Eric Rohmer: The Early Works Review

Eric Rohmer was a late starter. Associated with the French New Wave of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and like many of that movement beginning as a critic before becoming a filmmaker, he was older than his peers and made only one feature film – the one in this set – when the Wave was at its height. He didn’t make a second one for another seven years.

Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer was born in Nancy in 1920 (eight years before Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda, ten before Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, twelve before François Truffaut and Louis Malle). Moving to Paris, he became a teacher and journalist, publishing a novel in 1946 (Elizabeth, under the pseudonym of Gilbert Cordier). Moving into film criticism, he frequented the Cinémathèque Française where he struck up friendships with many young would-be filmmakers, including some of the ones named above. As a critic, he served as Editor in Chief of Cahiers du Cinema from 1956 to 1963; most notably, he co-wrote with Chabrol a book on Hitchcock.

Rohmer had made his first short film in 1950 (Journal d’un scélérat) and four others followed, two of which are included in this DVD set and are discussed below amongst the extras. (A third, 1958’s Véronique et son cancre, can be found on the UK DVD from Arrow of Love in the Afternoon and also in Criterion’s six-film box set of the Moral Tales.) Rohmer finally made his feature debut at the age of thirty-nine with (The Sign of Leo) (La signe du lion), produced by Chabrol.

The Sign of Leo is the story of Pierre Wesselrin (Jess Hahn), an American expat in Paris. Born under the sign of Leo, Pierre is convinced that luck is on his side, even more so when he hears that an aunt has left him a large inheritance. He spends freely but the inheritance fails to arrive: his aunt has left all her estate to his brother. Suddenly ruined, he loses his home and has to wander the streets of Paris, in a long hot summer, deserted by his friends, penniless, scrounging for food and resorting to petty criminality to make ends meet.

The Sign of Leo is a fascinating film that both anticipates Rohmer’s later work and in other respects is quite unlike it. Made at the height of the New Wave, it shares with the films made by Rohmer’s comrades its intense naturalism: lightweight cameras enabled filming on real streets. The film gives a palpable sense of Paris in a heatwave, crowded with tourists: it’s not hard to imagine Pierre getting filthier and sweatier and more unshaven and unkempt as the hour-long central section depicting his decline and fall progresses. Then, in a very un-Rohmerian camera flourish (a combination of a crane shot and a model shot seeming to send the camera soaring into space), fate takes a hand. The somewhat ironic workings of fate feature in later Rohmer works such as The Green Ray and A Winter’s Tale, but here Rohmer leaves it open-ended as to whether Pierre has learned from his experience – the final line of dialogue pointedly leaves us to decide that. The film is a moral tale before Rohmer embarked on the series of that name, and differs from those films by not framing its story as a love story between men and women.

The film is rather less dependent on its characters’ talk than many of Rohmer’s later films, partly explained by the presence of a co-writer, Paul Gégauff, who is specifically credited with the film’s dialogue. It also depends on a superb performance from Jess Hahn. Hahn was a genuine American (born in Terre Haute, Indiana) who never made a film in the country of his birth but had a lengthy career in Europe. Sadly, many of the ninety-odd films he made were undistinguished, because his work here shows that there was much more to him. He makes Pierre’s desperation quite tangible, and hard to shake off. In a small role is Stéphane Audran, later to be Claude Chabrol’s regular leading lady and also his wife. Jean-Luc Godard appears in a brief role, uncredited. Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white camerawork and Louis Saguer’s score, dominated by a solo violin, are also very effective.

The Sign of Leo was an impressive first feature, but it tended to be overlooked by the debuts of fellow New Wavers which came out around the same time. Rohmer returned to making short films, some of them for television, including a segment of the six-part anthology film Paris vu par…> He returned to features in 1966 with La collectionneuse, the fourth (though third-made) of his six Moral Tales. The first two were the short The Girl at the Monceau Bakery (La boulangère de Monceau, also translated – more accurately – as The Baker Girl of Monceau) and the mid-length Suzanne’s Career (La carrière de Suzanne, both made in 1962. (The following is derived from my previous DVD review of the Fox Lorber edition.)

In The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, the protagonist is a young man (Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer's producer at the time and soon to be a director in his own right). The young man is infatuated by Sylvie (Michèle Girardon), whom he sees walking past every day. When he doesn't see her for some time, he asks the girl at the bakery, Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), to go out with him. Then he is faced with a dilemma when he arranges a date with Sylvie for the same time.

This film is under half an hour long, but many of Rohmer's stylistic traits and themes are already in place. The use of voiceover is one, but what the young man tells us is not necessarily to be taken at face value. Rohmer always views his characters with an ironic distance, men especially, and what the voiceover says does not always tally with what we see on screen. The young man overstates the two women's reactions to him, and ultimately he is not very likeable. Another future director, Bertrand Tavernier, provides the young man’s voiceover.

