Rohmer's A Summer's Tale; De Niro in 15 Minutes
"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 Knee'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.
Herzfeld's 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.
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