Eric Rohmer is one of my favorite directors, but I don't think I've written much, if anything, about his work or what it means to me. His good name first came to my attention as a cheap joke in Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES; "I saw a Rohmer film once," says Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby; "it was kind of like watching paint dry." Penn later told an interviewer that he regarded Rohmer as "a wonderful filmmaker," that the opinion expressed was not his own, but rather one that he included to help movie-literate audiences understand where Harry was coming from, as a character. To this day, I think more people in America have heard that Rohmer's films are like watching paint dry than have actually seen them -- or NIGHT MOVES, for that matter.
Rohmer is best-known for two film series, his "Six Moral Tales" (1963-72) and "Tales of Four Seasons"(1990-98), and a few of his uncollected features of the 1980's -- LE BEAU MARRIAGE, FULL MOON IN PARIS, SUMMER aka THE GREEN RAY, and BOYFRIENDS AND GIRLFRIENDS -- are unofficially bound by the commonality of protagonists discontented with the lives they have chosen for themselves. I saw my first two Rohmer films -- MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969, which seems older than it is by at least a few years) and CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972) -- at the University of Cincinnati a year or so after I saw NIGHT MOVES, and was unexpectedly enchanted. I was especially taken with MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, whose incidental uses of chance, theology, and coincidence resonated with a good deal of the French literature I was reading in translation at the time, the works of André Gide particularly. And without the delightful example of CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970), I might never have conceived of a throat fetish and written a certain novel.
For whatever reason, perhaps the largely collective nature of Rohmer's filmography, I have always been delinquent in keeping up with his stand-alone works. Sometimes these are truly minor (FOUR ADVENTURES OF REINETTE AND MIRABELLE, 1987), but they can also be transcendant (1978's PERCEVAL, the only Rohmer film I included in my Top Ten list for SIGHT AND SOUND, is one of these, though I have seen it only once and am frankly afraid to watch it again). Something I once said about Rohmer's films comes back to me: that, every time I saw a new one, I had the feeling of windows opening in my mind and letting a wonderful, warm breeze in, relaxing while also stimulating my gray matter -- and this is true to some extent of all the films I've mentioned thus far. The other night, I finally caught up with THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer's 2001 offering, and it's the first one I've seen that didn't make me feel this way. On the contrary, it gave the impression of windows that were locked, with heavy velvet curtains drawn, as the people huddled within spoke urgently of life-and-death matters they could not possibly anticipate and over which they had no control.
THE LADY AND THE DUKE stars Lucy Russell (pictured above) and Jean-Claude Dreyfus in an intimate drama situated during the French Revolution, based on Grace Elliott's JOURNAL OF MY LIFE DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. It's a far cry from Rohmer's usual material -- which is typically about the problems of contemporary young people and the difficulties of finding and holding onto love -- being about a Scot aristocrat, Grace Elliott, whose social status in her beloved adopted France endangers her on the outbreak of revolution, and whose ongoing friendly relationship with a former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Dreyfus), becomes even more compromising as they find themselves on opposite sides in the question of whether or not the King should be executed. Through performance alone, the film potently conveys the unpredictable, seismic quality of a country whose government has been violently overthrown -- and the sickening futility of attempting to navigate safe passage through volatile times of rhetoric and paranoia on a rudder of logic or common sense. The key to survival, it argues, is not by bending whichever way the wind blows, but by remaining true to one's own beliefs -- and, if necessary for the survival of something larger than oneself, dying by them.
THE LADY AND THE DUKE is reminiscent of PERCEVAL to the extent of its willfully artificial presentation. PERCEVAL's greatness lies in its ability to conjure all the necessary details of its 12th century story by engaging the viewer's imagination; the world actually given us on screen are no more realistic than the set flats you would see in a stage play. In THE LADY AND THE DUKE, Rohmer uses CGI to recreate 18th century France in a series of mural-like tableaux. The effect is to amplify the story's human element, which would have been crushed if set against a more believably three-dimensional social tumult.
THE LADY AND THE DUKE isn't my favorite Rohmer film, but days after viewing it, I find myself still thinking about it, chewing it over, feeling haunted, moved, and also frightened by parts of it. I've seen I don't know how many decapitations in the movies, both badly done and more realistically than I care to see, but Grace Elliott's encounter with the severed head of a beloved friend chills me more than any I've seen since Polanski's MACBETH. But the greatest horror of this film isn't graphic, but rather its unsettling air of premonition. There is more of pre-Revolution France in present-day America than many of us may want to admit -- the widening gulf between the poor and the wealthy, the prejudices inherent in our government's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the favor being shown for big business over the rights and best interests of the common man, all these things surfaced in my thoughts even while watching the film. I don't know how THE LADY AND THE DUKE plays to the French, but as an American, I found it food for thought -- bitter perhaps, but also nutritious.
Sony Pictures' release of the film is overpriced at $29.95, but I was able to score it from DVD Deep Discount during one of their sales at a very reasonable price (which may have actually been "free"). The transfer is a bit tight, indicating a 1.66:1 ratio given a 1.78:1 reformatting, but hardly unwatchable, and the Dolby 5.1 track is rich in grace notes and dramatic incident.
PS: Welcomely coinciding with my viewing of THE LADY AND THE DUKE, our friends at Criterion today announced their August DVD release titles, which include the following sure-fire contender for the most important box set of the year:
SIX MORAL TALES
The multifaceted, deeply personal dramatic universe of Eric Rohmer has had an effect on cinema unlike any other. Gently existential, hyperarticulate character studies set against vivid seasonal landscapes, Rohmer’s audacious and wildly influential series defined a genre. A succession of jousts between fragile men and the women who tempt them, the Six Moral Tales unleashed onto the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.
Six-disc box set includes the films THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU, SUZANNE'S CAREER, MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, LA COLLECTIONEUSE, CLAIRE'S KNEE, and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (aka CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON).
SPECIAL FEATURES: New, restored high-definition digital transfers, supervised and approved by director Eric Rohmer; exclusive new video conversation with Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder; the short films "Nadja in Paris", "Charlotte and Her Steak", "Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui", "The Camber", and "Véronique and Her Dunce"; archival interviews with Rohmer, actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, film critic Jean Douchet, and producer Pierre Cottrell; a video Afterword with filmmaker and writer Neil LaBute; and original theatrical trailers.
PLUS: A book featuring the original stories by Eric Rohmer, and a booklet featuring “For a Talking Cinema” by Eric Rohmer, a memoir from cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and six new essays.
CAT: CC1640D. UPC: 7-15515-01912-5. ISBN: 1-55940-989-4. SRP: $99.95. Street date: 8/15/06
Fox Lorber's VHS and DVD issues of the "Six Moral Tales" films have always been stale-looking and sorely lacking in extras, so this release carries the clarion call of a godsend, and the book containing the original stories by Rohmer is a magnificent addition.