Tuesday, 8 March 2011

With Eric Rohmer in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Eric Rohmer’s films sharply divide critical opinion. Those with a taste for leisurely exposition, extended dialogues and philosophical complexity find much to commend. Others find them to be without equal when it comes to pretentious tedium. I can see both sides of this but the visual quality is the one I most appreciate - the sense of place and the curious intensity of observation in the way the camera is directed to record and scrutinise the surface of reality.

When filming La femme de l’aviateur in 1982, Rohmer selected the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the scene for the central encounter between the naive and emotionally confused twenty-something François and the precociously self-assured, articulate and animated fifteen year-old Lucie. François follows the aviator (with whom he suspects his girlfriend is deceiving him) and his female companion from Gare de l’Est to rue La Fayette where the three of them board an eastbound 26 bus. Unnoticed by François, Lucie also got on the bus and in order to keep the aviator under observation he moves to a seat opposite her. All four leave the bus at the Botzaris entrance to the park where Lucie and François collide with one another and strike up a conversation. What follows is a comedy of errors in which François, desperate not to disclose the secret object of his pursuit, tells his new companion an elaborate sequence of contradictory untruths.

The orbital meandering pathways in the park mirror the convoluted dialogue that results from François’s obfuscations. As his subterfuges unravel under Lucie’s spirited cross-examination she becomes his accomplice and takes the lead after they exit the park on to the rue Armand-Carrel and follow their target to the nearby office of a lawyer. Lucie weaves a web of deceit that in terms of invention easily surpasses the modest efforts of François. They sit at a café table in an attempt to maintain observation on their target where Lucie continues to baffle and befuddle the increasingly exhausted François to the point where he simply falls asleep. The film concludes with an interminable exchange between François and his neurotic girlfriend, Anne, that feels like the very worst of Rohmer and comes as a serious disappointment.

Rohmer’s fascination with Buttes-Chaumont began in 1964 when he made a short film of 13 minutes, Nadja à Paris in which the camera of Nestor Almendros follows a young overseas student across Paris as she exchanges the superficial pretensions of Saint-Germain des Près for the dependable working-class values of Belleville and the peace of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. The brief scene in the park is soon after the start of the second section of the film. There’s a melancholy epilogue of tragedy and unfulfilled promise to La femme de l’aviateur. Of the two young actors at the centre of the drama, Philippe Marlaud (François) would be killed in a campsite fire less than 6 months after the premiere and Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) would go on to appear in no more than handful of movies (including another for Rohmer) before virtually disappearing from view in 1989.

Finally, my thanks go to Chris Mullen who brought this to my attention.

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