Towards the end of Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale, Eric Rohmer, 1992), the protagonist Felicie goes on a series of journeys. Felicie spends a large part of the film on public transport, but now she is in the car with Loïc, her ex-boyfriend, on excursions with her five-year-old daughter Elise. They visit an amusement arcade and play in front of the distorting mirrors, go to a market town, back and forth. The shot we repeatedly return to is one looking through the windscreen, the road in the grey winter light slipping away under the wheels again and again and again. “She’s going somewhere” I thought to myself the first time I saw the film, getting a little closer, kneeling on the floor and staring at the TV screen as the counter on the video’s display rolled forward. “She’s going somewhere, but where is she going?” I knew where I wanted her to go; direct to the arms of her lost lover Charles, Elise’s missing father. But I was careful with my hope. I could tell that this film, my first Rohmer, wasn’t the kind that would give me such an unlikely happy ending. It was much too real. At that time I wasn’t aware of Rohmer’s deeply “unreal” work, Perceval le Gallois (1978), and neither L’Anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2000) nor Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007) had been made. What I saw in Conte d’hiver was the world I recognised and inhabited, where miracles only happen in stories. Not even the coming to life of Hermione’s statue in the performance of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale that Loïc and Felicie watch before they embark on their various car trips led me to hope that the ending I wanted, the one Felicie dreams off, and that holds her back from any new beginning, might be in the offing.
Felicie is on the move throughout the film. She shuttles between a set of fixed points (her mother’s house, Loic’s house, the salons of her other boyfriend, hairdresser Maxence) using buses and subways. She goes to and from Nevers on the train. She takes those multiple trips in the car. She’s on foot, trudging through light snow as she goes to her mother’s house and chasing the mirage of Charles through a street market in Belville. Negotiating the complexity of choices that face her, she rarely stays still. She gets up and goes to the kitchen in both Loïc’s and Maxence’s apartments. She moves around her daughter’s bedroom, packing. She leaves her clients in the salon to go upstairs. Upstairs, she is easily persuaded to go out. When she likes Nevers, on her first visit, she is walking through it.
Such a focus on the presentation of movement through space, movement in which most of the time nothing tangible or dramatic happens, is a repeated trope in Rohmer’s films. Sabine on the train between Paris and Le Mans in Le Beau marriage, (A Good Marriage, 1982), Perceval on his horse, Delphine wondering endlessly in search of her holiday in Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, 1986), Frederic commuting into work in Love in the Afternoon and this is not an exhaustive list. Even in films without such repeated moments of travelling, the movement through space, and corresponding movement through time, are respected meticulously. When Fiodor climbs the staircase in Triple Agent (2004), he climbs every step, and we sit there watching the ascent for as long as it takes. We sit through that time, just as he has to climb through it, just as, years before, in almost perfect reflection, we had to sit through Frederic’s decent of the stairs from Chloe’s chambre de bonne, running not into the mystery of disappearance, as Fiodor does, but into the fleshy, tear stained reality of his own wife’s arms.
There is a discomfort in this passing through time without anything “happening” in it. Rohmer’s films bring up strong feelings, negative as well as positive, that seem at odds with the gentle nature of his work. Perhaps such passion can be explained by Rohmer’s insistence of showing again and again these long seemingly empty moments of transit. The passage of time when watching a film can remove one from one’s own life, allowing us to “not-be-me” for a fixed period. But the nature of real lived experience is rarely examined in commercial narrative films. They offer the distraction of drama and action, something only ever intermittent in our lives, if we are lucky, giving the catharsis of justice and resolution so often missing from lived experience, and when they don’t, the disaster belong to others, allowing us to feel the pain inherent in existence at a safe distance. But Rohmer does something different. Though he shows pain and confusion, it is generally small scale, romantic, self-centred, banal. Possibly a more accurate reflection of his viewers than they are used to seeing or comfortable to acknowledge. Alongside this he shows the actual reality of our own lives, the necessity of going through each minute, of executing each step. When we see Felicie on the train, the escalator, walking up the steps to the street, walking on the street, though we are not with her for the full duration of her journey, we are unable to escape the fact of that duration, which becomes hers and ours. Then, the steps that we must take when the film ends, from our seat to the exit, the exit to the bus stop, are painfully in focus. The time of movement is no longer in the film but in our lives, where problems and preoccupations rush back in to the vessel of our bodies like air into a vacuum and we cannot avoid the time taken between each tortuous stop of the bus. And so, when one asks “Where is she going?” about Felicie (for one has to think of something as one watches her move, and while watching a film by Rohmer I am never unaware of time passing) it is hard not to think too, “Where am I going? Where will I go?”. These are not always comfortable thoughts.
