If Eric Rohmer’s ‘Six contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’, 1962-1972) were famously variations on the theme of a man betrothed to one woman and tempted by another, only to return to his initial choice, his ‘Comédies et proverbs’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs’, 1980-1987) and ‘Contes des quatre saisons’ (‘Tales of the Four Seasons’, 1990-1998) drew attention to the romantic entanglements and problems of women. All ten of the films deal in some ways with the theme of women either dissatisfied with being single or with the relationships they are in, and searching for some kind of solution to their loneliness and lack of connection. In some cases, the films do seem to posit the solution to the unhappiness, boredom and anomie of these women’s lives to finding the right man, a solution that seems to come from the most clichéd of Hollywood romantic comedies or romantic fiction for women. Indeed, the dizzying joy that Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) experiences at the end of L’ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 1987) – when she realises that her boyfriend Fabien (Eric Viellard) has not gone back to his ex-girlfriend and her best friend Léa (Sophie Renoir) – is, in the words of François Ramasse, ‘in the tone of certain American romantic comedies’ (1). However, a note of caution can also be struck in a reading of this ending as mirroring what Hilary Radner has labelled ‘the Cinderella plot’ of Hollywood romantic comedies, where, although given the changes in female heterosexual relationship patterns and norms, virginity at marriage is no longer required, female maturation is still thought to occur in the marital bed and marriage is constructed as the ‘just’ reward for an innate feminine goodness (2). As Alain Hertay argues, the geometric plot of ‘partner swapping’ and use of colour coding as the couples are dressed in entirely interchangeable blue and green outfits, allows us to have a more ambiguous view of Blanche’s relief and happiness that her relationship with Fabien is not threatened. This image of happiness is based on lies and deception: Blanche slept with Fabien while he was still in a relationship with Léa, and Léa seduced Alexandre (François-Eric Gendron) even though she knew that Blanche was romantically interested in him (3). Furthermore, the relationships are thus banal, interchangeable, and utterly contingent, a child’s game: Tom Ennis compares the partner swapping to ‘le jeu des quatre coins’ and Derek Schilling uses the term musical chairs to describe the interactions between Blanche, Léa, Alexandre, Fabien, and Adrienne (Anne-Laure Meury) (4). Each of these descriptions link the film to a game of rule-bound social interaction in which each partner takes up their place in relation to others and the aleatory nature of luck (I’ll settle on this chair/playing position/partner simply for lack of others for the time being). Ramasse sees the decision Blanche and Léa make to swap romantic allegiances as a kind of reversal of the schema of the ‘Six Moral Tales’, where the man returns to his first woman, refusing temptation by the second. Equally, however, we could see it as reflection on the confusions occasioned by choices. Blanche and Léa feel themselves to have made the wrong decision of partner first time around, but there is nothing to suggest that the new romantic configuration will be anymore successful.
In distinction to the ‘Cinderella’ plot which confirms the arrival of Prince Charming as the solution to the heroine’s unhappiness (in the original fairy tale, her dysfunctional domestic situation), and the ‘perfect fit’ of hero and heroine through the plot device of the shoe, here the heroine is left wondering about the reliability of her Prince Charming. There is no magical shoe to offer a guarantee of a happy ending, and indeed many of Rohmer’s heroines end his films lost, confused and lonely – Anne (Marie Rivière) in La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1980); Sabine (Béatrice Romand) in Le beau mariage (A Good Marriage, 1982); Louise (Pascal Ogier) in Les nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1984), possibly the most devastating of all Rohmer’s films – or in a state of dizzy joy based on a (possibly dubious) leap of faith – Delphine (Marie Rivière) in Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK/Summer, USA 1986); Félicie (Charlotte Véry) in Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale, 1992).
