Love in the Afternoon (1972)

loveinthe1Is it possible to love two women at once? In essence, that’s one of the main conceits of this moral tale from director Eric Rohmer’s series. Sometimes Rohmer feels like the Woody Allen of France although Allen’s films are slightly more geared towards comedy and the former’s films have an inclination towards love stories. But both fill their storylines with characters engrossed in thought — men and women who are well versed in the ideas of the ages they come out of. They are well off, well-educated, and have problems relevant to the bourgeoisie. At times it can get a bit stuffy and yet in this case Rohmer examines the issues of one man’s lifestyle with immense clarity. Although it should be noted that this a very patriarchal world and the ideas brought to the forefront emerge from that perspective.

loveinthe2Our main character Frederic has a degree of autonomy working at his own law firm. He has a beautiful and intelligent wife who is a professor of literature. Together they have one cute little girl and another on the way soon enough. His office is full of pretty Parisian girls and he often finds himself swimming in a sea of attractive women, But he can return home to his wife, read, think, and sit in the relative lap of luxury. Except there is something else inside him. Some desire that leads him in a small way to lust after other women. He tries to categorize and passively analyze all the women around him. His dream life is comprised of first loves and lasting loves — nothing that will dissipate with age. But he is addicted to a city where people come and go — vanishing never to be seen again. There is the innumerable but fleeting presence of women. He lives in a daydream, an innocent enough fantasy (so it seems), watching girls from a cafe and imagining chance encounters with them. A lot of the faces look strangely familiar if you know a bit about the Moral Tales.

Then all of a sudden Chloe comes back into his life quite by accident. She used to be his former flame and now he’s happily married and she recently broke up with her boyfriend and picked up some dead-end job. But being a good husband and a respectable citizen Frederic never seems to cross the line, although he seems to spend more and more time with Chloe.  In this way, Rohmer’s characters never seem inherently corrupt and they fit nicely into the mold of bourgeois sensibilities. But that does not mean they don’t dance around some rather sensuous lines. Even when thoughts do not give way to physical or even animalistic desires there is still a volatility in dwelling there. When reality gives way to any sort of fantasy things can get dicey because expectations are distorted — even our perspective on the opposite sex begins to teeter dangerously.

loveinthe3And it’s not simply that this is set in the sultry city of Paris. There is an obvious desire of Frederic to be with this woman and they spend afternoons together. She becomes his confidante as he is so often reserved and taciturn in his marriage. But the complexities get even greater as Chloe says she wants a child by Frederic, but not marriage. He still goes home to his wife and seems to deeply care about her.

It’s the dichotomy that so easily could tear his life apart or make his resolve even stronger. In this case, it’s the latter. He acknowledges his aloofness to his wife, his communication skills or lack thereof. And it is in this moment that husband and wife truly show their vulnerability. It’s in this instance of intimacy that they once more discover love in the afternoon. This film can easily be called Chloe in the Afternoon and it was called that in the U.S. to avoid confusion with Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, but Love in the Afternoon is more universal. Furthermore, it becomes more fitting as Frederic takes one last crucial turn in his love life.

4/5 Stars

Claire’s Knee (1970)

claireskneeClaire’s Knee is a film made for color. Eric Rohmer’s other films up to this point had almost exclusively been black and white, but it’s as if he knew that his newest oeuvre deserved different treatment. It’s vast countrysides and glistening lakes abundant with flowers and fruits fill up our senses. We get to watch and see and experience the beauties of this oasis. And there is no music because the songs of the birds suffice.

Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a reserved but genial diplomat, who also pulls off his beard quite well. He’s taking a peaceful holiday at Lake Annecy as he prepares himself for marriage with his longtime sweetheart. Quite by chance, he bumps into an old friend named Aurora during a jaunt in his speedboat. Through her, he meets her landlady Madame Walter, the lady’s daughter Laura, and finally Claire, Laura’s older half-sister. It’s an increasingly interesting chain of acquaintances.

The course of the film follows the progression of the summer days signified by white inter-titles expressing the date and time. During these days Jerome, in a sense, willingly becomes Aurora’s “Guinea pig” for her next novel as they discuss love, life, relationships, desire, and the like. Early on, Aurora notices that young Laura has taken some liking in Jerome, and he good-naturedly pursues the relationship, to see what happens.

clairesknee2She’s a young girl who has some big ideas. Laura admits feelings for Jerome, but it’s seemingly only fleeting young love. She still has many years ahead of her, and yet her opinions on love and friendship are already forged. She’s willing to discuss them in depth with her much older counterpart. They take a hike through the mountains together, dance together on Bastille Day, but it’s not a romance. She moves on to a younger boy more fitting for her.

But that’s enough skirting around the uncomfortable. It’s the entrance of Claire that feels integral to the film, if not simply for the fact that the film’s title revolves around her. The fact is Claire is a beautiful girl, who intrigues and disturbs Jerome for the simple fact that her physical appearance is all he knows about her.

The moment he witnesses her picking fruit off a tree up above him, he cannot stop looking. He’s absolute powerless around her. She intimidates and casts a spell that mystifies him. The fact he wishes to touch her knee is hardly a thing to be taken all that seriously. By this point, we know that Jerome and Aurora are not all that serious. It’s almost as if they’re playing a game. And yet Jerome still earnestly wishes to touch Claire’s Knee.

