My favorite of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is probably whichever one I’ve seen most recently, so at one point or another my list of favorite discoveries of 2008 probably had five Rohmer films on it.
I wrote some notes about Love in the Afternoon last March, comparing some of its themes to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Pauline Kael once famously compared screening a Rohmer film to watching paint dry. Yeah, paint on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, maybe.
Okay, I just finished Love in the Afternoon and I’m a little tipsy on Rohmer having just finished my first run through the Six Moral Tales. I suppose watching paint dry can be pretty interesting if the paint makes a beautiful, nuanced picture. It’s certainly more interesting than watching a car explode.
The Criterion DVD had an interview with Neil Labute talking about how Rohmer influenced him, but I confess that towards the end of Love in the Afternoon, the film I kept thinking about was Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
When Frederic leaves Chloe’s apartment I thought, “Wow, there really is a thematic parallel with Eyes Wide Shut,” particularly in the way the film plays off the ambiguity between what the characters say they want/believe and the actual choices they make. Then when Frederic calls his wife on the phone right after he leaves Chloe’s apartment, I thought, “Okay, if he [or she] says ‘And it’s really important for us to fuck right now now'” it really is going to play for me like the end of Eyes Wide Shut.” Neither character uses that line, but darned if the final scene with Helene isn’t, essentially a much more ambiguous parallel to the final scene between Bill and Alice in Kubrick’s film.
I also made a connection to Eyes Wide Shut at the very beginning of the film. Love in the Afternoon opens with Frederic walking in on a nude Helene in the bathroom, and this scene made me think of the opening scenes of Eyes Wide Shut and how Kubrick juxtaposes the more voyeuristic opening shot of Kidman which seems to be about woman as object of the male gaze with the shots of Alice in the bathroom while Bill is getting ready for the party which are all about familiarity, suggesting the ways he is and isn’t looking at her. This Bill’s indifference to Alice echoes Frederic’s indifference to Helene.
Finally, I see a third parallel in the penultimate scene of Love in the Afternoon and a central scene of Eyes Wide Shut. In the climactic scene of Love in the Afternoon, it looks like Chloe and Frederic are moving towards a consummation. Chloe is undressed and moves to the bed (from whence we get the iconic shot of her on the bed that is in some of the movie posters). Frederic begins to undress and in the process of pulling his shirt off catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
The image of the shirt over his head is a visual echo to an earlier scene in which Frederic was playing a game with his daughter, and while ultimately ambiguous, I don’t think it a stretch to suggest that Frederic is remembering that earlier moment himself. It is immediately after that glimpse that he leaves Chloe’s apartment.
This scene reminds me of the scene (structurally earlier) in Eyes Wide Shut where Bill visits the prostitute and gets a call at a key moment on his cell phone that reminds him of his family, causing him to leave her apartment. (It is later suggested/reported in Eyes Wide Shut that the prostitute was HIV positive and so there is yet more ambiguity about this scene. Is it meant to be providential or coincidental? In my meditation on Eyes Wide Shut when it first came out, I wrote that while on the surface it may appear that Bill would have consummated the adultery had not he received a well timed interruption, it was at least plausible to think that given the fact that he can never seem to seal the deal, that something is always interrupting, the structure of the film invites us to contemplate whether or not there is some deeper seated reason Bill cannot (or at least doesn’t) sleep with someone else.
Returning to Love in the Afternoon, I remember feeling a bit surprised at the shirt/glimpse in the mirror scene. It seemed uncharacteristic to me of Rohmer’s style in the other tales, a bit more underlined. Neil Labute said in his commentary interview that one thing he appreciated about Rohmer in the Moral Tales is that he didn’t judge the protagonists. He allowed you to do so, to be sure. In fact, he almost forces you to do so by withholding his own judgment. This scene, then (or the shot anyway), was one of the few times in the tales where I felt Rohmer was editorializing–or at least spotlighting–telling you what to pay attention to.
The comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, though, made me wonder if this scene weren’t more ambiguous than I was giving it credit for being. Labute said he found Rohmer’s men to be the great self-justifiers, and while I agree up to a point, the tales seem to me to have a lot of ambiguity in that there is often a tension or a discrepancy between who and what they claim to be and what their actions reveal them to be. Just as in Eyes Wide Shut where a central question (for me) was how to reconcile who and what Bill said he was and what he wanted with what he actually did (or didn’t do), so too in Chloe, I felt like there was a bit more self deception going on, that maybe the glance was not a providential reminder that pulls him back from the edge but the moment in which he really sees himself (not the image he is trying to protect) and what he really wants. [Of course, it is also equally plausible that Chloe’s well timed gossip sort of backfires and rouses him not to reciprocal hurt but recognition of possessive love…hmmm…that is another connection to Eyes Wide Shut, isn’t it? It is Alice’s “confession” about the fantasy with the naval officer that prompts Bill to want to start a journey of revenge but ends with him being shaken out of his complacency and familiarity with her and a realization (I think) that he doesn’t want to hurt her back, he wants to have her back.]
Anyway, I’m fascinated by the Tales, because while I’m sympathetic to the naysayers who might say “It’s the same movie over and over” I do think exploring the same themes allows Rohmer to make nuanced comparisons that articulate the important (or meaningless) distinctions between similar characters. To me, these films are more like classical music with variations on a theme than pop music with a lyric/medley being repeated over and over again.
Postscript: I’m adding a link to the Eyes Wide Shut review here and in the text above. I realized after writing this post that my review was from when I had the blog at a different web address and thus was no longer available.