ebullient.

While Gaspard’s
drama is not etched as sharply as the short stories in Four Adventures of
Reinette and Mirabelle
or Rendezvous in Paris (the latter is evoked
when Lena cuts Gaspard, "You’re better from a distance, like a painting"),
Rohmer views mankind’s intimate struggles with laid-back, Olympian wonder.
In A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer achieves vivacity without being frenetic.
This is his particular kind of precise, subtle epic (his Fanny & Alexander),
summing up constant themes and caprices. It has Pauline’s sensual
settings (and bodies), A Tale of Winter’s faithful patience, Claire’s
’s transference of one couple’s platonic attraction onto an
erotic wager, Le Rayon Vert’s venture into the abyss of solitariness,
and My Night at Maud’s view of foolhardy masculine ego.

Seeing his
own intellectual, spiritual pursuit in Gaspard and Margot’s passion, Rohmer
refreshes his style through a subtheme: Gaspard and Margot’s ethnographic
interest in how sea chanteys express the way of life for Brittany’s maritime
inhabitants. Painting and literature were the bulwarks of Rohmer’s other
bourgeois protagonists but A Summer’s Tale signals a class breakthrough.
Folk ritual underlies Gaspard’s unconscious habit of composing his own
versions of the blues on guitar. Though a vacationing designer with a degree
in math, Gaspard has a blues musician’s dilemma. Logic battles emotion;
the intellect tussles with sensuality. ("It’ll serve you right to
have to choose," Margot warns him.) Rohmer follows Gaspard’s indecision
as a way of examining the toughest part of romantic life. Noting sea chanteys
as a record of experience, Rohmer comments on his own artistic singularity.
(The irony of Gaspard writing folkloric blues in the rocker matches Rohmer doing
philosophical romantic comedies in the Farrelly era.) Gaspard says, "I
put myself in the mind of a sailor," as Rohmer always puts himself in the
mind of youth–a prime state of perpetual romantic conflict but with an
old salt’s bemused regard of love. Rohmer acknowledges the universality
of the sea chantey, but A Summer’s Tale’s blend of melancholic
male and female longings creates a bittersweet symphony.


Directed by John Herzfeld

Before you
eventually give up on 15 Minutes, Robert De Niro has several moments
that forestall condemnation. As New York homicide detective Eddie Flemming,
De Niro juggles several stress points: his local celebrity conferred by a tv
anchorman (Kelsey Grammer), an unsolved killing spree by a psychopathic duo
(Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov), a tv-reporter fiancee (Melina Kanakaredes)
and tagalong young arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns). For each
of them, De Niro–in the midst of Eddie’s quest–pauses for eye
contact and fellow-feeling. He’s frequently astounding–especially
his tearful regret when Eddie’s marriage proposal is interrupted, and the
working man’s commiseration mixed with fatherly impatience when Eddie covers
for Jordy to his boss. The surprise is seeing how much palpable humanity this
wonderful actor brings even to a movie this garbagey. He ought to know better.

De Niro has
long exceeded the kind of specious, working-class ordinariness that passes for
realism on tv cop shows like Homicide and NYPD Blue. Never lachrymose
or truculent, De Niro finds the heart of characters that enables you to read
their basic impulses and essential nature even while replicating routine social
behavior. (His underrated performance in Joel Schumacher’s Flawless
preempted amazement from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s poignant drag act.) Eddie
Flemming is a fantasy creation, but his feelings are more deeply recognizable
than the high-profile arrogance and glamorized bigotry by which lesser actors
pretend truth. All this is why 15 Minutes’ most offensive scene
is the one that denigrates De Niro’s gift and the audience’s natural,
heartfelt response to him. Facing off against the crazed killers, Eddie looks
directly at one with disgust and incredulity. Their bloody spitting match feels
shockingly right (on Eddie’s part, its almost heroic) but it’s followed
by a fight in which De Niro, tied to a chair, attempts to literally sit
the villain to death. How did this great actor get involved in something so
ludicrous, so laughable! Immediately writer-director John Herzfeld cranks the
gears and Eddie gets defeated. The villain guts him–and the movie, too.

Sometimes you
don’t mind the game being played at action movies, ratcheting up violent
opposition–even in stunts like that dumb chair-sitting. But when a hero
is killed just to be stylish, the lack of satisfaction is demoralizing. Herzfeld
is unworthy to work with De Niro; he apparently doesn’t value De Niro’s
talent for making common-man emotions lucid and trenchant. When a filmmaker
kills off the one character who gives his movie heart, he disrespects the audience’s
well-being. The violence in 15 Minutes is simply cynical, opportunistic
and flashy. Herzfeld’s pretense of decrying media sensationalism is exposed
by 15 Minutes’ shamelessness. He prefers to heap nihilism on the
audience rather than dramatize (validate) the humanity of a central character.
In addition to disgracing De Niro’s performance (and cinematographer Jean-Yves
Escoffier’s vibrantly hued noir-city), Herzfeld indicts a crass, celebrity-mongering
media so vicious that it would broadcast a videotape of Eddie’s murder
for ratings. It’s the outhouse calling the latrine a toilet.

Importing the
misery of Eastern Europe, Herzfeld concocts Russian and Czech emigrants as villains–inhumanity’s
disease spreading globally. "I love America," one of them says. "No
one is responsible for anything." But that includes the filmmakers who,
in a pomo twist, make one of the killers a camcorder junkie who videotapes their
crimes, slavering for outrageousness. "Oh no, a human barbecue!" he
cheers just before a man is set afire. Whether that’s a direct translation
or a global pop term, the false excitement is odious. So is the "ironic"
legend Herzfeld puts across the screen: A FILM BY OLEG RAZGUL. Clearly, we no
longer have a morally based popular cinema. The bad idea from Henry: Portrait
of a Serial Killer
(of self-consciously presenting violence as truth) is
part of the atmosphere; it’s now culturally accepted, fooling some people
as profound.

the biggest fool. He has the Razgul character boastfully call himself "Frank
Capra" just before fomenting pandemonium in Planet Hollywood. This idiotic
parody of mass hysteria misunderstands the pop culture it attempts to deride.
Cornball Capra would have respected his audience enough to propose a helpful
group action–perhaps a democratic referendum expressing mass disgust or
revolt. But Herzfeld keeps pushing the action toward more absurdity and more
violence. Very early on, 15 Minutes stops being an investigation into
millennial amorality and becomes a heartless demonstration of the problem itself.