Last Wednesday, I watched a sneak preview of Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale) at the Alliance Française. A particular treat for the Rohmer completist, since the film, released in 1996, has never been officially shown in America; it’s running here in NYC at the IFC right now.
The New Yorker has predictably promoted the run, and just as predictably misunderstood the film and Rohmer’s body of work as a whole. Richard Brody’s capsule review has the faults of his longer review in, well, capsule form, namely, that the film somehow captures an earlier era, presumably Rohmer’s own youth,1 and that, by extension, the film must be an autobiographical reflection on Romer’s own cultural formation. This chain of reasoning requires musing about Rohmer’s politics, and that’s where I get off, having missed my stop some time ago anyway.
Rohmer may have been a rightist, but it’s not evident in his films. Or rather, his politics, to the right in France, may read as only “liberal” in America: Rohmer never critiques the presumptive ethnic and cultural homogeneity of his postcolonial country; his leads are almost entirely bourgeois and conventionally attractive; he’s concerned far more with leisure than with work, and what work gets done is the work of little culture (music, writing, painting, and philosophy, chiefly); the big concerns are not the inadequacy of individual effort in the face of larger political and ecological realities, but rather the inadequacy of individual conscience to what has to be done. He’s not Claire Denis, not even Agnès Varda, but neither are most filmmakers. Even in his so-called “political histories” (here and here), he’s as smugly bourgeois as most.
It may just be that Rohmer’s politics demonstrate how fundamentally Rightwing the “liberal” status quo is: so be it.
Rohmer’s difference from any given Rightwing filmmaker is what makes him great: he populates his films with failures, almost entirely men, who make what they want us to believe are the “right choices” for entirely hypocritical, self-serving reasons. The women tend to be free of this hypocrisy, not because they’re unintellectual, but–maybe–because they don’t feel the need to pretend. Rohmer’s goal, then, is to force men (especially) towards self-reflection and, of course, a search for our secret sin.
With all that in mind, here’s what Richard Brody/The New Yorker gets most wrong:
[Conte d’été] ends (I’ll avoid spoilers) with a deft and decisive tribute to the moral virtue and romantic centrality of artistic ambition.
Without saying more, our hero’s musical ambition is a thin excuse to avoid having to act with any moral courage. He’s got himself into a jam entirely of his own making; he’s realized all his fantasies and discovers that they suck; and he chooses the way out that makes him come off as though he’s made some grand choice for some abstract good. But no: it’s pure hypocrisy, which is just what you’d expect to find in the conclusion to a Rohmer. To understand why taking this choice an an example of “moral virtue” is such a mistake, please rewatch Ma nuit chez Maud or Le genou de Claire, paying particular attention to their endings.
For an earlier post on Rohmer, see here, where I talk about his Perceval.
1 “though it’s set in the present day, the febrile formalities evoke a vanished age—that of the director’s own youth—in which worldly witticisms and ponderous aphorisms both conceal and deflect passion”: I’d say, no, they evoke a Rohmer film. This is the way his characters talk, always, and, if you watch a few interviews, you’ll see it’s how Rohmer himself talked. And, hell, it’s how all the intellectual kids talked in their early 20s when they wanted to talk about their feelings, which, in fact, was all they ever wanted to talk about.↩