The questions of love, seduction, desire and marriage thus animate many of Rohmer’s heroines. The films do not present a univocal discourse on love, but rather a series of diverse approaches to the topic, so that for example, certain characters such as Marion (Arielle Dombasle) in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983) can declare that they wish to ‘burn with love’ whereas Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) in Conte de printemps (A Spring Tale, 1990) coolly and rationally declares “I will never love someone ‘madly’. I’m not mad, not even emotional, as you said.” Characters even debate the ‘correct’ way to form relationships within the films themselves, such as when Béatrice (Béatrice Romand) harangues Delphine to try a group singles holiday in The Green Ray, against Delphine’s stubborn insistence that she should not try and force fate. As Maria Tortajada argues, ‘there is not a truth about love that could correspond to an authorial discourse: on the contrary, this cinema is composed of a plurality of opinions that are always given in the context of a singular subject expressing themselves.’ (5) This interest in the dramas and dilemmas of love leads Rohmer’s cinema to being compared to the 18th century French playwright Marivaux, whose carefully constructed plays followed the formation of various couplings and the adjective ‘marivaudage’ is often used in relation his films’ interest in ‘games of love and chance’. This phrase itself comes from a play by Marivaux, and is used by the critic Michel Serceau as the title of his book considering Rohmer’s work (Eric Rohmer: les jeux de l’amour, du hasard et du discours). Serceau writes that ‘Rohmer’s characters often seem to be playing a kind of board game to such an extent that often a parallel is established with the spirit of the 18th century, with marivaudage.’ (6) However, Rohmer declared in a fascinating and detailed television interview on his work, Preuves à l’appui, that he didn’t really enjoy Marivaux’s plays, and that he felt closer to the Anglophone theatrical tradition in his dialogues and situations, particularly Shakespeare (7). The Shakespearean aspect of Rohmer’s work is particularly emphasised by Rohmer’s use of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in his film of the same name. As befits Rohmer’s realist, neo-Bazinian representation of space and time, Shakespeare’s play is represented through becoming part of his filmic text, when we watch the final scene of the play alongside his heroine, Félicie. Rohmer draws our attention to the way in which the theatrical representation shapes our sense of what is possible or even desirable in relationships, for it is after having seen this play that Félicie feels that her decision to hope for a miracle is correct. She regards the end of this tale, in which Queen Hermione, Leontes’ wife, is miraculously brought to life after 16 years’ absence from court, as prophetic of her own future. Furthermore, this reference to A Winter’s Tale draws our attention not only to the resonance between Rohmer’s film and Shakespeare’s play, but also how both Winter’s Tales function as sophisticated fairytales, concerning as they do supernatural intervention in everyday life which helps to overcome the setbacks the characters may encounter and replaces disappointment and confusion with order and acceptance. If Rohmer’s A Winter’s Tale contains a moment of reflexivity via its representation of Shakespeare’s play, so Shakespeare’s play also references yet another’s Winter’s Tale, the story that Mamillius, Leontes’ and Hermione’s son, tells in Act 2 sc 1. Mamilliuis tells us that it will be a fairy story: ‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/ of sprites and goblins.’
