Eric Rohmer Collection: The Marquise of O... 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.
Part of the following is revised and updated from my DVD review of The Marquise of O... for this site in 2010, following Rohmer's death.
Eric Rohmer (real name Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer, 1920-2010) was one of the oldest of French film directors and screenwriters who came to prominence with the New Wave (Nouvelle vague) of the late 1950s and early 1960s: a year older than Chris Marker, two than Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, eight than Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda, ten than Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, twelve than François Truffaut, but six younger than Marguerite Duras. Rohmer was of the part of the New Wave which began as critics, writing mainly for Cahiers du cinéma, of which he was editor-in-chief between 1957 and 1963. Others in this group were Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol, whom he first met at screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, after coming to Paris on leaving his teaching job and becoming a journalist. As very influential critics and later filmmakers, they frequently collaborated. Rohmer and Chabrol wrote in 1957 the first book-length study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock might seem an odd fit with the style that Rohmer was to develop, but you can sense the tightness and conciseness of structure of Hitchcock in Rohmer's work, beneath their digressive and notably talkative surface. For Rohmer, nothing was more cinematic than filming people walking and talking, picking up endless nuances from what they say and what they do while saying it. You can see his influence in younger directors such as Richard Linklater: his Before trilogy is heavily indebted to Rohmer. More than most of his colleagues, he stuck to some of the initial principles of the New Wave, in particular the use of lightweight cameras (often but not always 16mm) and sound equipment to film on the streets, one of the things which gave the early New Wave films their influence. Naturalism, simplicity and a lack of stylistic excess became Rohmer's hallmarks.
Rohmer was something of a late developer, older than many of his friends and collaborators, and later to start as a filmmaker himself, although his first short film was completed in 1950. After a false start with a feature, Les petites filles modèles (1953 and never finished), he made The Sign of Leo (La signe du lion), produced by Chabrol. Shot in 1959, it didn't actually appear until 1962, by which time Truffaut and Godard's early films in particular had captured most of the attention. The Sign of Leo was a commercial failure, playing in one Paris cinema for two weeks. (It had a British cinema release in 1966.) Rohmer returned to work as an editor and critic, continuing to make short films, including documentaries for television. In that time he began his series of Six Moral Tales (Contes moraux) with the short The Girl at the Monceau Bakery (La boulangère de Monceau, 1962) and the 50-minute Suzanne's Career (La carrière de Suzanne, 1963).
However, international recognition came in 1967 with La collectionneuse, Moral Tale IV (though the third to be made and released), winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This was consolidated by My Night at Maud's (Ma nuit chez Maud, sometimes less accurately translated as My Night with Maud, 1969), which gained Rohmer an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, Claire's Knee (Le genou de Claire, 1970) and Love in the Afternoon (L'amour, l'après-midi, aka Chloé in the Afternoon in the USA, 1972).
With the Moral Tales completed, Rohmer took a break from directing. He completed a doctoral thesis on F.W. Murnau, published the Moral Tales as the short stories he had originally written them as, and made a four-part documentary series for television about French New Towns, Villes nouvelles, broadcast in 1975. He also brushed up on his German for what would become his next feature film, The Marquise of O… (Die Marquise von O…), an adaptation of the 1808 novella by Heinrich von Kleist.
It's the late eighteenth century, and the Russians have invaded Italy. The film takes place in M..., a town in Northern Italy. (The film follows the old literary convention of abbreviating foreign names, hence the title.) The widowed Marquise of O... (Edith Clever) places an advertisement in the newspaper: she is pregnant, but as she has been chaste since her husband died, she asks for the father of the child she is carrying to make himself known so that they can be married. When the Marquise was threatened with rape by invading soldiers, she was saved by Count F... (Bruno Ganz). Overcome by the ordeal, the Marquise takes a sleeping draught...and that is when the deed was done, with von Kleist's famous dash on the page conveyed by a fade to black. Later, the Count comes forward, making himself both a rescuer and a violator. While the Marquise is not at fault, by being impregnated without her knowledge, she has been sullied in the eyes of society. As with the original text, Rohmer says that are morals are not always pure, with light coexisting with dark.
