- Ravi Swami
A Duo of Eric Rohmer - 1969 and 1987
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Eric Rohmer made films at the tail-end of the French New Wave movement although he had been a frequent contributor to "Cahier Du Cinema", the influential film criticism journal, from 1957 to 1963 and I'd certainly heard his name quoted in the context of the movement - I'd just never dipped into his films and before streaming, the opportunities were limited to art house cinemas or rare late night screenings in the 80's on the U.K TV channels, Channel 4 or BBC.
As usual, I made random selections, with some prompting from the respective streaming service, in the case of "My Night at Maud's", via Mubi.
The two films reviewed here fall within a series of "Moral Tales" that Rohmer wrote and directed and in line with that, the more recent poster image design for "Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle" is carried across the films that fall within the moral tales theme, which helps to reinforce the thematic connections when viewing the available Rohmer films on Apple +.
"My Night at Maud's" ("My Night With Maud" in the U.K) consolidated Rohmer's reputation following an Academy Award nomination in 1969 and was my introduction to his work, which, it seems to me, approach the moral issues that we face as we navigate relationships and dealing with the world, by using superficially banal situations with philosophical underpinnings, but without ever feeling didactic, a feeling that might result from the title of "Moral Tales".
Jean-Louis (Played By Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a mathematician living alone in Clermont-Ferrand - a Catholic, he attends church services and during one at the start of the film, he sees a young blonde woman to whom he is clearly attracted.
Leaving the service in his car, he pursues the young woman on her bike through the winding narrow streets of the town but eventually loses her as she disappears in traffic - however he is determined to find out who she is and surely in a small town such as Clermont-Ferrand and with the same church as a rendezvous, the odds of meeting her again should be high ?
Later he bumps into an old Marxist, ie atheist, friend, Vidal, and they meet at a restaurant for a coffee where they discuss the mathematics of probability according to the atheist mathematician, Pascal - a lengthy sequence that may be off-putting but is necessary to set up the scenario that follows. Both men enjoy bachelorhood and indulge in casual relationships while acknowledging that settling down in a town like Clermont-Ferrand is difficult due to a lack of suitable single women.
Vidal persuades Jean-Louis to spend an evening with himself and his on-off girlfriend, a divorcee with a young daughter, Maud (played by Francoise Fabian), which he reluctantly agrees to though his mind is preoccupied by the young woman he has seen in church.
Jean-Louis duly turns up at Maud's apartment and what follows is an awkward situation where Vidal flirts openly with her, making it clear that he has slept with her. Maud meanwhile finds Jean-Louis interesting and the three have a conversation that hinges on aspects of morality and Jean-Louis' Catholicism, while suggesting that Vidal is merely both a casual friend and ship passing in the night, a situation that suits them both, though she is keen to find someone for a more long-term relationship being a single parent.
Vidal engineers a situation where Jean-Louis agrees to spend the night at Maud's and since she has only one bed (her daughter sleeps in an adjoining room), he ends up sleeping next to her. The next morning a failed overture by Maud to go beyond simply sleeping next to Jean-Louis ends badly and he leaves, but not before promising to meet her again.
Without making this review a spoiler and revealing too much of the plot, Rohmer's theme pits religious belief against another belief system, that of mathematics and probability, and asks the questions, which will win and what role does choice play, in the context of "Pascal's Wager" ?
Jean-Louis is clearly attracted to the young woman he has seen in church since he feels she has something in common with him in terms of their shared beliefs and that they may be a good match as a result, but this is only a feeling without substantiation, and anything "outside" of this in terms of relationships is a matter of "chance" with as much probability of success or failure, if he looks at it from a purely mathematical point of view.
As we will see from the second film, Rohmer's plots often turn on how circumstances can wrong-foot or scupper such moral debates, with characters being forced to reevaluate their
relationship with the world around them.
While "My Night with Maud" is set during winter and Christmas specifically (one reason it was offered up by Mubi as perfect seasonal viewing), "4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle" will make you yearn for the French countryside in deepest summer, which is where it opens.
