The Sign of Rohmer

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By Armond White

The late Eric Rohmer is not known for his audacity—but he should be. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete retrospective of the director’s quietly masterful career, “The Sign of Rohmer” (Aug. 18-Sept. 3), confirms his daring. This is an irresistible opportunity to see his experimental musical The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque, plus the erotic, psychological WWII drama Triple Agent (both previously unreleased in the U.S.) and his final exquisite classical myth The Romance of Astrea and Celedon.

A perfect example of Rohmer’s emphasis on people talking, relating and living is Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (not seen since 1987, showing Aug. 21). This multiple-story film—one of his most charming—describes Aesop’s Fable-style the friendship of two young women. It stands for Rohmer’s entire anecdotal approach and refines movies to their essence, not to dialogue but the live, imaginative moment.

Rohmer’s audacity doesn’t stress each episode’s moral (that was merely a device for his famous “Six Moral Tales” series that were really about faith). His understated depiction of how Mirabelle (Jessica Forde) and Reinette (Joëlle Miquel)—two skirt-vs.-slacks jeunnes filles—avoid daily crisis creates cinema about the phenomenon of existence. The simplest incident becomes the most momentous occasion, as in each story’s title: “The Blue Hour,” “The Waiter,” “The Begger, the Kleptomaniac and the Hustler” and “Selling the Painting.” Together they structure an observable arc turning nature to art.

Four Adventures belongs to that epiphanal period following Rohmer’s Summer (Le Rayon Vert) and Rendezvous in Paris of especially pared-down comical inquiries. Casually focused on characters discovering themselves through witnessing profound phenomenon—the quotidian felt as an adventure—Rohmer watches the two new friends’ developing intimacy. In this remarkably rich story, time (the world) seems to stop. When the girls awaken to watch a quiet dawn, Rohmer devotes cinema to contemplation: excitable Renette urges Mirabelle to wait for the blue hour of twilight. This moment is “hushed as if a secret was about to be revealed”—to use a phrase from silent-film master Josef von Sternberg.

Rohmer’s peaceful cinema stands out in our era of F/X noise and distraction. The country girl painter instructs the city girl ethnology student: “We need nature, not vice versa.” This is not “Eat Pray Ecology,” but a brave reintroduction of sophistication to the basic elements of nature and self-knowledge. Rohmer’s spare narrative encompasses Grimm and Perrault (as Mirabelle cites) plus La Fontaine as well as the 20th-century painters Felix Labisse and Paul Deveaux, where the natural, erotic and surreal blend.

This austere elegance is, at last, what mumblecore’s practitioners and hypesters need to learn: Rohmer wasn’t a hipster narcissist but an intent observer of life and language styles: The Catholic suburbs of My Night at Maud’s; the summer resorts of Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach; the tempting Parisian chic of Love, the Afternoon; the maritime customs of A Summer’s Tale; and the farming culture Reinette appreciates. Rohmer’s aesthetic skill ranged from intense dialogue to close-up details of the girls’ shoes as they meaningfully dance until midnight. Mumblecore has not yet achieved this excellence. Rohmer’s mastery was a matter of his artistic certitude and originality. Now recognized as one of the French New Wave’s worthy pioneers, he chose to keep boldly still in face of Godard and Truffaut’s paroxysms.

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The Sign of Rohmer
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Aug. 18-Sept. 3

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