Suzanne’s Career, made the same year, comes in at just under an hour and is much more complex and ambitious. Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) narrates this time. He and his friend Guillaume (Christian Charrière) meet a young woman, Suzanne (Catherine Sée). At first Bertrand, who is going out with Sophie (Diane Wilkinson), thinks little of Suzanne but changes his mind when Guillaume shows an interest. Again, Suzanne’s Career is evidence that Rohmer is a man who likes women more than he does men: at the end of the film, Bertrand has learned something from his own behaviour. Suzanne, ultimately out of reach of both men, could be seen as a prototype for Rohmer's later "unknowable" women, like Haydée in La collectionneuse and Chloe in Love in the Afternoon, although she's more vulnerable than they are.

Both films were shot in black and white 16mm with Rohmer's trademark unobtrusive naturalism. The visuals are no more than functional, but do give a strong documentary-like sense of early 60s Paris. The visual qualities of Rohmer's work would take a leap forward with La collectionneuse, shot in colour and 35mm by the great Nestor Almendros. Patrick Bauchau, one of the leads of that film, has a small, uncredited role in Suzanne's Career.

Artificial Eye’s two-disc set is encoded for Region 2 only. The Sign of Leo would seem not to have been released on DVD in English-speaking countries before. (It can be found in France as part of the six-film set Eric Rohmer: L’ancien et le moderne, along with some other films that are not available elsewhere on disc, but that box set appears not to have English subtitles.) Monceau and Suzanne were released in 2000 by Fox Lorber and also form part of Criterion’s six-disc Moral Tales box set. Disc One (single-layered) contains the two Moral Tales, while Sign of Leo is on the dual-layered Disc Two.

The Sign of Leo has an inbuilt qualitative advantage over everything else in this set by having been originated in 35mm. It’s transferred in 1.66:1 – a ratio that Rohmer would abandon in favour of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until the early 1980s – and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a generally good transfer, given the film’s age: there is a general softness and some artefacting which may well have been avoided with anamorphic enhancement.

Monceau and Suzanne were both shot in black and white 16mm and the results, transferred in the correct Academy Ratio, are certainly grainy and soft. On the other hand, they’ve always looked that way every time I’ve seen these films – on VHS, and the Fox Lorber DVD as well as this one. Examples of print damage have been present on all editions.

The soundtracks are the original mono and are functional, clear and well balanced with the music and sound effects, but certainly nothing spectacular. Subtitles are available and optional but, as ever with Rohmer, you’d have to be particularly fluent in French to be able to do without them.

The extras on Disc One are two early short films. Presentation ou Charlotte et son steak (9:29) is a curiosity. Charlotte is about to leave. While she waits she cooks and eats a steak, a short period of time in which Walter has to persuade her to stay. This is a curious film presented as a mysterious film without any details of cast or crew, made circa 1951, now presented in 1961 with a new soundtrack (voiced by Jean-Luc Godard, Stéphane Audran and Anna Karina).

Nadja à Paris (12:40), made in 1963, is a short study of Nadja Tesich, a Yugoslav-American studying in Paris. Something of a Valentine to the city, it’s a charming look at a young woman’s life which – in the early Sixties – seems full of possibilities. It’s also an early example of Rohmer putting a young woman as the subject of the film, something he would later make a speciality, particularly in the six Comedies and Proverbs and the first two of the Tales of the Four Seasons. (Haydée, Maud, Claire and Chloe are certainly powerful presences in the films they appear in, but we see them through the male characters’ eyes.) A brief scene takes place at the Buttes-Chaumont park, the location for the central section of Rohmer’s later The Aviator’s Wife. There’s a more obscure film connection: she is the sister or the late Steve Tesich, who won an Oscar for Breaking Away and who also wrote Four Friends, on which Nadja served as an assistant. She is now an academic and writer. The black-and-white 16mm photography is the work of Nestor Almendros who had met Rohmer during the shooting of Paris vu par…. After the original DP left following an argument, Almendros completed Rohmer’s segment and worked on others, uncredited due to having no work permit at the time. He is however credited on Nadja à Paris and thus began a partnership with Rohmer that would include the remaining four Moral Tales, the two historical literary adaptions (The Marquise of O… and Perceval) from the 1970s and ended with Pauline on the Beach in 1982.

The main extra on Disc Two is a film that Rohmer made for television in 1968. It’s called Les frères Lumières on the menu but the actual title on screen is Louis Lumière. It runs 65:50. Jean Renoir and film archivist Henri Langlois (founder of the Cinémathèque Française) talk to camera about the Lumières, their technical accomplishments and their legacy, ending with a plea for film preservation. In between all this we see extracts from the Lumière’s short films, in remarkably good condition for the most part. Rohmer’s direction is self-effacing to a fault: close-ups of both men, panning from one to the other at a change of speaker.

Also included on the disc are the trailer for The Sign of Leo (3:38), which is full of spoilers and in noticeably worse condition to the feature, and a five-page text biography and filmography of Rohmer.

With a filmmaking career of over fifty years, Rohmer is one of the greatest and most consistent directors, still working well into his eighties. While the short films here will be essential for fans they’re probably not the best place to start with Rohmer. The Sign of Leo is a striking first feature that deserves to be better known, and this set is worth buying for that alone.

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