“Where is she going?” I thought to myself, watching Felicie in the car. Where are all these people going? And where am I going with my watching of them? While I share Rohmer’s love of public transport, it was on the back of a motorcycle that I sat when I travelled through the Paris winter, not the blue-grey winter Felicie passes through but something I remember as sharper, glittery, the brittle winter sun setting as we went. It seemed extraordinary to me that I was there. Too much like something out of a film, the kind that would bring Felicie back to Charles, the film I knew Rohmer was too honest to deliver. Half an hour before I had been sitting in a stranger’s apartment talking about the website I ran filming the life stories of people who had done extraordinary work. Of course, I told Marie, I knew it unlikely a private person like Rohmer would consent to such a proposal. I had written a long analysis of his work for Senses of Cinema and felt I knew what he might agree to. But still, I spoke to her about the wonderful nature of the project, about my own passion for Rohmer’s work. She hadn’t spoken to him for years but suddenly said:
Why don’t I call him now?
As though you could just dial up God. And yet God answered, and said to come over.
Felicie ends where she began, with Charles. In a moment of distilled magic Rohmer brings them together. In the years of her absence from Charles, Felicie has been tested. Stubbornly atheist, she has suffered. She has been forced to make radical choices and is in the end unable to go against her own truth, despite the pain this brings to herself and the men who love her. Like a true believer, via her suffering she gets her miracle. Unlike Felicie, Rohmer was Catholic and may well have believed in saints and suffering and miracles. He certainly makes this miracle miraculously real. The film of my frost-edged motorcycle dash through Paris, should have ended, not with Rohmer taking part in the project (let’s stay real here), but with something else, a connection, between that old beautiful man and myself, the almost young woman who comes to see him. But my story was made by me, sadly, who couldn’t believe when watching Felicie that a miracle was possible, and not by Rohmer, whose accent defeated my only adequate French, and who I looked at across the desk and found myself unable to talk to. Perhaps if I had taken the Metro it would have ended differently.
In Rohmer’s films cars are often symbols of isolation. One thinks of Jean-Louis in Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night with Maud, 1969) tailing Francoise. How cold, how alone, how ever so slightly creepy he is doing it, and how unsuccessful. It is only when he breaks out from the closed circuit of the car and runs after her on foot (and her on her bicycle) that connection is made. Even when Rohmer was in constant pain, he refused the offer of taxis on the daily commute to his office, insisting on a long and tortuous journey on two buses.1 There is a touching story in his biography of one of the last books he was reading having its place marked with a Metro ticket. While there was no connection at all between Rohmer and myself in his office, on the bus we sit side by side. Like him, I can’t stand cars. They isolate, locking me in a little private bubble, shut away from everyone else. Of course, my whole life is a bubble, comfortable, middle class, white, privileged. One sees such bubbles in most of Rohmer’s films, which may be why they annoy some people. The bubble is the reason I need buses and trains. They are the only place where I get to see, to glimpse, what life might actually be for people. I watch their faces, listen to their phone calls, keep quiet and still and try so hard to be polite. It feels like a way to stay human. We all live in bubbles. Sitting next to someone in a different bubble doesn’t change anything, but it shows. It reminds you that the world is bigger than you usually experience it. On public transport we are together. Suddenly, briefly, in transit, everything is possible. We may carry our lives with us, our own little fish bowls on our heads, but next to each other, we can break out. Such a sense of possibility is beautifully articulated by Frederic in Love in the Afternoon. In a life where marriage and fatherhood may seem to be shutting down his option, on the train he finds everything possible. Sabine in A Good Marriage, Delphine in The Green Ray, and Felicie all have essential encounters on public transport, a train, a train station and a bus. These are the places where barriers are lowered, where we can somehow look further. If that carpenter, Jacques, had approached Delphine on the beach, would she have let him in? If Felicie took taxis she would never have found Charles.