In a moment of sincerity he even acknowledges he is drawn to thin delicate girls, but having a girl made to order would hardly be a recipe for true love. Because the fantasy could never equate to actual compatibility and joy for two individuals. The perfect moment does finally arrive, and it seems like Jerome can finally act out on his desire. He is caught in the rain with Claire and they must wait, taking refuge from the rain. He has news about her boyfriend that brings her to tears. In an instant, he caresses her knee, but soon enough all the desire is gone and it gives way to a good deed.

clairesknee3Thus, somehow Jerome maintains his good-natured personality despite his potentially disastrous relationships with the two girls. It’s as if he knows that inconsequential flings and fantasies can never measure up to true love. He heads off ready to marry his bride to be. We never get a feeling that this is some odd ploy to get a dramatic rise out of its audience. Rohmer’s moral tale is genuinely curious about love. In truth, it’s packed full of musings and revelations on the issue. It draws the conclusion that love means nothing without action.

To his credit, Brialy pulls off the role nearly flawlessly, because he could have so easily seemed like a perverted jerk, but somehow he still comes out of this film with his reputation intact. Perhaps it’s because Laura and Claire are such striking characters. Jerome somehow pales in comparison, despite his age. Although young, Laura seems beyond her years and then there’s Claire. A young woman so exquisitely beautiful in a natural, carefree sort of way. She is perfect to be the subject of this film.

4/5 Stars

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

nightatmaud's1I love the forum that is created in international cinema where all things can be debated and discussed without fear of what the audience will say. Hollywood caters to the audience and that more often than not means that thrills are given greater weight than substance. Eric Rohmer worked at Cahiers du Cinema alongside French New Wave visionaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but he joined the game a little later than his colleagues with a different style. Rohmer took his pseudonym from director Erich von Stroheim and British novelist Sax Rohmer. He was a highly educated man and that comes out in his films.

My Night at Maud’s comes from the perspective of a man, who we have a sneaking suspicion might be a lot like Rohmer.  Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a reserved, highly religious, intelligent man. He attends mass on Sunday, bumps into an old school chum on the street, and willfully enters a discussion on all sorts of philosophical topics.

Whereas Godard interest himself in the lowly gangsters, the streetwalkers, or the lovers on the run, Rohmer’s character are in a completely different stratosphere. They are a higher slice of society, and it shows in what they spend there time philosophizing about. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion stemming from Pascal’s wager on whether or not it is beneficial to believe in God. Although he can be a bit of a clown, Vidal is also a philosophy professor and ready and willing to delve into such topics. He holds hypotheses on the meaning of life, and he’s considered where hope comes from. These are intelligent beings and deep thinkers, and by transference, they lead us to think. They drop by on Vidal’s friend Maud (Francoise Fabian), who is a divorcee, irreligious, and most certainly a free thinker. She’s also beautiful, and she likens there little late night convo to the salons of old as they gather around her bed to raise their conjectures.

nightatmaud's4I feel like I have known people like Jean-Louis, and I cannot help but like them. He’s a fairly resilient Christian, but not a perfect example mind you, and yet he feels far from a hypocrite. With his new dialogue partners, he speaks of his past love affairs and how they can exist with his religious convictions. Maud rather matter-of-factly labels him a “shame-faced Christian” and a “shame-faced Don Juan,” because he’s not fully committed or acknowledging of either. And yet she generally likes him a lot. He likes her company too and so they can continue talking in a genial manner. She pokes fun and ribs but never attacks. And she openly brings up numerous different ideas about Christianity. There are things that feel very human, but not very Christian to her. Maud asks if Christians are judged by their deeds? She assumes there is a bookkeeping aspect of Christianity where good deeds are weighted versus sin. Several times the rather obscure term of Jansenism is thrown around a bit in reference to the theology of Dutchman Cornelius Jansen. It surely is difficult to keep up we these folks at times, but it’s well worth it.

Maud has her own preconceived notions about religion, while Jean-Louis has some delusions about romance. He thinks he’ll meet a pretty blonde Catholic gal and fall in love. It sounds utterly preposterous and yet then he meets Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) after his night at Maud’s. She’s the perfect embodiment of everything he’s ever dreamed of in a romantic partner. They seem like a good pair, although she is still in school, they are intellectual equals with similar personal convictions.

nightatmaud's5Sure enough, 5 years down the line they are married with a young son. Jean-Louis has not seen Maud for many years now, but quite by chance they bump into each other on the beach. Both pick up where they left off as if no time has passed because it’s so easy for them to converse. Francoise is noticeably uncomfortable around Maud, but nothing more is said about it. Jean-Louis moves on and plays contentedly with his family on the beach. Maud heads back up the hill as cordial as ever. This is an ending that is made powerful in its subtleties above all else because Jean-Louis and the audience realize something about Francoise. Yet there is no need to voice those conclusions because all that matters to him is that he is happy.  It toes a soft line between romance and drama, instead resorting to a beautiful exchange of ideas. Noticeably, in Rohmer’s film, there is no score so the dialogue is elevated to the level of music. It fills the void using deep, introspective and personal forms of verbal expression.

4/5 Stars