There it is, on this year’s Venice Classics lineup: Adieu Philippine (1962), Jacques Rozier’s loose-limbed debut about a young TV technician’s dalliance with a pair of Parisian girlfriends as he awaits being drafting into the Algerian War. It’s a film whose sighting on this roster would have been of little consequence were it not for the days and weeks I have spent contemplating the curiously frustrated, abortive career of its director. This Venice honour truly does feel like an arm appearing suddenly at sea, waving, hinting that the oft-ignored Rozier might this time be hauled close enough to shore for his work to enjoy a new-found and sustained appreciation. Then again, in an era of vigorous, well-resourced cinephilia, it was only natural that Jacques Rozier would sooner or later find his way into an adoring spotlight, championed by the likes of Richard Brody and Alex Ross Perry, amongst others.
Yet, of the precious handful of features Rozier managed to will into existence between the years 1960 and 2001, Adieu Philippine is probably the one least in need of being rescued from obscurity. Often cited as an essential New Wave film,1 Rozier’s picture won critical praise and the vocal admiration of his peers. Gracing the cover of a 1962 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, a special edition boldly titled “Nouvelle Vague”, is a still from Adieu Philippine featuring actors Yveline Céry and Stefania Sabatini atop a boat somewhere near Corsica, swimsuit-clad and waving hello, or perhaps adieu. Within the issue is a glowing endorsement that is arguably truer of Rozier’s subsequent efforts than of his debut:
“[Adieu Philippine] is the paragon of the New Wave, the one where the virtues of jeunes cinéma shine with their purest brilliance, where its methods receive the clearest and most convincing demonstration of their merits, be it on-the-go shooting, the selection of new faces, TV-style borrowings [or] the casualness of the narrative.”2
Earlier that year, the film had premiered at Critics’ Week in Cannes, preceded by an overly flattering introduction by Jean-Luc Godard who declared it “quite simply the best French film of recent years”, comparing Rozier to “the great poets, like Flaherty, Rouch or Dovzhenko” in terms of his lyrical, subjective reframing of natural spaces and of landscapes. High praise indeed – perhaps too high, to the point of becoming a jinx, which is perhaps what befell Rozier when Godard stated, in the same introduction, that “Adieu Philippine is designed for the public at large – which is to say, for the television public.”3
One can only imagine how Rozier might have swallowed such a statement in 1962, decades before the advent of Peak TV and the grudging cine-migration of big-screen artists from the 50-foot to the 60-inch. Perhaps, even back then, television was deemed – by progressive young filmmakers – a vital new frontier in motion-picture art. Sadly, the public for which Adieu Philippine was apparently designed could not save it from dire box-office business, nor could they shield it from the vocal rejection of its own producer, Georges de Beauregard – who, according to Rozier, would openly bemoan his decision to green-light the project.4 Worth noting is the fact that Rozier was introduced to Beauregard by Godard, who premiered his 44th feature film, Le livre d’image (The Image Book, 2018), at this year’s Cannes Film Festival at the restless, inquisitive age of 87, while Rozier – Godard’s senior by four years – released his most recent feature film, Fifi Martingale, back in 2001 to minimal fanfare.
It’s curious that Rozier was at least twice praised for his apparently TV-friendly sensibilities, given that his work on the small screen would come to comprise a notable chunk of his filmography, eclipsing his feature-film output ever so slightly. Yet, where most filmmakers of his generation might have pitied their misfortune at having to languish in the ghettos of the cinematic city, Jacques Rozier has made clear his indifference to any distinction between theatrical film and television:
“I have been shooting all the time my whole life, or working constantly on projects. And when I could not shoot for the movies, I was doing TV. For me, it was best to work between the two, to make series pilots: like movies, but on TV.”5
A cynic could argue that such a stance is merely Rozier retreating into mild delusion for the sake of protecting his ego, or at best an attempt to reframe his failure as a creator of theatrical cinema. Yet, in truth, his frustrated career was partly by choice, on the back of some admittedly calamitous technical mishaps during the production of Adieu Philippine, which, according to Rozier, led to his being “designated by all as the dunce of the New Wave”. Regardless, due in part to his regrettable experiences with Beauregard, Rozier “quickly realised that [he] had to take care of the production [himself].”6 He explained his reasoning accordingly: “This is the most difficult thing: to set up co-productions, alliances. Because I do not find the producers very daring, or I can not find them, simply.”7
It’s perhaps only fitting that, in 1969, after seven years lugging around a reputation for being “difficult and ungovernable”,8 Rozier was permitted to shoot his second feature film loosely and quickly in 16mm, on the dime of two television producers, Yves Laumet and Yves Jaigu. Yet again, several years would pass between the film’s production and eventual theatrical release (in 1973). In the interim, it premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival with the title Du côté d’Orouët.
