Eric Rohmer Collection: Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle/The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque Review
The Eric Rohmer Collection is a box set of ten films on nine Blu-ray discs, released in a limited edition of 2000 by Arrow Academy. These reviews are a disc at a time, the films being reviewed in chronological order, except for those on the final disc. To read the other reviews, please click on the “Eric Rohmer Collection” tag below.
Eric Rohmer had began his career making short films and continued to do so up to the end of the 1960s. After then, other than television documentary work, his films were feature-length. You could argue that many of those feature films are made up of smaller units, subdivided as they are into sections, chapters (even if just date captions) or have prologues. One of those early shorts was his contribution to the portmanteau film Paris vu par..., and in 1987 Rohmer made his own portmanteau...after a fashion, as it features four stories with the same two characters, with a progression from first to last. Maybe call it an episodic film or “sketch film” instead.
Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle) originated with Joëlle Miquel, then a teenager, who either phoned Rohmer or sent him a screenplay (accounts vary), enthused by having seen Full Moon in Paris. They met, the normally reserved Rohmer agreeing to a quarter-hour meeting and, inspired by her stories of her life so far, suggested that they work together. Four Adventures… was the result. Continuing the improvisatory technique of The Green Ray, which was then in production, Rohmer developed the film with Miquel (playing country girl Reinette) and Jessica Forde (Parisian city girl Mirabelle), an English-born, dual-national and bilingual actress, then twenty, who had a few small film roles over the previous year. The film was shot mostly at weekends, in 16mm with much of the same crew as The Green Ray (Sophie Maintigneux again as cinematographer) often in real locations without seeking permission.
The first and longest of the four adventures is “The Blue Hour”. Mirabelle, cycling in the countryside, gets a flat tyre and meets Reinette, who helps her out. As Mirabelle stays the night in Reinette's home, Reinette tells her about the blue hour of the title. This harks back to the The Green Ray, and a moment of epiphany, except one at the start of the day instead of at its end: that moment of silence between the end of the night sounds and the beginning of the day. Their first attempt at witnessing this is disrupted by a passing truck, much to Reinette's upset, but on the second night they make another attempt… “The Waiter” begins with an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower over a rooftop, and Reinette is now staying with Mirabelle in the latter's Parisian flat, working on the paintings that she showed Mirabelle back in the countryside. This is the most comic of the four episodes, as while trying to find a cafe where Mirabelle is to meet her, two men give rival directions to Reinette and almost come to blows in a masculine clash of antlers. While at the coffee, Reinette clashes with a waiter (Philippe Laudenbach), who refuses to give her change from the note she gives him to pay for her coffee and accuses her of cheating…
City ways are a puzzle to Reinette, and the third section, “The Beggar, the Kleptomaniac and the Hustler”, sets up a clash between her values and those of Mirabelle. Reinette is at first puzzled as to why people shouldn't give money to beggars and also doesn't think they should take a discarded handbag, even if it means that a shoplifter cannot be apprehended due to lack of evidence. Then Reinette, about to take a train meets a woman (Marie Rivière), who tells her a sob story and asks for money...only to see the same woman telling the same story to someone else. In the fourth story, “Selling the Painting”, Reinette's money is running low and she is considering going back to the countryside. Mirabelle dares her to stay silent for a day, only for a gallery owner (Fabrice Luchini) to call and express an interest in buying one of Reinette's paintings…
Clearly intended as something of light relief from the demands of the Comedies and Proverbs, Four Adventures… departs from their template by having its two leads talk about anything but love and its importance to their lives. Instead, it's a celebration of a female friendship, and if it is a love story, which I'd say it is, it's a platonic one. Below the comedic surface, the film asks similar moral questions as Rohmer's other works, using slightly younger protagonists than usual, two young woman whose views on life and how they see the world changing, due to the other's friendship.
Jessica Forde was involved in the project Rohmer took up after completing the Comedies and Proverbs with My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. She played opposite Pascal Greggory in Rohmer's two-hander stage play Trio en mi bémol (Trio in E Flat), which Rohmer filmed for French television in 1988. Rohmer made another portmanteau film in 1995, this time with no connection between the three parts other than the city they are set in, Rendezvous in Paris (Les rendez-vous de Paris).
By 1993, Rohmer had begun a third film series, the Tales of the Four Seasons (Contes des quatres saissons) and the first two had been released, A Tale of Springtime and A Winter's Tale. Then came word that a new Rohmer film, on the subject of French local politics, had opened with little publicity on one screen in Paris. That was The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (L'arbre, le Maire et la Médiathèque). The subtitle of the film is “ou les sept hasards” (probably best translated as “or the seven fortuities”) as it is novelistically divided into seven chapters, the first and last really a prologue and epilogue, each with a title beginning “Si...” - if this or that hadn't happened… So, another Rohmerian exploration of the workings of fate.
It's 1992, in the village of Saint-Juire-Champgillon in the Vendée region of western France. Julien Dechaumes (Pascal Greggory), the Mayor, has plans to build a cultural centre in the village, including a media library (mediatheque), theatre and a sports complex. He is opposed by Marc Rossignol (Fabrice Luchini), who asserts that such a venture would destroy the natural beauty of the countryside – and not least require the felling of an ancient tree.
