Eric Rohmer Collection: The Aviator's Wife 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 previous DVD review of The Aviator's Wife, written for this site in 2005.
On ne saurait penser à rien. (One can't think of nothing.)
Perceval was a commercial and largely critical failure, and something of an expensive one. The 1970s were his least prolific decade, at least as far as the cinema went. His next project returned once again to the past, and to previous literature, and again to Heinrich von Kleist, the eighteenth/nineteenth century German writer, author of the source novella of The Marquise of O… That was a stage production of von Kleist's five-act play from 1808 Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, or in French Catherine de Heilbronn. Rohmer then made a film of the stage production for the French television channel Antenne 2. That remains one of Rohmer's least-seen works, outside France at least, due its never having been released on disc in an English-friendly form. (It appeared as an extra on the French DVD of The Marquise of O…, but by all accounts that release has no subtitles available, not even French ones.)
As the decade turned, it seemed to many people that Rohmer, who was sixty in 1980, had lost his touch. But he regrouped, returned to a contemporary setting and his own original script and went back to New Wave first principles: a low budget, a small crew, shooting in the streets made possible by portable sound equipment and lightweight cameras, in this case a 16mm one. As Rohmer had made his reputation with a series, the six Moral Tales, he began a second series, which he called Comedies and Proverbs (Comédies et Proverbes). While the Moral Tales had been planned as six films from the outset, this new series was open-ended, though in the event Rohmer also made six. First was The Aviator's Wife (La femme de l'aviateur).
Paris. François (Philippe Marlaud) loves Anne (Marie Rivière), but he has doubts whether she loves him in return. His job, working nights at the post office, means he can’t see her as often as he’d like. One day, Anne is visited by her ex, airline pilot Christian (Matthieu Carrière), who tells her he is returning to his wife. Seeing Anne and Christian leave her apartment together, François becomes jealous and thinks that Anne is cheating on him. Then he sees Christian with a blonde woman and he begins to follow them…
The Comedies and Proverbs differ from the Moral Tales in having young twentysomething women, rather than somewhat older men, at their centre. If the Moral Tales told stories of men with two women in their lives, tempted by one before staying with or returning to the other. The Aviator's Wife on the face of this inverts this: Anne after all has two men in her life. However, the women at the centre of this new series do try to take control of their lives, of which love is a vital part, even if they don't always succeed.
Given that she is the central character, Anne is rarely centre stage in this film. She does have scenes with Christian and a conversation in a cafe with a friend (Lisa Hérédia), she's absent from the film's middle act and for much of the time we are with François. The film is tightly structured in three acts of roughly equal length, and in the second we watch François track Christian and the mysterious blonde woman, with the help of a teenage girl, Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury, seventeen at the time), who relishes the opportunity to play detective. Meury completely walks away with this part of the film, and you miss her when she departs, though you do see her briefly again at the end. However, despite her relative lack of screentime, it is Anne who is really at the centre of this story, as the song at the end of the film (sung by Arielle Dombasle) indicates. Rohmer’s characteristic irony is most unsparing when it comes to his male characters, and François is no exception: he’s unperceptive to a fault, choosing on at least two occasions to disregard the truth when it’s told to him. As he slowly realises, Anne is fond of him and feels partly responsible for him, but love him she does not. As for the aviator's wife of the title, I'll leave you to find out about her for yourself. I'll just say that given that Rohmer was the co-author of the first book on Hitchcock, he's provided his own McGuffin here.
The Aviator's Wife was shot in 16mm, using real locations in the main, often without a permit, so you see real passersby caught on camera. Nestor Almendros had won an Oscar for Days of Heaven and was now considerably in demand, so Bernard Lutic was the cinematographer. Lutic went on to shoot two more of the Comedies and Proverbs.
Many of the cast had appeared for Rohmer before, and Marie Rivière would go on to be centre stage in the fifth of the Comedies and Proverbs, The Green Ray. Other regulars such as Lisa Hérédia, Rosette and Fabrice Luchini turn up in small roles. One of the North American tourist couple (he from the USA, she Canadian) who François and Lucie meet in the Buttes-Chaumont park is played by Mary Stephen, who would become Rohmer's regular editor from A Winter's Tale. This was the second and final cinema role for Philippe Marlaud, following Maurice Pialat's Passe ton bac d'abord, as well as two small-screen credits. On 18 August 1981, five months after French cinema release of The Aviator's Wife, he died of his burns received in a campsite fire. He was twenty-two years old.