The film begins in an office in which several women are bossed around by gangly middle manager Gilbert (Bernard Menez), his play at virility coming across as nothing more than awkward chauvinism and doing little to impress office clerk Joëlle (Danièle Croisy), on whom he clearly has his eye. Over lunch, Joëlle and her friend Kareen (Françoise Guégan) decide on an upcoming vacation plan: to crash Kareen’s family villa near the coastal town of Orouët with the latter’s cousin Caroline (Caroline Cartier). Gilbert, who happens to be tagging along to lunch, notes their plans and, in due time, parasitises their holiday. What follows is the shaggier cousin of an Éric Rohmer picture: equally keen on youth and seaside leisure, but less bookish and with looser trousers.
154 minutes long and ultra-casual, Du côté d’Orouët is the epitome of what Quentin Tarantino would term a “hang-out” movie. Right from the opening credits, which play to the whimsical, shambling shanty “Ego” by psych-pop band Gong, there is a sense that this will be a film that gyrates to its own offbeat melody. Devoid of any sense of narrative predetermination or pressure, the first third of the film simply exists around and between the three friends as they eat and drink and sunbathe and talk small and laugh big. Rozier is unashamed of their aimless non-adventures, choosing to omit potentially dynamic escapades (such as a trip to the local casino) while luxuriating in the drawn-out, the circular and the mundane: a prolonged fiasco involving a bucket of eels, someone getting drunk on white wine while cooking fish stew, the act of moving a yacht from the sand to the sea. With Rozier, quotidian is key.
There is copious giggling about subjects such as the pronunciation of Orouët and the quaintness of Kareen and Caroline’s grandmother’s clogs, but the trio’s bonhomie is so natural, so unselfconscious that their borderline cloying antics achieve a goofy charm. To think that a film shot in 1969, written, directed and produced by men and featuring three young women should pass the Bechdel test so convincingly – and for a good hour – is somewhat extraordinary, particularly in 2018 when such a thing still feels somehow anomalous. In saying this, it should be noted that Rozier has a strong tendency towards improvisation, having been known to commence production on the back of a loose scenario or unfinished screenplay and preferring to “let the performers formulate their own language, their gestures.”9 It’s perhaps not inaccurate to posit that a significant portion of Du côté d’Orouët was ‘written’ by Croisy, Guégan and Cartier, the result being an air of intimacy and ease that directly feeds the film’s insular rhythms, only to be disturbed when Gilbert ‘happens’ upon the Orouët region and becomes a very square fourth wheel. Kareen and Caroline, likely clued in to Gilbert’s sheepish fixation on Joëlle, gleefully treat him as kittens would a ball of wool, while Joëlle quietly resents his stilted presence. When the four encounter Patrick (Patrick Verde), a local hunk with a tiny yacht, a loose web of attraction develops, and the characters begin to shed their cavalier facades to reveal conventional romantic longings and ideals, as does the film itself. It suddenly resembles the horny, often lovesick work of Rozier’s peers, not to mention his own feature debut. As with Rohmer, a vacation is not a time to wind down from neurosis, but rather a time to be wound up by it.
