– Leonard Cohen
The above quote, from Cohen’s song “That Don’t Make it Junk”, could well be taken as a mission statement for the emotionally tormented characters that populate the singular cinematic world of Eric Rohmer. The battleground for this director is almost exclusively the arena in which action clashes with motivation, conscious thought, goals and expressed feelings with hidden, repressed or otherwise elusive desires. For his protagonists, inner feelings frequently come and go; they certainly change and transform a number of times over the course of his typically protracted narratives. And consequently the apparent “truth” of what they feel must be discovered through trial and error, and usually proceeds – as is the case with three of the four protagonists of L’ami de mon amie (Boyfriends and Girlfriends) – through a shattering of heretofore firmly held beliefs (illusions) regarding one particular partner, prospective or otherwise.
Rohmer’s singular achievement, one beyond almost any other filmmaker one cares to mention (the closest would arguably be the Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise  and Before Sunset ; or Jérôme Bonnell, and his debut Le Chignon d’Olga ) is to tap a rich, subtle vein of philosophical inquiry – chiefly the salient determinants of human identity and happiness: work, love, family, personal relationships, environment? – and to embed this within a larger framework of action and reflection. This entails both an organic, observational naturalism drawn from a pronounced objectivity, a complete lack of stylistic affectation and an accruement of narratively incidental detail, and a concomitant play on the prescribed narrative patterns and formulas of genre cinema and stories in general.
Rohmer’s filmography is, by and large, built around, and can be compartmentalised into, three series of films that are grouped together both for their styles and modes of storytelling and the themes that each individual work shares. Bookended by the Six Moral Tales (1962-1972) at the beginning of his oeuvre, and the sumptuous career summation of the Tales of the Four Seasons (1990-1998) at its nadir, the central collection, comprised like the Moral Tales of six works, is collectively termed the Comedies and Proverbs. It contains some of the director’s finest, yet most overlooked films, and constituted almost all of his cinematic output during the 1980s (he completed only one other feature during the decade – the little-seen portmanteau film 4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle , which plays like its own self-contained film series in four distinct chapters).
Boyfriends and Girlfriends (aka My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend – a more literal translation of the French title) is the final instalment in the Comedies and Proverbs series. Beginning in 1981 with La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife) and continuing with Le beau mariage (A Good Marriage, 1982), Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983), Les nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1984), and Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, 1986), these works all revolve around young, most often 20-something protagonists, and their amorous trials and tribulations. As if in response to the overtly male perspectives of the moral tales, all but one of the comedies and proverbs (the first, The Aviator’s Wife) centre upon female characters, and work through a very limited repertoire of variations on a theme to offer a picture not so much of modern femininity or womanhood per se (as the Moral Tales can more readily be argued to work with regard to masculinity), than the pressures and problems (both personal and social) that beset women, as well as the choices, feelings, options – in short, lives – that are open and available to them.
Boyfriends and Girlfriends is among Rohmer’s lightest, most playful (and most overtly schematic) confections, breezing through the major preoccupations of the Comedies and Proverbs series like icing on a particularly rich cake. As such, it feels very much like the summation of the preceding five works, an airily diagrammatic working through, and at least partial commentary upon, their prevailing characteristics. This is particularly clear in relation to the narrative structure and format of the film, which unusually for the Comedies and Proverbs series is constructed much more around a clean and classical aesthetic, one that is more compact and self-contained. The other films tend to underline their verisimilitude by beginning in medias res. They proceed in a more piecemeal fashion, wherein their stories tend to revolve around learning about the characters rather than knowing them and watching them engaged in conventional action (1). Boyfriends and Girlfriends, by contrast, begins with a central figure, Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet), whose defining relationships and attendant crises all begin, develop and seemingly end over the course of the film; equilibrium, discordance, resolution, with and a happy ending to boot. In other words, we learn about her early on and narrative development is concerned more with seeing what will happen to her, and how her “story” will play out.