With a Rohmer film, the emphasis is not on what happens (though quite a lot does) but on what the characters say and do and feel while it happens. Few directors have such an ear for dialogue, which is often witty and always revealing of character, helped by pitch-perfect acting. With this film, Rohmer kicked off a second phase in his career, proving that a sexagenarian was one of the finest makers of films about young people on the planet.
The Aviator's Wife makes its British Blu-ray debut as part of Arrow Academy's Eric Rohmer Collection box set. The film had an A certificate on its UK cinema release in July 1981 and this disc has the present-day equivalent, PG.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1. As with many of Rohmer's films there is some question as to whether that or Academy Ratio (1.37:1) is the correct one. I've mentioned Rohmer's framing preferences before – often having characters' faces about a third of the way down the frame, with facial close-ups rare – and that means that there will be headroom in most shots. Possibly intentionally, given that most commercial cinemas couldn't show Academy Ratio by 1981, you could show the film in 1.66:1 without losing too much: one or two shots do look a little unduly cropped, but that is all. Arrow's previous DVD had the film in 1.33:1, however. I have also in my time projected a 35mm print of The Aviator's Wife, and the film cans advised “1.33:1” so that was the ratio it was shown in. I'll leave it at that. Given the 16mm origins, inevitably there's a lot of grain and the picture is much softer than in the Blu-rays of the 35mm-shot films in this set. This isn't the most colourful of Rohmer's films anyway, being intentionally somewhat muted (see the extras below for more about this). However, it looks as this film has always looked, which is as it should be.
The soundtrack is the original mono. Rohmer's preference was for direct sound, made possible by lightweight recording equipment, and this had been his practice since My Night at Maud's in 1969. This does mean that there's a lot of ambient sound, especially in exterior scenes, but the dialogue is clear. Mostly, but not always, Rohmer didn't make use of non-diegetic music, but he departs from this in the final scene with the Arielle Dombasle song on the soundtrack. English subtitles are optional. The scene in the park with the North American tourists is mostly conducted in English, but there are no subtitles available for this dialogue.
Brought forward from the earlier DVD is an instalment of “Eric Rohmer parle ses films” (Eric Rohmer talks about his films) (10:42). Rohmer's voice talks over appropriate clips from the film in question (in 1.37:1) and from others of his work. He discusses how to shoot a much-filmed city like Paris in a fresh way. In particular he discusses the park of the Buttes-Chaumont, where the middle section of the film takes place. It’s a location he had used before, in the 1964 short Nadja à Paris (which can be seen as an extra in Artificial Eye's DVD releases The Early Works and Six Moral Tales. Rohmer speaks about how, while naturalism is his principal aesthetic, he does try to create a colour scheme for his films, from the sets and characters' clothing: here, muted blues and yellows. He also discusses how to make use of the weather: the rain in this film was genuine. Also brought forward from the DVD is the trailer for The Aviator's Wife (2:29).
The remaining extra on this Blu-ray is brought forward from Arrow's earlier DVD of the sixth of the Comedies and Proverbs, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Changing Landscapes (Metamorphoses du paysage, 23:18) was made for TV in 1964. This tele-essay was part of a series with the overall title Vers l’unité du monde: L’ère industrielle. It’s a series of shots of the countryside and its transformation into an urban landscape, with a voiceover. The end credits call it “Une émission de Maurice Schérer”, i.e. Rohmer, using a variation of his real name, although Rohmer also has a “réalisation” credit at the end. The cinematography is by Pierre Lhomme, a DP of some distinction but one who never worked on any of Rohmer’s features.
The essay in Arrow's book is by Jonathan Romney. He talks about how communication, and miscommunication, is a theme of the film. Not for nothing does François work at the post office. The film was made before the Internet and social media and before mobile phones, so letters, or notes slipped under doors, are the ways to get in touch with people. Romney also discusses how this film, and much of the series, draws on theatrical conventions, such as boulevard theatre, rather than the literary inspirations Rohmer drew on for his Moral Tales.