This complex chain of meaning established through these differing Winter’s Tales (Rohmer’s, Shakespeare’s, Mamillius’s) points to the way in which Rohmer’s film series’ reshape cultural myths and meanings via the polyphony and intertextuality implied in the series’ titles. He designates them variously as exploring tales, comedies or proverbs: sayings and ideas inherited via oral or theatrical traditions (given this indebtedness on one level to orality, it is unsurprising that Rohmer’s cinema has sometimes attracted criticism for being excessively ‘talky’). However, as Tortajada comments, Rohmer’s dialogues are often indebted also to writing, highly crafted and artificial in tone, recalling in fact his films’ use of the libertine tradition, in which every utterance is subject to a double-code: what is said and what is meant operate on different levels, and language is opaque rather than transparent (for example, libertinage often speaks of a friend who is really a lover, and of love as a substitute for physical desire). ‘The basic principal is one of terminological ambiguity.’ (8)
Beyond this explanation for one of the ways in which Rohmer’s films thus function themselves on a double register, with this contrast between language as opaque and the ‘transparency’ of his classical cinematic style, there is another object lesson we can draw from Tortajada’s analysis of Rohmer’s reformulation of the libertine model in his films. For Tortajada, Rohmer’s films ‘explode the unity of the source text’, adapting not one novel, but drawing on a cultural and anthropological model and thus allows us to inscribe Rohmer’s work within ‘a broader practice of re-reading a larger network of stories.’ (9) As my discussion of A Winter’s Tale above suggests, Rohmer’s films also explore the cultural and anthropological model of the fairytale, not in order to shore up its assumptions via the ‘Cinderella’ model, but rather to analyse its enduring appeal for his female characters. Particularly revealing here is the character of Sabine in A Good Marriage, who seems determined to will herself into a fairytale and designates the lawyer Edmond (André Dussolier) – who notably she meets at a wedding reception – her Prince. The proverb that opens the film are the two final lines of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable ‘The Milkmaid and the Pot of Milk’. In this fable, a young woman walks to market balancing a pail of milk on her head and daydreaming of the riches she will accumulate (she can buy eggs with the milk, which will hatch into chickens, which she can sell to buy a pig, which she can fatten up and exchange for a calf, and so on). As she dreams of her future wealth, she stumbles and spills the milk. As Jacob Leigh comments, the reference to La Fontaine’s fable introduces us to the subject of (and dangers of getting carried away by) daydreams (10). Sabine imagines that marriage to Edmond is possible, although he does little to signal that he feels any attraction to her; like the milkmaid, Sabine dreams of wealth and ease and the film enacts her humiliation when she tries to realise these desires. The white princess dress she wears to her teeny-bopper birthday party that she insists on the stiff lawyer Edmond attending is, Schilling remarks, suited for a ten year-old, suggesting the girlish nature of her fairytale fantasy (11). As Leigh goes on to analyse in some detail, Sabine’s daydreaming in fact arises out of dissatisfaction with her current situation, not just in terms of her love life, but also her socio-economic status (her family is clearly worse off than that of her best friend Clarisse [Arielle Dombasle], who first introduces her to Edmond, or indeed Edmond himself). By interweaving romance with socio-economic difference, Rohmer suggests the multiple levels of the appeal of Edmond for Sabine and the ‘fairytale solution’ that rescues individuals from the dissatisfactions and injustices of their everyday lives. ‘The overall effect is that the film shows Sabine’s stubborn decision to marry to be wrong-headed, but it does so while exposing an insidious layer of class prejudice in contemporary France.’ (12) In other words, Rohmer suggests for Sabine, the appeal of the fairytale wedding speaks perhaps not so much to feminine sexual desire as to a desire for social standing and financial security.
Rohmer’s films thus significantly differ from Hollywood romantic comedies in their investigation of the appeal of Prince Charming. Rohmer’s films do not assert a homogenous plot (in which characters behave well or badly) but create a polyphony of ideas concerning love through exploring it not in terms of morals but mentalities, allowing characters to form a philosophy of love. Furthermore, they suggest that the appeal of marriage may not simply be based on a naïve belief in the marital bed as the location for the ultimate fulfilment of feminine sexual desire (based on being the object rather than the subject of desire), but for many reasons: class, finance, desire for stability, loneliness, romance, family, and so on. Furthermore, through multiplying their own intertextuality, these films draw our attention to the multiplicity of ways in which questions of love and desire are mediated to us. The reference to La Fontaine’s fable in A Good Marriage and Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ in A Winter’s Tale is part of a wider engagement with the persistence and appeal of myths, fairytales and fables in contemporary France in Rohmer’s films, and of course, we can read Rohmer’s films themselves as adding to this cultural seam. Serceau explains that, ‘If Rohmer’s films are tales, it is not in Bettelheim’s sense of tales in an oral tradition. Neither novels nor comedies, nor epics, nor dramas nor tragedies, they are tales because they don’t claim to be anything other than fables. They are fables that are revelatory of the chances and ambiguities of life, not stories of education.’ (13) It is the sense of the fable behind the closely observed highly realist setting and contemporary time frame of the film that gives Rohmer’s films their unique brilliance. Although Rohmer’s characters may be thought of as theatrical types (as highlighted by their often theatrical and old-fashioned names such as Octave, Clarisse or Blanche, and their lack of surname), it is precisely in the attention Rohmer pays to the details of their lives (where they live, what clothes they wear, what books they read, what wine they drink) that they take on a life as individuals. This then is the secret of ‘Rohmerian’ films, in which characters use the models offered to them by such cultural texts as fairytales (and plays, and philosophical treatises, and political ideologies, and so on) in order to try and make sense of their own lives and desires, and therefore may take on some stereotypical qualities we recognise from these texts, but also are highly individuated in terms of setting, lifestyle and character.
