Though I have not often written about him or his particular importance to me, Eric Rohmer has always been one of my favorite filmmakers. His literary, beatific films about love and communication, infatuation and miscommunication, human nature and Mother Nature have always exercised an almost unique capacity to soothe me, while at the same time sharpening me to higher wavelengths of reception. He clears away the cobwebs for me - put it that way.
It was not until I did some exploring through Potemkine's new mammoth import box set of ERIC ROHMER L'INTEGRALE ("The Complete Eric Rohmer") that I became aware that this most urbane and least haunted of directors had also made a horror film. Quite early in his career, in 1954, he did what Curtis Harrington did almost a decade before him and made a rather ambitious short film based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe; Harrington chose "The Fall of the House of Usher," but Rohmer curiously chose Poe's story of amour fou, "Berenice." It is included among the (un-subtitled) supplements of the second disc in the Blu-ray/DVD combo set, which is devoted to his early short "La Boulangère de Monceau." Like that film, "Bérénice" runs slightly more than 22 minutes. It might be a contemporary telling, but something about it is not quite contemporary, suggesting more of a temporal halfway point between Poe and Rohmer. Let me walk you through it.
The film opens with a pitch black screen, a spoken title, and a scream - years before THE TINGLER pitched a scream in the dark.
Then the story begins with a telling exterior shot of the house where our narrator lives with his cousins. It's a day shot, but strikingly in tone with what Roger Corman later did with his Poe features. "The house is the monster..."
Rohmer himself stars as Aegeus, and also narrates the film. He lives with his two cousins, Berenice (Teresa Gratia) and a younger female, who are introduced playing outside the house, chasing each other around a table arranged for an outdoor meal with a phonograph positioned nearby.
Aegeus' inner ramblings are interrupted by the girls, rapping at the window for his attention.
After examining them first in their mirrored reflection, he turns to face them - resulting in this striking composition. (The film was photographed by Jacques Rivette, himself destined for great things as a filmmaker.) Now only he and Berenice share the frame, albeit with his own divided image.
Aegeus joins his cousins outside for a snack and, as Berenice's lips part to expose her overbite, his more-than-passing interest is confessed with a jolting close-up.
When we next see Aegeus, the narration has taken him into his study, which Rivette photographs in bold darkness; he is pressed up against a bookshelf as if both transfixed and repelled by the light emanating from a single candle.
The sequence in the study continues, beautifully photographed in light only a step or two above total darkness. We see Aegeus slumped over in a chair, smoking and filling an ashtray with butts. At one point, the camera dips down to study the detail of a Persian carpet below - and Aegeus' hand drops suddenly into the dark composition in a contortion of anguish, then rises with the camera to show him still seated at the table, lost in a dolorous haze.
Hereafter, Aegeus looks almost petrified in his poses of abstracted romantic obsession. At another picnic outside, Berenice falls to the ground in an epileptic fit. Again, her front teeth show through her parted lips as she convulses. The camera studies her body.
The child cousin races over to Aegeus and shakes him out of his deep reverie to come help. He does, but when he reaches the side of Berenice, he does something quite unexpected.
Ignorning the convulsing Berenice completely, he raises the needle of the phonograph and lowers it onto a recording.
In a manic fit, he conducts the music with macabre joy. In time, Berenice recovers from her seizure and sits up.
He recalls another encounter with Berenice, seen here sitting in a solarium, when their relationship suddenly took a bold turn.
While checking herself in the indoor mirror before going for a walk, Berenice checks her teeth in her reflection. Suddenly, her cousin can no longer contain himself and he accosts her.
She laughs, taunting him, goading him on until he lowers his mouth...
... to kiss her teeth.
That night in his study, Aegeus is beset with fantasy images of Berenice that come to haunt him. In a remarkable trick shot, Rivette's camera pans left to drink in the full circumference of the room with a different Berenice laughing in every corner.
But then comes the inevitable day of her premature death, and Aegeus was led to her body as it lay in state in his study. Knowing that he will never see her misshapen smile again, he takes steps to preserve it.
Tragically, this entire final sequence is too dark to be properly appreciated. As Aegeus turns away from Berenice, he virtually vanishes from view, though a flash of something silver is briefly seen in the blackness.
A male relative finds Aegeus in the study, seated and looking fixed and catatonic. When he touches him, he finds his upraised hand stained with blood.
He sees various tools, including pliers, on the table. Aegeus reaches for a small silver box on the table, turns it upside down and spills its contents like so many dice. The pulled teeth of his beloved Berenice.
Rohmer's "Bérénice" is perhaps only slightly more than juvenalia, but it confirms that this sunniest of filmmakers had a dark side that he might have explored in his films just as well. What raises it above its humble origins are Rohmer's performance, which is quite adept and stylized in the manner of a silent film performance; the daring cinematography of Rivette with its occasional stark expressionistic flourishes and its courageous attempts to engage with the story's darkness; and the sick extremity of its love story, which had precedents in the work of Evgenii Bauer and Luís Buñuel but still seems at least a decade in advance of what was then acceptable in the horror genre.