Mirabelle, a student on holiday from the city with her country-living parents, is cycling through the countryside when she gets a puncture. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, as chance would have it, she sees a young woman approaching, Reinette, who agrees to help out by showing her how to repair the puncture.
Of course, this being a Rohmer film, nothing ever really occurs as a matter of chance but you get the picture. The two young women couldn't be more different from the outset, Mirabelle, though conventionally attractive, is sullen and brooding, Reinette has a permanent beatific smile on her face and could be described as plain by comparison.
Mirabelle is curious to know more about Reinette as the girls hit it off and discovers that she lives alone in the deserted farmhouse set within a large rambling and overgrown garden where she has repaired her bike. Reinette reveals that she is an aspiring artist, showing Mirabelle her paintings, and finds the solitude of the countryside useful in her work.
It is clear that Reinette is happy where she is and with this she is keen to introduce Mirabelle - who, although young, exhibits a degree of urban cynicism and ennui and a desire to show off her education (she is studying ethnography) to the uneducated autodidact Reinette - to the "Blue Hour" - a moment in the early morning in the countryside where everything is still and there is no sound - a moment which for Reinette is something that cannot be expressed with mere words, like her paintings.
Reinette wishes to further her artistic ambition by going to art college in Paris and on revealing this, Mirabelle offers her the opportunity of being a flat-share since she lives in a flat in the city already, and this is the start of the "4 adventures`' of the title, with the film divided into 4 episodes that chart Reinette's journey from idealistic "country mouse" to street-smart "town mouse", with Mirabelle's help.
The two young women are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their moral stance, Reinette believes in universal and immutable constants, Mirabelle lives day to day in a city where moral dilemmas are challenged from one street corner to the next and can be adjusted according to the needs of the moment, and she can argue her way out of most situations using her intellect.
In each episode of the 4 adventures the 2 characters reveal their moral stance being challenged in one way or another, whether it is by an obnoxious waiter in a street cafe insisting on the correct change for a cup of coffee rather than agreeing to accept the 200 Franc bill that Reinette offers him, since she has no change, to the shoplifter that Mirabelle witnesses in a supermarket before informing the shop security - at the checkout Mirabelle's plan is to "help" the shoplifter by swiping her bag of stolen goods and returning them to her outside the supermarket, but the plan goes wrong and she takes the goods home instead, something that horrifies Reinette.
Mirabelle, for her part, feels as if her life lacks "adventure" and is unable to find joy in the things around her in the same way that Reinette is able to.
In the last episode, Reinette is forced to try and sell her paintings in order to be able to pay her share of the rent on the apartment and faces returning to the country and giving up her dream. However, a friend of Mirabelle's is an art dealer and he agrees to view her portfolio and latest work.
The two girls come up with a ruse where Reinette pretends to be a mute and Mirabelle accompanies her to the gallery, where the art dealer looks at Reinette's paintings while pontificating about the work as she looks on, nodding or shaking her head when questioned. He offers her 2000 Francs but no advance, while Reinette insists on the full fee up-front.
At this point Mirabelle steps in and basically shames the art dealer by using the "fact" that Reinette is a mute, extracting the full 2000 francs in the process. As the two leave, triumphant, a couple of customers enter the gallery and show an interest in Reinette's painting, which the art dealer agrees to sell to them for 4000 francs.
By choosing to make a Reinette a mute, Rohmer is making a connection to her art as well as the idea that she believes some things can't be expressed in words or via the intellect, whereas Mirabelle is able to utilize her ability to talk her way out of situations via her intellect to help her friend out of a sticky situation, thus establishing a balance between the two opposing moral positions.
I really wish I'd seen more of Rohmer's films when I was younger since far from being moral tracts they present very real and superficially banal situations framed within the context of moral and philosophical dilemmas that everyone faces as we navigate the world and provide us with the tools to survive in the process.
"My Night at Maud's"
"4 Adventures of Reinette & Mirabelle"
Dir: Eric Rohmer
Apple TV / Mubi