In actual fact, though, there is a sly self-reflexivity to this scenario, and the aforementioned schematic patterning plays into this aspect of the film. It arises most overtly from the characters themselves. Rohmer separates out details of characterisation that had hitherto tended to reside within single figures in his cinema and parses them out across his four protagonists. So the mixture of brash self-assurance and lurking insecurities that defines Sabine (Béatrice Romand) in A Good Marriage, Louise (Pascale Ogier) in Full Moon in Paris and Marion (Arielle Dombasle) in Pauline at the Beach, feeds into Boyfriends and Girlfriends’ Blanche on the one hand and Lea on the other. Similarly, the sensitive Fabien (Eric Viellard) and the sly seducer Alexandre (François-Eric Gendron) feel like the two halves of, say, André Dussollier’s lawyer (Edmond) in A Good Marriage or Tchéky Caryo’s engineer (Remi) in Full Moon in Paris.
Rohmer’s mise en scéne is similarly predicated on clear-cut oppositions, harmonies and discordances. Costumes and colours are coded throughout, especially blues and greens, so that the joyous final scene not only matches two sets of characters in harmonious contrast (each couple clothed in compliments of blue and green), but is set it in a luxurious outdoor cafe in a location dominated by the natural correlative of clear water and thick foliage in deep sunshine. The whole is a rhapsody in blue and green that has the effect of speaking for the characters; characters who have struggled to enunciate and communicate, even to comprehend, their feelings throughout. Here, in perhaps the most purely, unambiguously celebratory moment in Rohmer’s oeuvre, a joy in storytelling that predominates, particularly its potentialities and certainties. It revels in its ultimate ability to make the world anew and to rhyme with the characters’ own sense of their world developing as inside a deeply felt narrative (something that is crystallised in Fabien and Blanche’s similar revelations about their dreams of meeting and making love with a stranger in a forest: that is, their respective beliefs in exotic stories).
This final point underlines the significance of locations in Rohmer’s work, and recognises that Boyfriends and Girlfriends is an especially productive example. Blanche’s apartment, set amongst the grand pillars and columns of a palatial apartment block, is ostensibly set half way between Paris and the surrounding area, between city and country, the urban and the rural. This is stressed when she first shows Lea around the place, and points out the contrasting environs as seen through the front and back windows. Blanche is, then, literally in-between, in limbo, and her designer apartment and the nearby shopping district, where much of the early action transpires, is like an enclosed, hermetic prison for her. It is only when she leaves to spend time windsurfing or walking in the woods with Fabien that Blanche begins to open up and allow her feelings to breathe and develop. It is during these latter stages of the narrative that exterior locations begin to take centre stage. For Rohmer, this is more overt than usual, but his cinema is none the worse for such jeux d’esprit. He did, lest we forget, begin his career as part of the nouvelle vague.
Sadly, Eric Rohmer passed away on 11 January 2010, at the age of 89. As already noted, his work remains as singular today as ever. Although he remained committed to his own secluded, well-trodden path, this has not precluded experimentation and exploration, as L’anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2001) – which used digital technology to recreate its period Paris – attests. However, with the grand exception of Yasujiro Ozu, no other major director has worked and re-worked a series of variations on a theme as rigorously and as successfully as Rohmer. And his best work will remain for the ages.
- The partial exception that proves this rule is Pauline at the Beach, the third film in the Comedies and Proverbs series. In several ways, it offers a facade of classical storytelling (especially its bracketing device of beginning and ending on precisely rhymed images and narrative actions). However, this is offset by the particular messiness of the inter-relationships shown in the film, and the fact that one is left with the sense that the holiday occupying the entire narrative exists within the characters’ anterior time, a temporality that can ultimately be separated from their “real” lives.
L’ami de mon amie/Boyfriends and Girlfriends/My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (1987 France 103 mins)
Prod Co: Les Films du Losange/Investimage/Compagnie Eric Rohmer Prod: Margaret Ménégoz Dir, Scr: Eric Rohmer Phot: Bernard Lutic Ed: Maria Luisa Garcia Prod Des: Sophie Mantigneux Mus: Jean-Louis Valéro
Cast: Emmanuelle Chaulet, Sophie Renoir, Anne-Laure Meury, Eric Viellard, François-Eric Gendron