In the hands of regular Rozier cinematographer Colin Mounier, autumn on the Atlantic coast feels suspended in a state of late afternoon, as though the sun has just woken from a siesta and the air is chillier than expected. A backdrop of muted tones plays against bright yellows, reds and blues to create something of a picture-book aesthetic, one that suggests a half-remembered memory that has been patched up with fanciful ideas about what a seaside vacation should be. But this is where the preciousness ends, because Mounier handles the camera in a manner so loose and carefree as to be borderline careless. But unlike early New Wave touchstones, its unruliness is not designed to highlight and reject the staid formal qualities of le cinéma du papa. This is a decidedly selfless camera, willing to forgo its own aesthetic integrity for the sake of capturing that which is in front of it, following every movement like an enthralled puppy. It is entirely plausible that this sacrifice of style was viewed as somewhat artless at the time, though it feels surprisingly modern from a contemporary vantage point.
When one considers the various paths taken by the core group of New Wave filmmakers after the mid ’60s, it becomes clear that Rozier was deep in his own oddball corner. There’s a cheeky moment at the beginning of Du côté d’Orouët in which Kareen addresses the camera as though parodying a film like 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her…, Godard, 1967), but this approach is promptly dropped and never revived. It’s as though Rozier is humouring and then publicly rejecting that mode of self-consciousness, choosing to favour the moment itself as opposed to how the moment is captured or processed. Another aspect of Rozier’s unfussy cinema is his lack of interest in shots that announce themselves as ‘long takes’. His is brisk, pragmatic film grammar, variably elliptical but never opaque. If a good number of the New Wave cohort seduced through overt stylisation and cinematic peacocking, Rozier’s eschewing of this may very well have rendered Du côté d’Orouët damn unsexy in the eyes of the film’s ‘target’ demographic.
Anyone who happened to be tickled by Du côté d’Orouët on its theatrical run had only three short years to wait before a new Jacques Rozier picture ambled onto the scene. Les naufragés de l’île de la Tortue (The Castaways of Turtle Island, 1976) had to have been, in its time, the one film in Rozier’s catalogue that flew most violently in the face of its commercial potential. Sprouting from a pitch-friendly premise almost tailor-made for a Hollywood update, The Castaways of Turtle Island features comic star Pierre Richard, freshly wet from a wave of success with money-spinners like Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire (The Tall Blond with One Black Shoe, Yves Robert, 1972) and suggested to Rozier by fellow director Claude Berri. Tragically, the bankability of Richard’s goofy mug and unruly blond mop proved non-transferable, damning Rozier to yet another financial defeat, and further solidifying his status as the frustrated third lover in an awkward three-way with art and a once curious film market.
Wonderfully named travel agent Jean-Arthur Bonaventure (Richard) has had it with his never-seen fiancée Yolande. Perhaps she’s mean, perhaps she’s a bore. Perhaps he’d prefer the topless Pam Grier look-alike on the poster on his bedroom wall. Whatever the reason, he goads Yolande by pretending to have a mistress named Lisette Benoît, only to have the universe play ball by crossing his path with that of a sexually forward black Brazilian woman (Lise Guicheron) who has the very same name, a mini Afro and a thing for blonde, blue-eyed men. Bonaventure’s tryst with Lisette collides his desire for escape with his latent colonial taste for the exotic, the sauvage. One tipsy night, he and his colleague Joël (Maurice Risch) dream up the concept of a holiday package called “Robinson Crusoe”, wherein French urbanites are dropped in a tropical wilderness itinerary-free, with a view to rousing their spirits and their senses and yanking them out of their bourgeois comfort. “We see people that want something exotic and unexpected,” says Joël. “No-one has ever had the idea to offer a holiday program that has no program.” These words may approximate the thoughts of Jacques Rozier as he conceived each of his films, reasserting to himself his ambivalence towards prescriptive narrative structures and attraction to improvisation, which Rozier admits he sometimes took “too far.”10
In any case, the pair pitch the idea to their superiors in a trio of scenes whose awkward back-and-forth and comic drollness contain precisely the genetic material for a Ferrell–Galifianakis remake, right down to the actors’ mere physicality. “Robinson Crusoe” is given the go-ahead, and the pair are sent on a scouting trip to the Caribbean, though Joël catches fright and abruptly sends his doe-eyed younger brother Bernard (Jacques Villeret) in his place. While the unlikely duo is fruitlessly wandering Guadeloupe and Dominica11, management decides to send the first wave of paying customers, and this is approximately where the plot begins to disintegrate.