Rohmer's own politics were often thought to be conservative, though when asked this he once said “I do not know if I am of the Right but what is certain is I am not of the Left.” This may have been a dig at his former collaborator and fellow Cahiers du cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard, who was and is if nothing else very much of the Left. In The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque Rohmer allows both sides to have their say. Marc may be the conservative, but he sees himself as a radical defying the forces of capitalism, while Julien sees a future where people do not need to go to cities to succeed in business and with then-current (pre-Internet and pre-social media) technology such as the fax can just as well do their business at home, in the countryside if needs be. Also involved in the debates are Julien's novelist lover Bérénice (Arielle Dombasle), and Blandine (Clémentine Amouroux), a journalist who comes to the village. Rohmer blurs the line between fiction and documentary by having Blandine perform vox-pop interviews with genuine locals...and finishing with Marc. The film also adopts the comic trope of a child being wiser than and a counsellor to a parent, namely Marc's ten-year-old daughter Zoë (Galaxie Barbouth). One of the film's seven fortuities is a meeting and friendship between Zoë and Julien's daughter Véga (Jessica Schwing), which brings about the film's resolution. This provokes a finale with a chorus of the principal characters in song, a bit like the chorus in the otherwise very different Perceval.
The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque was shot in 16mm, on one of Rohmer's smallest budgets. Rohmer would often claim that his methods, shooting quickly with minimal crews and on mostly real locations (often without official permission) was a much more efficient way of making films, though as others pointed out, this did rely on his cast working for nothing upfront and a share of the proceeds. Also, Rohmer was able to have such films shown because of his existing reputation. It would be much more difficult for a newer director in such circumstances to make the breakthrough that Rohmer had already made. The film did mark the start of another longstanding collaboration for Rohmer, with cinematographer Diane Baratier. She went on to shoot all of Rohmer's remaining feature films, and with seven equalled Nestor Almendros as a Rohmer collaborator, though Almendros had made four short films with Rohmer as well.
Both of these films are among Rohmer's least-seen works, in the UK at least. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle was shown at the 1987 London Film Festival (which is where I saw it, my only viewing before this disc) and went on to have a cinema release in January 1988. It had a VHS release, but didn't proceed to a DVD, so this Blu-ray is the first time it has been available on disc in the UK. As for The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, its subject matter was no doubt considered too parochial for a British audience, and it became the second of two of Rohmer's twenty-three big-screen features (of over an hour, that is – you could count two fifty-minuters as features, hence making twenty-five) not to receive a British cinema release, or indeed any British commercial release until now. Showings have been sparse: I finally saw it during a Rohmer retrospective at the BFI Southbank in London in 2015.
This is the final disc in Arrow Academy's Eric Rohmer Collection Blu-ray, and at the time of writing it will be exclusive to the box set. The disc starts with asking you to select one of the two films, taking you through to a menu for each.
On what was its first submission to the BBFC, The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque was given a PG certificate. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle was a U in cinemas and on VHS, and is now a PG, though the BBFC have clearly missed (if this checkdisc is the same as the final disc), a “Fuck!” in the subtitles, or they would have given it a 12. Rohmerian profanity is a rare, if not unique, event in itself. It's not easy to make out what Reinette is actually saying in French at that moment, but it sounds like “Zut alors!”, which I certainly wouldn't translate with the F-word.
Both films are in the ratio of 1.37:1. Given their 16mm origins, they are quite grainy and soft, especially the earlier film. If The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque is less noticeably grainy, it's certainly there – especially a very low-lit scene in a wine cellar. However, if memory serves, both films look as they did when I saw them in cinemas (The Tree… as a 2K DCP) and that's the main thing.
Both films have mono soundtracks, as they did in cinemas. Dialogue, sound effects and (towards the end of The Tree…) music are clear and well-balanced. Rohmer used direct sound as much as possible, though wasn't above tweaking it in post-production: Fabrice Luchini's singing voice at the end of The Tree… is clearly post-synched. English subtitles are optionally available.
The only extra on the disc can be accessed from the Four Adventures… menu. It's a 1989 interview (5:05) with Joëlle Miquel, then twenty-one, for French television, on the publication of her first novel Les rosiers blancs. This was inspired by Miquel's history of childhood and teenage illness, causing her, she says, to grow up more quickly than she otherwise might have done. This interview does go on to talk about her involvement with Rohmer's film, which is illustrated by stills.
The essay on Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle in the book included with this box set is by Justine Smith. This discusses the genesis of the film with Miquel contacting Rohmer, and its filmmaking methods. Smith takes some time in tracing the film's moral questions, city (Mirabelle) versus country (Reinette), and making a case for the film not being as slight as some critics made it out to be.
The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque has an essay by Brad Stevens, which also spends time unpicking the particular positions of Julien and Marc, and rightly says that Rohmer does not come down fully on either side. Stevens also pays attention to Rohmer's mise-en-scène, seeing the film in terms comparative to those of Jacques Rivette (a Rohmer collaborator in their early careers and in whose Out 1 Rohmer played a small but memorable acting role in a false beard) and Godard. Marc can be seen as a stand-in for Godard: while Julien and Bérénice are equals in a debate, Marc is one-sided, his wife significantly kept off-screen even when clearly present in the same scene. Rohmer's irony towards his male characters is more overt than towards his female ones, and that's evident in this film. Rohmer also uses his visuals to make a connection between the two women involved, Bérénice and Blandine. In a masculine world (one of large-scale building projects, whether they are achieved or not), it's actually the women and girls who do the most to resolve matters.