Unlike their fairytale ancestors, these women are faced with an agony of choice when it comes to Prince Charming, and the knowledge that the wrong decision can be made. Marriage is no longer at stake as an institution, and in Rohmer’s exploration of relationships, it seems to make little difference to him if his characters are married or not (the question to Frédéric [Bernard Verley, married to Hélène [Françoise Verley], of whether he should commit adultery or not, explored in L’Amour l’après-midi / Love In the Afternoon, 1972, is of the same order as Louise’s devastation at discovering Remi’s [Tchéky Karyo] affair in Full Moon in Paris, even though they were not a married couple). Rather, marriage functions as the sealing of an individual choice. Marriage, like other institutions, has become part of the process of ‘individualisation’, in which the construction of a ‘human’ identity moves from a ‘given’ to a ‘task’ (14). It is through the whole problematic of the pain and difficulty of knowing how to make a choice as an individual cut adrift from the earlier (if restrictive) certainties of church, family and nation that Rohmer explores the complexities of what Zygmunt Bauman would label ‘liquid love’. Rohmer is able to argue for the difficulty of knowing how to make this choice precisely by setting his fables in a resolutely contemporary France, in the world of the liquid modern. His films underline the impermanence and fluidity of modern life, where characters travel continuously and seem to be searching for some kind of centre. As Ewa Mazierska notes, ‘Modern life forces these people [Rohmer’s characters] to divide their time into many separate activities: work, studying, bringing up children, socializing, and rest – activities that must be undertaken in separate locations. Or, to put it differently, it allows them to take part in many different businesses and events at the price of a continuously changing location.’ (15) Rohmer’s characters’ confusion comes then from having too much choice in terms of activities, partners and locations. Typically of Zygmunt Bauman’s description of the world of the liquid modern, they seek an individual solution for social problems (16). In other words, the characters feel they are themselves to blame for their fragmented existences, and the solution to this problem is an idealised romantic love. However, their fragmented existences are more likely to be as a result of social changes and pressures linked to modernity, and the idealised romantic love has ironically been rendered less likely by precisely these same kinds of pressures. Marriage represents a risk, for in the world of the liquid modern, ‘the most acute and stubborn worries that haunt such a life are the fears of being caught napping, of failing to catch-up with fast-moving events, of being left behind, of being saddled with possessions that are no longer desirable, of missing the moment that calls for a change of tack before crossing the point of no return […] the briefings which the practitioners of liquid modern life need most […] is not how to start or open, but how to finish or close. Another Observer columnist […] lists the updated rules for achieving ‘closure’ of partnerships (the episodes no doubt more difficult to close than any other – yet the ones where the partners all too often wish and fight to close them).’ (17)