The essential thing about the egalitarianism of public transport is that one cannot hide, on the bus, from the fact that everyone is human, as human as oneself. Being human is what Rohmer’s characters always are. I joked, earlier, referring to Rohmer as “God”, just as I am also joking when I say that if I did follow a religion that religion would be Rohmer. Like all jokes these contain a base of truth. Rohmer is no God, as human as any of his characters and as human as my irreligious self. It’s the way Rohmer watches his people that brings out in me some sense of religious awe. The way he sees all of them, their despair and their banality, and accepts it all as valid, human, real, worthy of consideration and observation. It’s that gaze, gentle, sympathetic and rigorous that I would worship and emulate. Isn’t that how any good God looks down at his creation, how he watches them as they move and talk?
The central place travelling has within Rohmer’s films alert us to the fact that it is something we must pay attention to. It’s not connective tissue, it’s the actual bones and flesh of the thing. Duration is existence. When it goes, so do we. I was no doubt under the influence of Rohmer, though not directly aware of it, when for an unfinished film I shot a series of car drives, static shots out of the windscreen. Long, repetitive shots in a long film, boring in what I try to think of as a good way (I asked filmmaker James Benning if he thought it was too boring and he suggested I should worry that it wasn’t boring enough), I found myself looking for justification. We spend so much of our time in moments that are not full, I told myself: going from place to place, sitting staring out of the window, tidying, washing up, reading something that doesn’t get our attention, waiting for someone to turn up. But we are alive in those moments. We are not more alive or less than in the moments of intensity; birth, death, drama, accidents. Those times are different. They speed up or slow down, they replay endlessly in our minds, forming the internal structures of our story of ourselves. But in real terms (and we must live in the real no matter how much we might prefer not to) they are such a small part of us, of our being alive. What do those “dead” alive moments mean? What are we within them? Are we more or less of ourselves? I wanted to show my character’s driving because they were so much of her life, so much of the reality of what she did and what she was. It was the truth, or rather, it was a kind of truth, one I felt compelled to keep pursuing. In a similar way, the movement of Rohmer’s characters can be seen as both the truth of their daily reality and as an echo of their relentless search for truth.
Felicie travels between places but more deeply, she travels between options, between ways of living, reality and fantasy, truth and lies. The truth is that she loves Charles. That is what matters, that love she feels. Her reality though is that she will probably never see him again. The film concerns itself with how she deals with this conundrum. She is a young woman with a child. Her love for Charles does not obliterate her physical and emotional needs. She loves Loïc and Maxence. She just doesn’t love either of them enough. Compared to the love she feels for Charles, it is untrue love and she is unable to live a life that isn’t true. Her shuttling between things: men, houses, towns, which becomes more extreme as the film progresses, reflects the way she bounces between the reality that she may never find Charles and the need to make a real life, with love, sex and companionship in it, and the opposing reality that love with any man who is not Charles is essentially untrue, and thus unsupportable. When she comes to a decision in the church in Nevers she is, for once, completely still. Within herself she arrives at a decision. Without, she begins a journey towards her arbitrary miracle.
Delphine in The Green Ray, also moves towards a miracle. It is Rohmer’s God-like gaze that allows that little miracle (to meet someone, to see the green ray) to stand equal with Felicie’s magnificent one. Delphine is another traveller. Where Felicie’s movements are very directed: to work, to her child, to her lover, Delphine’s movements drift, a fussy dandelion clock, floating on the breeze. This is illusory. Delphine, like Felicie, is searching for truth. She must go on holiday even though the act of going on holiday without the companion she wants does not just feel, but actually is, unsupportable. And so, insane as it seems, even to herself, Delphine must keep trying, going away, feeling that things are wrong, returning, going away again, a Sisyphean yoyo that seems to trace on the film the shape of a flower, each petal reaching outwards with a trip and then returning to Paris, the apartment where she is at ease and never cries, but where she is alone, till the picture is complete, and somehow the miracle can take place. What once struck me as annoying in Delphine (annoyance that did not lessen my empathy with her, but annoying none the less): her fluffiness, her fussiness, her endless bloody weeping, on more recent viewing seem heroic. What stubborn courage not to put up with anything if it isn’t right, to be so difficult, so dislikeable, so nakedly miserable, so openly lost! Felicie thinks she’s no intellectual, but as Loïc points out, within herself she goes through though processes equal to Pascal. Delphine on the other hand hasn’t got that rigour or reasoning. She ums and ers her way through her attempt to defend her vegetarianism, but despite the increasing incomprehension of her barbecue companions, she doesn’t stop. She never shuts up to make others more comfortable. She holds on to her truth. These women are magnificent! And they share a need to keep moving.