If Du côté d’Orouët develops a tail end reminiscent of more traditional romantic dramas, The Castaways of Turtle Island sheds any semblance of plot like a snake shedding its skin plus its backbone. Sure, there is a story, a sequence of events, but as Bonaventure and Bernard blindly lead their band of wannabe free spirits closer to nowhere, the narrative seems increasingly uninterested in its own end-point, and is only more thrilling for it. As threadbare roads and bungalows give way to pretty, tangled rainforest, Bonaventure endeavours to project a sense of certitude despite the progressively tattered straw hat he dons. But discontent simmers amongst the customers and comes to a tensely comic boil aboard a ship headed for the titular Turtle Island. The Bonadventurers have had enough of the heat, the flies, the scanty diet and the clear lack of a plan. They want their francs refunded, and they want out! Photographed with an agile hand-held camera (as is most of the picture), the ensuing extended sequence is a tour de force of tonal modulation and nimble editing, shifting between breeziness and intensity as Bonaventure is undone by his own ambition and the risk-averse preciousness of his clients – Bernard, meanwhile, emerging as a strong, silent type, dependable in a tide of human fickleness and fear. In a sense, the Bonaventure–Bernard duality suggests the brittle idealist and the stoic that must surely coexist within an artist like Rozier, the latter absorbing the chronically bruised ego of the former and maintaining a certain resoluteness in the face of commercial failure and audience apathy.
The story of a man offering a radically different product only to be toppled by his adventurousness veers too closely to Rozier’s experience to be wholly coincidental. Having helped birth the French New Wave, Rozier was in a way responsible for a new generation of filmgoer: one hungry for an untethered and categorically unafraid cinema, who would line up around the block to see a film like Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) because word of mouth deemed it ‘difficult’. Some of Rozier’s cohort took advantage of this, with Alain Resnais’ temporal trickery and Godard’s swaggering meta-cinema being prime examples. Yet Rozier’s alternative of an unselfconscious cinema freed from the demands of narrative or thematic structure didn’t quite catch fire. It would seem that ‘adventurous’ audiences weren’t at all in the mood for Rozier’s idea of adventure.
Maine-Océan (Jacques Rozier, 1986) arrived after another lengthy period of probable false starts and development hell, premiering in April 1986 and winning that year’s Prix Jean Vigo (which celebrates French auteurism). The official site for the prize, awarded to this day, states that “the name of Jean Vigo … evokes both cinema as a means of total expression and the multiple difficulties faced by a young author of films who wants to express themselves freely”.12 Based on these words alone, Rozier was destined to be a recipient. A vocal devotee of Vigo’s contemporary Jean Renoir, one can assume that Rozier holds at least some admiration for Vigo, as their works undoubtedly share a poetic humanism and graceful imperfection.13 But Maine-Océan is also the first film of Rozier’s to pay brazen homage to major influences, such as Renoir and American screwball comedy à la Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks.14 Maine-Océan is an outright comedy of errors centred on class, culture clash and the forces that frustrate human connection and empathy. It also exhibits a dry theatricality largely absent from Rozier’s earlier films, indulging in a broadness of character and gesture that might grate on those accustomed to his signature nonchalance and cheeky naturalism. But while his characters are a touch more animated here, Maine-Océan is Rozier at his most visually sedate, favouring gentle dollies and even gentler handheld shots over the proto-shaky cam of Du côté d’Orouët and The Castaways of Turtle Island. One gets the sense that Rozier is settling into a new rhythm, and that he has never been more comfortable behind the camera. The picture lacks that seductive roguishness while somehow feeling more authentically ‘Rozier’.