Rohmer’s films echo Bauman’s analysis of the symmetry between the desire for ‘swift and painless endings’ and ‘new beginnings’ in the liquid modern in their form as well as their content. The first four of his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ end in exactly the same location as they began, and the symmetry between the beginning and the end is ‘a little bitter…disenchanted, ironic.’ (18) It is worth paying some attention to the two scenes that finish ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ and ‘Tales of Four Seasons’ respectively. Each one illustrates the differing problem of settling on Prince Charming in the world of the liquid modern. On the one hand, partners are met through contingent circumstances, and ‘will do for now’, as in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend with its prophesy of ever changing combinations of partners echoed through the characters’ continual swapping of green and blue outfits, and its echoing of the emotional liquidity of the storyline in its setting by the physical liquidity of the lake. On the other hand, even when one has chosen one’s partner, there is no guarantee that another, potentially more suitable partner may not cross one’s path, as in the air of regret and wistfulness at missed opportunities that passes over Isabelle’s (Marie Rivière) face in the final frame of An Autumn Tale as she dances with her husband at her daughter’s wedding reception. At this over-determined moment of fixture and closure, the characters’ dancing recalling the finale of a play, Isabelle’s expression introduces a desire for continuing openness – that her proxy love story (she met Gérald [Alain Libolt] in order to set him up with her friend Magali [Béatrice Romand]) may continue. Rohmer’s twenty years of reflection on female love and desire then ends on a final absolute paradox, in which the fairytale model used by his heroines still encourages hope that a relationship will offer a bulwark against the uncertainties of modern life, and yet it itself becomes undermined by precisely these uncertainties.
- François Ramasse, ‘L’Ami de mon amie d’Eric Rohmer’, Positif 319 (September 1987), pp. 58-59 (all translations are my own).
- Hilary Radner, ‘Pretty Is as Pretty Does: Free Enterprise and the Marriage Plot’, Film Theory Goes to the Movies Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 56-76.
- Alain Hertay, Eric Rohmer: Comédies et proverbes (Liège: Cefal, 1998), pp. 94-95.
- Tom Ennis, ‘Games People Play: An Analysis of Eric Rohmer’s L’Ami de mon amie’, Nottingham French Studies 32.1 (1993), pp. 121-7 and Derek Schilling, Eric Rohmer (Manchester; MUP, 2007), p. 145.
- Maria Tortajada, Le Spectateur séduit: le libertinage dans le cinéma d’Eric Rohmer et sa function dans une théorie de la representation filmique (Paris: Kimé, 1999), p. 173.
- Michel Serceau, Eric Rohmer:Les jeux de l’amour du hasard et du discourse (Paris: Cerf, 2000), p. 12.
- André S. Labarthe, dir. Eric Rohmer: Preuves à l’appui (AMPI/La Sept ARTE/INA/ Les Films du Losange, 1994), part of the series Cinéma de notre temps.
- Maria Tortajada, ‘From Libertinage to Eric Rohmer: Transcending Adaptation’, A Companion to Literature and Film, Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo (eds.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 345.
- Maria Tortajada, ‘From Libertinage’, p. 344.
- Jacob Leigh, ‘Reading Rohmer’, Close-Up 2, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, eds (London: Wallflower, 2007), pp. 85-157.
- Derek Schilling, p. 148.
- Jacob Leigh, p. 105.
- Michel Serceau, p. 68.
- Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), p. 148.
- Ewa Mazierska, ‘Road to Authenticity and Stability: Representation of holidays, relocation and movement in the films of Eric Rohmer’, Tourist Studies: An International Journal 2002, pp. 223-246 (p. 236).
- See Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society: ‘less and less we hope that by joining forces and standing arm in arm we may force a change in the rules of the game; perhaps the risks which make us afraid and the catastrophes which make us suffer have collective, social origins – but they seem to fall upon each one of us at random, as individual problems, of the kind that can be confronted only individually’, p. 149.
- Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 2.
- Gérard Legrand, Hubert Niogret and François Ramasse, ‘Entretien avec Eric Rohmer’, Positif 309 November 1986, pp. 15-23 (p.22).