A Classical View of Contemporary Romance

DIRECTOR: Eric Rohmer/French/1992

winter's tale 1In everyday life we are perhaps more prone to accept, unthinkingly, the happenstance and blind chance that govern our day-to-day doings: we fall asleep and wake up a minute before the alarm rings, we walk into a store and meet someone we haven’t seen in quite some time, we suddenly decide to buy something and just then receive it as a gift. Unreflected and unremarked upon, these moments are happening all the time, but are so prevalent and pervasive throughout our lives that we somehow become used to, and even expect, these minor miracles of everyday living. However, when it comes to entertainment, we sophisticated modern viewers/readers/consumers of movies, television, and popular fiction seem to place undue demands on a story, becoming much too concerned with what we call “plausibility”. Is it “plausible”, for instance, that you and your significant other met, fell in love, got married? If you told your story to me would I, much less a mass audience, “believe” it?

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Filmmaker Eric Rohmer began as a film critic and editor for Cahiers du cinéma, the film periodical that launched the careers of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others, before following his critic colleagues into film production in the mid-to-late 1950s. A decade older than his youthful co-founders of the French New Wave (he was already 30 when he made his initial short films), he found belated recognition in the mid-1960s, just as the New Wave was waning, when he embarked on his first thematic “cycle” of movies which he called Six Moral Tales (1962 – 1972). A decade later he introduced a new series called Comedies and Proverbs (1980 – 1987), and made his final series in the 1990s calledTales of the Four Seasons (1990 – 1998). In all, these were contemporary comedies of manner in the classical sense featuring characters – usually young, reasonably well-off; more often than not intellectual, articulate, and creative – dealing with the vagaries of romance – often while on holiday or during periods of transition – in picturesque settings like beach resorts, the countryside, or cozy apartments.

Most of all, though, a Rohmer film is about talk. Lots and lots (and lots) of talk. If conversation is not your particular thing, then I daresay Rohmer may no be for you; however, on a personal note, I can say that despite being the least-able conversationalist in my acquaintance, and the least able to “hold up my end” during periods of enforced small talk, I nonetheless consistently find Rohmer movies to be never less than compelling and, indeed, moving. For me, it’s like a glimpse into a wise, bright, and witty world I shall possibly never be a part of, but that manages with each successively delightful moral, romantic, philosophical conundrum that his protagonists face to win over my resistance to and lack of facility with the social milieu Rohmer addresses in film after film (after film). Eschewing camera movement, flashy editing, and even musical scores, a Rohmer film breathes with the rhythms of everyday life, the passage of time (scenes are often stamped with a date and time), and the realistic behavior, attitudes, and (of course) conversation of its characters.

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Which brings us, at long last, to our selection for this article, the second film in his Tales of the Four Seasons, Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter from 1992. Detailing the romantic travails of forthright Fèlicie (Charlotte Vèry), who meets a handsome cook named Charles (Frèdéric van den Driessche) on vacation, accidentally gives him the wrong address when they part, and loses him for the next five years – while, unbeknownst to him, bearing and raising his child – the bounds of credulity may be strained in that bare description if the audience is not made immediately aware that this young woman, who we the audience come to know like a friend, is naturally predisposed to believe in impossible things. Attracted physically but not emotionally to a hair-dressing colleague, Maxence (Michel Voletti), and having great affection for but no romantic interest in her kind, intellectual librarian friend Loic (Hervè Furic), Fèlicie’s personal life is held suspended by an accident of fate, going so far as to keep a photograph of long-lost Charles beside their sleeping daughter’s bed, which despite full awareness of the apparent hopelessness of her situation she cannot help perceiving as akin to a question of faith that that accident will somehow right itself.

Naturally, as the title leads us to believe, this is A Tale of Winter, and the December-to-January backdrop of a Parisian suburb in its gray, murky depths mirrors the plight of its character. Testy, somewhat flighty, prone to errors in judgment (and grammar; Fèlicie is decidedly not one of Rohmer’s more articulate characters), anti-intellectual but very pro-emotion, she goes about her daily routines, competently performs her work duties, pursues (and pointedly avoids) romantic entanglements, and plays with her daughter in parks and streets while always – we the audience half-suspect – half-expecting to magically run into her lost lover around every corner. The clever original French poster for the film (see top of article) depicts what one might assume to be a pictorial satire on the “fallen woman”, featuring a windswept illustration of a woman leading her daughter through a desolate winter landscape; the restless nature of the character – at one point in the narrative, Fèlicie moves to another city with Maxence (to open a new hair salon) only almost immediately upon arrival deciding it to be a mistake and moves back! – is one where a depth of feeling takes an almost religious precedence over practicality, even through the bleak midwinter of the character’s soul.

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Do we “believe” this character, these situations? I can state, almost unequivocally, that we do. Deftly parrying her other potential suitor’s, Loic, gentle (and perhaps somewhat halfhearted) romantic advances through the course of the film, towards the end of the picture she accompanies him to a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Undoubtedly no accident that the French title of Shakespeare’s play, Conte d’hiver, shares a title with Rohmer’s equally melancholy seasonal comedy, the magical, miraculous reunion between a sad king, a queen thought-dead, and their long lost daughter on-stage inspires skepticism in her play-going companion, Loic (a good pragmatic Catholic), but moves Fèlicie to tears. Rohmer’s classically-constructed comedy – the dramatic significance of plays-within-plays being no-doubt familiar to any English major worth his or her salt – may here, and particularly in the tantalizing post-play discussion between Félicie and Loic, finally bring our critical judgment to rest regarding not only the suitability of Loic (a name which in this scene reminded this viewer of “logic”) as a romantic partner for Fèlicie, but also her unwavering “belief” in holding out at all costs for her heart’s true desire…

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As for what happens next, I will leave you to discover. As hopefully made clear, Rohmer is a natural-born classicist whose straightforward technique – parsing the elements of filmmaking to its bare essentials – and symmetrical, transparent story-telling design together leave little room for suspense, rather, combined, both satisfy an audience’s desire for a story well-told by rigorously observing and holding testament to the frankly incredible terms of everyday life, conversation, and behavior. In short, an Eric Rohmer movie is no more or less unbelievable than the story of how you received, lost, and regained love, happiness, whathaveyou; reminding viewers as its final scenes draw to “FIN” that the real miracles of life are embedded in the living of it.