Perhaps betraying a fetish of Rozier’s, the movie starts with striking Afro-Brazilian dancer Dejanira (Rosa-Maria Gomes) darting through the bustling Montparnasse train station and taking a seat in the wrong class on the Maine-Océan Express to Angers. She is set upon by a pair of good-cop/bad-cop train conductors, Pontoiseau and Le Garrec (Luis Rego and Bernard Menez, respectively), whose attempt at interrogation is complicated by the fact that neither side speaks a lick of the other’s language. Thankfully, Mimi (Lydia Feld), a multilingual coast-bound lawyer, happens to be sitting behind Dejanira and intervenes with the same vigour she would for a paying client, like the one she is traveling to the island of Île d’Yeu to represent: Petitgas (Yves Afonso), a boorish but soft-hearted sailor (think Popeye on a spinach infusion), who is being charged with assaulting a fellow motorist. Dejanira follows Mimi to her destination to witness her launch a somewhat baffling defense in which she declares blue-collar Petitgas a victim of classism by way of linguistic elitism. It does the trick and an unlikely friendship develops between the three, the trio snowballing into a rambling ensemble that involves the uptight Le Garrec, Pontoiseau and a host of locals. In classic Rozier fashion, the plot devolves into a series of misadventures and digressions culminating in a musical number so casual as to be an outtake.
Verbal language, the malleability of it and the complexities of discourse are the thematic heart of this film, but also its prime source of humour. From the slapstick of individuals trying to communicate via glances, grunts and gestures to more nuanced matters of dialect and semantics, the slapdash cast of characters try and often fail to reach the same wavelength. That is, until a Mexican impresario (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) known to Dejanira blows into town with a huge personality, big dreams and some sheets of music he insists on hearing played aloud. The resulting sequence, which is also the film’s centrepiece, sees a blossoming of post-verbal human connection as talk gives way to music, movement and feeling, but it’s not so much the absence of words that brings this about as the dissolution of ego.
The film ends with Le Garrec, of all people. Having shed his inflexible, distrustful shell over the course of an eventful day and night, he finds himself on a solitary trek to the mainland, helped across land and sea by a few kind strangers. He is framed alone in a series of tracking shots, traversing desolate beaches with his suitcase. While the reflexive response might be one of pity, Rozier photographs and scores this sequence with a certain bittersweet levity, acknowledging that a lonely road need not be a path to discontentment or insignificance. Given Rozier’s luck over the preceding two decades, Maine-Océan – in these closing moments – feels like a filmmaker gently embracing his own sensibilities, and being somewhat at peace with his status as a mostly unsung maverick.
- Samuel Wrigley, “10 Great French New Wave Films,” BFI website, 16 August 2018, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-french-new-wave-films ↩
- “Rozier, Jacques,” Cahiers du cinema, no. 138, p. 81, quoted in “Anecdotes du Adieu Philippine,” AlloCiné, http://www.allocine.fr/film/fichefilm-39/secrets-tournage/ ↩
- Michael Witt, “Cinema, Nationhood and the New Wave,” in Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 167. ↩
- See Aureliano Tonet, “Jacques Rozier: The Shipwrecked,” Chronic Art, 30 March 2009, https://www.chronicart.com/digital/jacques-rozier-le-naufrage/ ↩
- Antoine de Baecque, “Rozier tous azimuts,” Liberation, 2 November 2001, https://next.liberation.fr/culture/2001/11/02/rozier-tous-azimuts_382581 ↩
- Tonet, op. cit. ↩
- Baecque, op. cit. ↩
- Tonet, op. cit. ↩
- Baecque, op. cit. ↩
- Didier Péron, “Retour sur le cinéaste Jacques Rozier, au moment où ressort Du côté d’Orouët … et quelques autres films phares. Rozier sauvage,” Liberation, 30 October 1996, https://www.liberation.fr/portrait/1996/10/30/retour-sur-le-cineaste-jacques-rozier-au-moment-ou-ressort-du-cote-d-orouet-et-quelques-autres-films_185602 ↩
- Tonet, op. cit. ↩
- “Histoire du Prix/Palmarès”, Prix Jean Vigo official website, http://prixjeanvigo.fr/a-propos/histoire-prix-jean-vigo ↩
- Giovanni Marchini Camia, “Rep Diary: Maine-Océan,” Film Comment, 10 May 2013, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/jacques-rozier-maine-ocean-nouvelle-vague/ ↩
- Tonet, op. cit. ↩