Delphine and Felicie are obliged to keep moving till they find their truth but for Perceval, the medieval knight, truth seems to be inherent within the act of moving itself. Repeated through the film is the line:
The knight rode through the forest.
Not only does Perceval ride his horse through the stencilled trees of this strange, wonderfully un-realistic film again and again, he often seems to ride it on a moving circular floor. There is a sense that for him movement can not end. He says at one point, that he can not sleep for two nights in the same bed. What drives this man, first a child, later an adult, to always keep going onwards away from the love of his mother and lady, away always from something and towards something else?
Perceval is perpetually on a quest, and no quest is ever really finished. True, he saves the castle of the lovely Blanchefleure, but he does not stay with her, despite the love he feels. He goes on. From the moment he first sees a knight he is set on a path, direct as the spears he throws. There is something almost autistic about Perceval. He is so fixed on his path, unable to listen to others. Later, when he can listen, he listens too hard. He grows, of course, during the film. He moves from a young man who could steal a lady’s ring to a grown man who rights that wrong. He moves from a man who forgot his mother to one who remembers her, from one who lost his religion to one set on re-finding it. But he never stops. He rides through the forest. And just as the quest cannot end, none of the three stories Perceval presents to its audience stops either, all are cut abruptly short. What happens to the grail and the Fisher King? What happens to Gawain, and his bid to clear his name? What happens to Jesus? A quest loses its life once achieved. It becomes just a story. If the quest is to have meaning it must continue. Perceval is never going to run out of things to learn. No story ends because as long as anyone is still living, there is no end, only that continual movement forward, though the forest.
Perceval is a film of many mysteries. Just as its strange trees stand in for all trees, so Perceval’s trajectory becomes more than simply a knight riding always onward. The journey forward is one we all take, in the bus of our bodies, from shiny new to all broken down and rusted. One needs to be careful here. Idly searching my name online, I came across a discussion about the Senses of Cinema article I wrote on Rohmer. This exchange, which I can no longer find, seemed to me to be between young men. I don’t know why I thought this but there must have been some signifiers, names, maybe. They were earnest and intelligent and I was flattered by the attention they were giving to something I had written. Though they liked it, one took issue with comments I made about the journey through life, symbolised in the body of Perceval, comments not so dissimilar to those above. Banal. Pat. Over-simplified. These were, I think, his thoughts, and of course he was right. Too easy and neat. The knight does indeed ride through the forest. It is a symbol of the journey of life, the movement from one place to the other. But Perceval is a difficult and complex film, neither pat nor simple. Or rather, it is simple, but its simplicity is not a simple thing. It is an enigma, a door that invites you through it without showing any vista. All Rohmer’s films invite thought and questions, I can dive into them again and again, but in Perceval this quality of Rohmer’s is deeply in focus. Ironically, a film designed to reflect the one-dimensionality of medieval painting is one of very particular depth. As Perceval never comes to an end to his questing, so it seems impossible to reach an end to one’s understanding of the film. It moves.
Another form of travel that needs to be included in any consideration of Rohmer’s work is time travel. Rohmer made five films that were not set in the present-day of their own making. Perceval is set in the middle ages, La marquise d’O– (The Marquise of O…, 1976) in the 1800’s, The Lady and the Duke in revolutionary Paris in the late 1700’s, Triple Agent in the 1930’s and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon in a fictional pastoral past inhabited by nymphs and shepherds. In each film one senses a striving on the part of the filmmaker to find a way to make those past times real. Not to represent them, to inhabit them, understand them as the present they were for their own inhabitants. Like Delphine and Felicie, Rohmer is intent on finding the truth, and like them, he uses various tools, from the elaborately fake setting of Perceval, the obsessive textual accuracy of The Marquise of O… or the visual effects used in The Lady and the Duke. One senses that he would use any tool he could find to show us his destination rather than send us a postcard of it.
