Rohmer at the Water

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

From the sun-dappled Seine on whose banks Parisians wistfully lounge in Le Signe du Lion (1959), to the idyllic locations along Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude that become a romantic battleground for the character of Gaspard in A Summer’s Tale (1996), one thing has always struck me about a great many of Eric Rohmer’s films. In addition to a notable focus on the ‘leisure classes’ and their various pastimes, Rohmer’s pictures frequently feature bodies of water, from bustling beaches to tranquil ponds. Of course, these two elements – whether or not they play a part in defining Rohmer’s cinema – are somewhat inseparable. The storylines of many of his more renowned films (Claire’s Knee, Pauline at the Beach, The Green Ray, the aforementioned A Summer’s Tale) unfold over the course of an extended vacation (usually at a coastal locale), during which characters have ample time to indulge in romantic parlour games and sunny afternoon philosophising. That a portion of their time is spent tanning, swimming and boating is only natural as is, accordingly, the presence of wet expanses. But suppose this affinity for water is more than a mere consequence of setting or just some auteurist quirk, instead being of deeper thematic significance. If so, why water?

Consider, first, the traits and qualities of the classic Rohmer character: young(ish), educated or – at the very least – articulate, primed for love and hungry for sex, and often torn between the whims of the heart and the fretful inklings of the mind. Even those that seem utterly self-assured and crystalline in their desires tend to expound on these things almost too emphatically, as though they are trying to convince themselves of these very things. In essence, there often seems to be a modest Mexican standoff between thinking, feeling and being. Either that or the characters are completely at the mercy of neuroticism and overthought, like Delphine in The Green Ray (1986) or Blanche in Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987). It’s no surprise, then, that Delphine’s gloomier seaside detours during the first half of the film come across as weirdly antagonistic, the crowded beach and its boisterous, crashing waters taunting the lonely protagonist and daring her to enjoy herself, to feel comfortable in her skin. By contrast, water seems to represent release and acceptance for Blanche as she windsurfs with a potential new love, or at least with a newfound sense of worth.

Now, consider the nature of water: loose, volatile, violent when given the chance, yet respectful of the physical laws and forces that shape and guide it. There is a formidability to the ocean that is humbling, and a quiet self-confidence to even the smallest puddle that is equally humbling. If water represents the ability to simply be, then it is perhaps a model of the psychological ideal that Rohmer’s characters, in one way or another, aspire to – that of intrinsic harmony. As much as the water is a source of cool, buoyant recreation, when Rohmer’s characters stroll, jog or run into the sea, or sit down beside a lake, there is a sense of it being a source of fascination and an inspiration, as much as it is a playground. Then there is the fundamental mystery of water. To cast one’s eyes across the sea, to the horizon, is to be faced with the seemingly unknown, and the more Rohmer’s characters talk and theorise and pontificate and self-exorcise the more his films feel like talky tributes to the mysteries of humanity, a species capable of rationality but helplessly given to fickleness; contradictory yet predictable all the same.

But let us not forget the visual simplicity and elegance of water. There are shots in Rohmer’s films in which a body of water seems like the most fitting prop or set, whether as a flat and stagnant backdrop to a prickly conversation between will-be/won’t-be lovers, or a serene seascape against which a character finally achieves some semblance of happiness and peace. Or, as an astute colleague of mine pointed out to me, water – especially at the border between land and sea – sometimes seems representative of a character’s stagnation and arrested development, or their inability to move beyond certain psycho-emotional limits; ‘landlocked’ is the word he used, particularly in reference to Gaspard from A Summer’s Tale and Delphine.

As a literary and artistic device, water can comfortably humour endless interpretations. Knowing Rohmer’s background as a critic and an academic, I imagine there are sprinkles of more rigorous Classical water references present in his films to offset my speculative, fanciful readings. But the aim of this video is not to make an argument in favour of any, but to highlight this ‘visual motif,’ if you will, to take pleasure in it, and to perhaps trigger some thoughts and discourse on the matter. So I present, to you, a trip to the water and back, a la Eric Rohmer.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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