January 12, 2010

THE VERY DEFINITION:

Death of a Genius (James Bowman, 1.12.10, American Spectator)

The greatest of these six are, in my opinion, The Aviator's Wife (La femme de l'aviateur) of 1981 and Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la Plage) of 1983, both of which explore -- as, indeed, do the other films in the series -- the links between love and self-deception. That may make them sound "deep" and depressing but in fact the Rohmerian lightness of touch, affection for his characters with all their imperfections, and precise observation of manners and morals in a world often supposed to have little of either all work together to make them live up to their description as comedies -- though comedies with a serious side to them and ambiguous or even sad endings. In his 70s, Rohmer produced another series, this time of four films, called "Tales of the Four Seasons" which combined the moralism of the "Six Moral Tales" with the focus on young love -- though it is now shading into middle-aged love -- of the "Comedies and Proverbs." These are characterized by a wintry grandeur and hard-won wisdom.

One particularly interesting way into the Rohmer oeuvre would be to take one film from each of these three series all starring the same actress, Béatrice Romand, portraying three stages of a woman's life. In Claire's Knee she plays a young girl with a reputation as a flirt who is first said to have a crush on a much older man, the film's hero played by Jean-Claude Brialy, and then rejects him, as she rejects all those whom she is able to attract. In Le Beau Mariage of 1982 she plays a young woman who breaks off an affair with an older, married man, by announcing that she has decided to get married too, even though she has no idea to whom. She sets her cap at a young lawyer, full of the sense of her own powers of attraction just like the girl she had played twelve years earlier in Claire's Knee, but he proves to be just not that into her. Almost as painful to watch is her performance in A Tale of Autumn (1998), in which she is a middle-aged divorcée who doesn't want another relationship but who finds herself falling for a man with whom she has been set up by a married, match-making friend -- who really wants him for herself.

Once again, it all sounds very heavy but somehow comes off as being very light. Rohmer doesn't permit himself to be tragic because he knows his human materials won't bear so much weight. Like the very greatest artists, like Shakespeare or Mozart, he has the almost magical ability to see his characters, and to make us see them, as God must see them -- that is, with compassion but never with sentimentalism -- all the while keeping them in their mundane, bourgeois lives, so much like that of those for whom he made his films. That, of course, he was criticized for, but the left-wing political tendencies of the rest of the Nouvelle Vague never seem to have held any charms for him. Conservatives can admire him especially, perhaps, for insisting on preserving as his own artistic sphere a world, increasingly unavailable to the rest of us, where politics is not permitted to intrude. That, to me, is the very definition of a conservative artist, which Rohmer also was, in addition to being a great one.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2010 6:57 PM
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