The Aviator's Wife Review
François (Philippe Merlaud) 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 1970s were Eric Rohmer’s least productive decade. He completed his Six Moral Tales in 1972 with Love in the Afternoon. In the rest of the decade, he made two films, The Marquise of O (1976) and Perceval (1978). In both of these, Rohmer experimented, departing from his usual subject matter and techniques by making two historical-set literary adaptations. The former was made in German rather than French; in the latter, Rohmer and his regular DP Nestor Almendros introduced considerable, and uncharacteristic, visual stylisation. Then, with a new decade, Rohmer returned to basics and his New Wave roots. The Aviator’s Wife (La femme de l’aviateur) was the first of a series of six Comedies and Proverbs, a witty comedy of errors shot quickly and cheaply, using a lightweight camera, direct sound, minimal crew and real Parisian locations. (I haven’t been able to confirm that it was shot in 16mm by DP Bernard Lutic, but it certainly looks that way.) The proverb the film illustrates is "On ne saurait penser à rien" (You can't think of nothing). Incidentally, Mary Stephen, who would become Rohmer's regular editor from A Winter's Tale, plays one of the Canadian tourists.
The Comedies and Proverbs differ from the Moral Tales in having young women, rather than somewhat older men, at their centre. However, for much of The Aviator’s Wife we are with François. The film is tightly structured in three acts of roughly equal length, and in the second Anne is nowhere in sight as we watch François track Christian and the mysterious blonde woman, with the help of a teenage girl, Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury), who takes the opportunity to play detective. However, 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.
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. This was my third viewing of The Aviator’s Wife, and my first for nearly eighteen years, and I find that it’s a film I see more in each time I watch it. With this film, Rohmer kicked off a second phase in his career, proving himself at the age of sixty one of the finest makers of films about young people on the planet.
The Aviator’s Wife is available either separately, or as part of an eight-disc box set with Love in the Afternoon, The Marquise of O, A Good Marriage, Pauline at the Beach, Full Moon in Paris,, The Green Ray and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Affiliate links to the left refer to the single disc rather than the box set. As with these other Arrow releases, the DVD is encoded for all regions.
Eric Rohmer once made the observation that his films are “portrait” rather than “landscape”, the reason why he persisted in using the supposedly obsolete Academy Ratio (1.37:1) well into the 1980s. Even today, many of his films have full-frame presentations on video or DVD, though – perhaps intentionally – they can be shown in 1.66:1 without losing much, but certainly no wider. Having projected a 35mm cinema print of The Aviator’s Wife, I can confirm that this is indeed the correct ratio. Given its (probable) 16mm origins, the picture is a little on the soft side, and there’s certainly some grain. The use of natural lighting means that the main interior location, Anne’s apartment, is sometimes quite dark.
The soundtrack is the original mono, another Rohmer preference. (He wouldn’t make a film with a Dolby soundtrack until Autumn Tale in 1998.) The direct sound recording means that there’s a lot of ambient noise, especially in the exterior scenes, but the all-important dialogue is always clear. If your French is up to the task, you can switch the subtitles off, but for the rest of us they are easily readable. There are twelve chapter stops.
Along with other discs in Arrow’s Eric Rohmer collection, this contains one of those very useful featurettes where Rohmer’s voice talks over appropriate clips from this film and others. Here, 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. This featurette runs 10:15 and has optional subtitles. The other extra is the trailer, which is in a 4:3 frame windowboxed on all sides into 1.66:1. This is in French but without any subtitles, and runs 2:22. It’s in noticeably poor condition, with scratches and speckles galore.
Following the not uninteresting but to me rather heavier-going historical films, Eric Rohmer began the 1980s with a spring in his step. The Aviator’s Wife is one of the best of the Comedies and Proverbs and remains a delight a quarter-century later. Well worth picking up…though if you haven’t bought any of Arrow’s Rohmer DVDs yet, then you might well consider buying the eight-film box set.