It's hard more than forty years later to know if this film is quite what Rohmer's admirers expected. Not just that it's a historical subject and a literary adaptation – Rohmer had after all previously filmed Edgar Allan Poe (the 1954 short film Bérénice) and Tolstoy (the 50-minute The Kreutzer Sonata (La sonate à Kreutzer, 1956). It's a West German/French coproduction and is the only one of Rohmer's films to be made entirely in a language other than French, namely German. Rohmer remained faithful to von Kleist's text, with narrative captions from it bridging some scenes. The cast were stage actors.
Like many of the best novellas, Rohmer's film is small in scale but made with a jewel-like delicacy. With his historical films, Rohmer has often departed from the naturalism of his contemporary-set work, as if artifice is the only way to tackle the past. However, The Marquise of O… is something of a transitional work, adapting many of Rohmer and his then-regular cinematographer Nestor Almendros's style, techniques and aesthetic principles to the task at hand. It's as if this is a film that could have been made if there had been cameras, film stock and lights available at the time. Taking their cue from painting, Rohmer and Nestor Almendros ensure that each scene is precisely and more formally composed than they would have done in a contemporary subject. A shot of the Marquise lying supine on her bed evokes Fuseli's famous painting The Nightmare, though without the sinister beast resting on her chest – or is he just offscreen? The film was shot in a real castle (Obertzen Castle, in Franconia, Germany), and Almendros found that he needed very little lighting to supplement the sunlight coming in through large windows. The interiors are lit by candlelight, something made possible by advances in lenses and the sensitivity of colour film stock. This breakthrough is usually credited to Barry Lyndon, but Stanley Kubrick and his DP John Alcott and Rohmer and Almendros were working independently of each other, and neither pair had seen the other film at the time of making theirs. (Both were asked if they had, though.) Almendros said that he made a mistake he could never forgive himself for - a microphone boom reflected in a mirror – though I've never spotted it, on viewing this film on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray. Moidele Bickel's costume design is first rate and won a BAFTA Award.
As an actor's piece, the film belongs to Edith Clever in the title role, who covers a wide range as a woman whose reputation is at stake. Bruno Ganz, in his film debut, is fine, if restrained, as the Count, and other cast members give solid performances. Rohmer turns up uncredited as a Russian soldier. That's him in the screengrab above, with his arms folded.
The Marquise of O... won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1976 Cannes Festival. That's quite something considering that the competition that year included Bugsy Malone, Kings of the Road, Roman Polanski's The Tenant, Carlos Saura's Raise Ravens (which shared the Grand Jury Prize) and the one which won the Palme d'Or, Taxi Driver. Unusually, The Marquise of O… was shown on BBC2 on Saturday 23 October of that year, which was also the weekend it opened in British cinemas. The BBC clearly thought this was a special event, as they despatched Gavin Millar to Paris to interview Rohmer for Arena: Cinema, shown three days earlier. (I've not seen that interview, so let's hope the BBC still has it. If it does still exist, presumably it wasn't able to be licensed.) The film was given an A certificate on its original release and it still bears the equivalent, PG.
I have to confess that Rohmer's historicals aren't my favourites of his works, but for admirers there's a lot to appreciate in this film. Rohmer would go even further back into history – and myth – with his next film, Perceval. He would also return to von Kleist with a stage production of the five-act play Catherine de Heilbronn. He made a film of this production for French TV in 1980, which so far has never been released in any English-friendly form.
The Marquise of O... is transferred to Blu-ray in the intended aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Like Godard and Rivette, but unlike other New Wavers in the main, Rohmer continued to favour the old Academy Ratio long after it became commercially obsolete in Western commercial cinema. Rohmer once said that his films are “portrait” rather than “landscape” and they are all in either 1.37:1 or 1.66:1, with the sole exception of the digitally-shot The Lady and the Duke (L'Anglaise et le Duc, 2000), which is 1.85:1. Which films should be in which ratio has been a matter of debate, though in the case of The Marquise of O… and six other features we have a primary source, namely Nestor Almendros in his 1984 book A Man with a Camera. By the time this film was made, few cinemas outside arthouses and repertory screens could show Academy Ratio, and it is likely intentional that Rohmer's films are not so tightly composed that they couldn't be cropped to 1.66:1, though no wider, without doing too much damage. Part of this is due to the way Rohmer and his cinematographers shoot them. He often puts characters' faces about a third of the way down from the top of the frame, so there is headroom which could be cropped. Rohmer often favours what have been called plan américain shots (sometimes called “cowboy shots” due to their frequent use in westerns): framing characters so that the bottom of the frame is somewhere between their waist and their knees, and closer shots tend to be medium-close, that is chest upwards. Full-face or bigger closeups are rare: Rohmer said that they remove more than they add, and he liked to see his cast acting with the rest of their bodies, and to interact with the set or location.