Past and present become almost irrelevant because what matters is that the moment is real for the person experiencing it, always there at the crest of time’s wave, the most modern of modern be it 1789 or 1936. This ability of Rohmer, to be present (within the world of his films) in any given moment can be startling. Often this is more pronounced in the films set in the present on their own making. Though he may have been a conservative with a deep reverence for the past, Rohmer seems, like his characters to live intensely within the moments he inhabited. At times the reality of these moments, seen from another (the moment of seeing) can be almost embarrassing. I have cringed sometimes, watching his work. Oh! Those clothes! Those hairstyles! That awful dancing! I would almost look away, but I don’t because behind the cringe is a jealous admiration. Like Delphine, he is unembarrassedly himself and present in the moments he inhabits. For most of us, though we can only be in “now” we are continually distracted by the past and future. Rohmer seems free of this foolishness, as easy in “now” as the beam of light that pierces each frame of film as it runs through the projector, just that moment, then, neither anticipated nor longed for when gone, but alive in a moving stream, or the landscape seen through a train window, flashing past so fast as to be almost impossible to take in, yet real and alive.
This now-ness of Rohmer is reflected in his thoughts on his own past and future. I have always been struck by the ease with which he was able to change his mind, to accept that ideas he had defended in his youth were no longer relevant or true to him, and that he knows too (and this feels more extraordinary) that the ideas he holds true at the moment of speaking may also, later seem untrue. There are almost too many quotations to illustrate this point, but here are a few:
At the time, maybe, I believed less in the subjectivity of judgement; now
I believe in it entirely and consier myself to have been quite obstinate back then.2
My theory…was that film’s classical period was not behind us but ahead. Now, I’m not so sure. What I’m saying now might be just as open to criticism as what I said then.3
When I return to contemporary films, I don’t know what my positon will be.4
This way of thinking seems so unusual, so rooted in the transition of moment to moment, so engaged with the moment of transit between each bus stop. Like Perceval, Rohmer can’t run out of things to learn.
There is a question Christopher Isherwood used to ask in relation to his own writing and the work of others which was:
Why are you telling me this?
It’s an excellent question, and one that can easily be applied to all the movement and travelling that goes on in Rohmer’s films. Why is he showing us this? I’ve essayed above a series of observations on the travelling Rohmer shows, but I’m unable to explain quite why he shows it other than in phrases so one-dimensional and trite that I cringe. Like the medieval quest, this question isn’t there to be answered so much as to open a path of exploration, to lead us to the next question, and the next and the next. It’s a worthy quest, such exploration, but there is another question that also needs answering: why am I telling you all of these things, not just about Rohmer but about me? Like so many of Rohmer’s characters, I’m very self-absorbed, always delighted to delve into my reasons and experiences, Self-absorption, though a common trait, is not very pretty. There is a more positive characteristic, one Rohmer also possessed, to be seen in his work. In A Summer’s Tale Margo says to Gaspard:
I’m curious about people. No one’s completely uninteresting.
I’m curious too. What is this obsession with Eric Rohmer all about? What is it in these films that draw me and provoke me, and why is it that so many moments in them seem to ricochet out of the celluloid and touch me so directly – nice white, middle classes, self-obsessed moi? I want to travel through these films and right into them, figure out where they are going and where they will take me. I’m hoping to find things out.
- Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, Eric Rohmer: A Biography (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 544 ↩
- “The Critical Years: Interview with Eric Rohmer” by Jean Narboni (Cahiers du Cinema, November 1983), trans. Carol Volk, in Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 12. ↩
- Ibid., p. 2. ↩
- Interview with Eric Rohmer conducted by Harold Maury and Patrick Wittwer for an episode of the programme Cine TVO: Parlons Cinema TVOntario, Canadian Educational Televison, 1977. As published in Interviews with Eric Rohmer, ed. Bert Cardullo (London: Chaplin Books, 2012), p. 107 ↩