ADULTERY AT NOON

Great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer's actresses remain a puzzle on screen, daring men, breaking stereotypes, celebrating love
Mehru Jaffer Vienna

In Eric Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon, a married man happens to catch his eye in a bathroom mirror. He is undressing to join the 'other woman' already in the bedroom.

He looks in the mirror again. He pauses for a moment. Then he begins to dress himself and silently shutting the bathroom door behind him, he chooses to return home to his wife and two infant children. 

Marie Riviere was 21 when she saw the film in 1972.

That particular scene opened her eyes to the endless possibilities before individuals faced with an integrity test. It made such a lasting impression on Marie and on her views on morality that the shop assistant and one-time teacher wrote a letter to Rohmer. She enclosed a photograph of herself in the same envelope and promptly posted it to the filmmaker.

Today, Marie is seen as one of the muses of Rohmer. After acting in precious films like The Green Ray, this year Marie brought to the Viennale at Vienna, En Compagnie d'Eric Rohmer (A Few Moments with Eric Rohmer), a 100-minute documentary that was still in the making when Rohmer died last January at the age of 89.

"We took a break to celebrate Christmas. Later, I telephoned Eric to remind him of our meeting but nobody answered the phone," said Marie.

In the documentary Marie has invited the ensemble of actors created by Rohmer over half a century to discuss their work and to talk about their relationship to the film director as a friend and human being. For 40 years he remained a spiritual father to Beatrice Romand, another of his favourite actresses.

"He gave me away as a daughter at my wedding. He produced my first film. He helped me start my film production company, and till he died, I met him every week," Beatrice told Hardnews during the Viennale that dedicated this year's retrospective to Rohmer.

Beatrice was in Vienna to introduce Autumn's Tale from 1999 where she plays the lead role together with Marie. Beatrice was 17 when she first met Rohmer. She had dropped out of school and earned money as a dancer and photo model. At home she was abused by her father who beat her mother and terrified her younger sisters.

She wanted to be independent and heard that Rohmer was looking for an actress. Hers was a poor family. Her Algerian mother was a waitress and her French father a taxi driver who had served as a soldier in Vietnam.

Beatrice was cinema illiterate. She never had money to go to the movies and compared to Rohmer whose passion for literature, classical music and philosophy is well known, she was zero in the head.

"I thought it is just another interview for just another job," Beatrice recalls on her first encounter with Rohmer.

She was given the address of Barbet Shroeder, Rohmer's producer, who lived in the stylish environs of Rue de Bourgogne, close to the Rodin museum in the heart of posh Paris. This was in early 1970.

Perhaps to get a long shot of those who entered the apartment, Rohmer sat three rooms away from the front door.

Beatrice walked at least 20 yards before she stood before Rohmer. He sat on a sofa covered in red velvet and watched her walk towards him. Behind him was a wall of red curtains pegged to holders made from opium pipes.

"I stared at the very slender, almost emaciated Rohmer, looking at me with bright blue eyes. He said that he was making a film about a man who was 'fetishly' fascinated with the knee of a young girl. I thought to myself, 'What a dirty old man!' I wanted to run away. He gave me a text to read. I was very afraid and raced through the dialogues as fast as I could and ran for my life."

But when she was called for Claire's Knee, she returned. The film went on to play to rave reviews and won many awards for both Beatrice and Rohmer.

Rohmer is one of the founders of the New Wave French cinema together with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. He was a writer and critic at first and came into filmmaking relatively late in life. He made a short film in 1950 and had to wait almost two decades for his first commercial success.

Chabrol had used his wife's inheritance to produce Rohmer's The Sign of Leo in 1959, which did not do well at the box office. Rohmer was already 38 by then. 

But Claire's Knee was a runaway success and young Parisians like Beatrice and Marie continued to fascinate Rohmer. That they seemed to have a sense of the self made the filmmaker happy. Most of his films, after all, are about educated middle- class youth and what they think, discuss and want out of life.

Rohmer was curious about what young people desire, their longings, and above all, how they plan to deal with temptation.

He was concerned as to how people translate their thoughts into words. Rohmer watched people do what they did but he liked to imagine what was going on in their mind and how they communicated their thoughts and feelings in words. This deep interest in the innermost ideas and aspirations of the future generation from different social backgrounds in most Rohmer films cast a special spell over young audiences around the world. 

"I never felt that I was intellectually lacking or economically inferior in the company of Rohmer because he gave me the impression that I understood what he wanted me to do on screen. I felt appreciated for the way I was in flesh and blood, and he encouraged me to project the same truth and energy on screen," says Beatrice.

They did not always agree. Their politics was different. He was a 'centrist' and Beatrice is extreme left.

"But his heart - and even he could not deny - was on his left side and it was a childlike heart, very romantic, passionate and filled with enthusiasm for life," says Beatrice.

Ever since she met him, Beatrice consulted with Rohmer on everything in life. However, he seemed a little disappointed that she turned her back on a creative career in cinema to marry Jean-Emmanuel Gorse and left for India in 1977.

Gorse taught French literature at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). They lived in Panchsheel Park, and she gave theatre classes under boughs laden with crimson-coloured bougainvillea blossoms.

Gorse was just 29 when he developed heart problems and died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. Emmanuel, their son born at the Holy Family Hospital in Delhi, was two years old then. Beatrice withered overnight and returned to Paris in 1981 to pen The Agony of Jean-Emmanuel. When she showed the screenplay to Rohmer, the film director told her that the screen cannot project real life experiences the way she seemed to be suggesting.

Rohmer was a romantic in search of beauty and simplicity. Perhaps he did not know how to react to the tragedy Beatrice talked about. Rohmer admired the literature of Heinrich von Kleist, the early 19thcentury German writer. The filmmaker, who was so enthusiastic about life, struggled with the basic facts of life: for instance, that Kleist committed suicide when he was 34.

The Marquise of O is a 1976 film based on a novella by Kleist and the only film made by Rohmer in the German language. This film, about supremely romantic characters, desperately trying not to compromise principles to passion, is a favourite of Rohmer, and also of Beatrice.

Rohmer's greatest fear was that perhaps Kleist was correct in his belief that conflicting forces in life are held together only on the surface by illusions like real love. The very romantic Rohmer wanted badly to believe that it did.

"I have said this before and I repeat that it is Truffaut who loved women. Rohmer, on the other hand, would have loved to be a woman. To him, women were a puzzle and he was full of wonder for the mysterious in women." Indeed, Rohmer made women dare his male protagonists on screen to accept women as human beings.

On her return from India, Rohmer offered Beatrice A Good Marriage, another hit from 1982. This was a very difficult role for Beatrice as she was recently widowed and hated the character she had to play - of a flippant girl who wants to marry for money.

"I am a feminist and I could not identify with the shallow, greedy character I had to play," says Beatrice who suspects that perhaps Rohmer gave her that particular role to take revenge because she had walked away to India after he had so successfully launched her career with Claire's Knee. On hindsight, Beatrice looks upon the film as an important aid that helped her to deal with her demons that had caught up with her by the early 1980s.

All this and much more will be seen in a film in progress about Rohmer by Beatrice. In the meanwhile, the actress is screening My Mother, a 47-minute documentary about her family where Beatrice questions her mother about what she was doing when her husband was involved in incest with the daughter(s). Beatrice regrets that her sisters refused to talk to her about incest on camera.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2010