As for the current Blu-ray, a restoration from original elements by Rohmer's regular production company Les Films du Losange, I can't fault it, and it's far ahead of the previous DVD. Parts of this film can't have been easy to transfer, given the low light levels of some of the interiors, but short of a new 35mm print (and I haven't seen this film in a cinema) this looks as good as I suspect it can do at Blu-ray resolution. Colours are true, blacks solid and grain natural and filmlike, and it shows too good advantage the work of one of the greatest cinematographers of his time.
The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are optional, if your German is up to the task. (Going by the BBFC database, they passed a French version – La Marquise d'O… naturellement – as well as the German one, but I've only seen this film with a German soundtrack, which is after all the original.)
The on-disc extras begin with an interview with Bruno Ganz (3:10), conducted for French TV and in French, at the 1976 Cannes Festival. This is transferred from ropey-looking videotape and the clip from the film itself is even worse quality, but it's good to have this here, even can't dig very deeply due to its short length. Also on the disc is the trailer, which is quite lengthy (4:09) partly due to spelling out the title: “M is for...” and so on.
The remaining extra is quite a substantial one, a profile of and interview with Nestor Almendros (55:55). This was made for French TV in 1983 and Almendros speaks to camera in that language. Almendros was born in Spain but moved at age eighteen with his father, exiled by General Franco, to Cuba. He began making short films while there and at film school in Rome, but left Cuba after two of his early shorts (one of which, Gente en la playa, we see extracts from) were banned by the Castro regime. He first worked with Rohmer on the portmanteau film Paris vu par... (aka Six in Paris, 1965) taking over from the original cinematographer of Rohmer's segment when he left the production. Almendros was not originally credited due to not having a work permit, though later versions of the film do credit him. Almendros directed three further short films and seven features for Rohmer, and another major collaborative relationship he had was with François Truffaut, for whom he directed nine features. While Almendros was a sensualist and Rohmer an ascetic by nature, their styles, technique and sensibilities definitely chimed as far as filmmaking went. Both favoured simplicity, removing extraneous details and unnecessary stylistic ostentation. Almendros's abiding principle in all his films was to use natural light, on its own or augmented, whenever possible, and light sources should be justifiable, and he often drew on paintings as inspiration. He was the arch-classicist amongst cinematographers, in many ways the polar opposite of the equally great Vittorio Storaro, who often manipulated colours to tell his films' stories in symbolic form. A Man with a Camera is essential reading for anyone interested in filmmaking in general and cinematography in particular, and anyone interested in the work of Rohmer, Truffaut and, amongst others, Terrence Malick, for whom Almendros shot Days of Heaven and for which he won his Oscar. I have used it as a resource in reviewing films shot by Almendros for this site. The book is not an autobiography for while it says plenty about his film career and his techniques and aesthetics, it's almost devoid of anything about his personal life. Apart from some details and a couple of photographs of his early life, this profile is the same, and it's a useful supplement to it, with plenty of extracts from his films.
For this limited edition, Arrow have provided a 124-page book. It begins with credits for the ten films and ends with transfer notes and disc credits. In between are essays on each film in turn by various writers. These are not in the same mainly chronological order I'll be reviewing the discs in, but have the Six Comedies and Proverbs, then the other four films. Relevant to the present film is an essay by Phillip Lopate, which unpicks the film's and the original novella's complex view of morality, and which examines the film's role in Rohmer's career both up to that point and compared to the historical literary adaptations he would go on to make. Also included in the book is a reprint of the chapter on The Marquise of O... from Nestor Almendros's book.