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Dangerous Liasons: The Films of Éric Rohmer Preview

Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF, signed off the TIFF Press Conference by saying “Remember to check out the Éric Rohmer retrospective”.

This statement in and of itself was quite surprising. The press conference was being streamed all over the world in addition to those in attendance, the focus could have been on one of the 68 films announced that morning to play the festival. In a sense, it was significant not only because it draws attention to the fact that the TIFF Bell Lightbox runs 365 days a year, and that TIFF stands for more than the festival, but also for the fact that the TIFF retrospectives allow audiences to get a chance to view something other than the films that play in multiplexes everywhere. For a festival featuring the tagline “Infinite Views”, this was a year round statement that can be seen in many different ways.

Where to begin with Rohmer? For starters, Rohmer is most elusive of French New Wave directors. In fact, “Éric Rohmer” is a pseudonym, rare to find in a director. It is typical of his attitude that his real name is not actually known, nor his actual birthday. The name is comes from a combination of a early auteur (and actor) and a writer. Rohmer’s films, too, can be difficult to understand. The evening, August 2nd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox sees an inventive double bill of La Marquise d’O, followed by Jessica Hausner’s 2014 triumph Amour Fou.

Amour Fou is an important part of the retrospective, as although it is not one of Rohmer’s, it feels like it could be from a different era. It captures the author, Heinrich Von Kleist, (Rohmer’s adaptation comes from Kleist’s celebrated work). The film centres around Henriette Vogel, Kleist’s lover, about whom very little is known. When Kleist killed himself at the age of 34, indeed, going against his philosophy that he “ought to be happy”, a concept found in his poems as well, there is very little evidence as to whether or not Henriette wanted to go with him. The conventional belief at the time is that she was ill and was going to die anyway, though Hausner plays around with the idea, and dares to portray Kleist as an almost comic figure, prone to bouts of silliness. An opening scene of the film, in which Kleist approaches his cousin Marie and asks her to commit an act of murder-suicide with him is played almost for laughs, and in a sense, represents the heights (or depths) of absurdity, a surprising direction for a film about “mad love”. It is questioned as to whether Henriette was even sick at all.

Hausner’s film fits in with Rohmer’s retrospective because of its similarities to Rohmer’s work, though the film could also pair well with Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. Some of the Swedish director’s quirks were on display in a recent Lightbox retrospective about Östlund. It is noted that his films are funny to the point of being uncomfortable, and feature exceptionally long takes and flat atmosphere. Amour Fou features many similar elements, a strong focus on performance pieces, and also debuted in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes 2014, and were both picked up by the Canadian distributor Films We Like. But Östlund won the Jury Prize at Cannes and Hausner did not, and while both films screened at TIFF and afterwards, Amour Fou didn’t receive the attention of Force Majeure, which is a shame. It’s a polarizing film, but we liked it a lot and it deserves to be seen, especially in a big screen setting.

Rohmer is different from his Cahiers du Cinéma counterparts, including Truffaut, whose own retrospective is currently still playing, in that he did move away from the influence of American film and into French left-wing idealism. He did not allow his politics obscure his message, and that his later works are much stronger than his earlier ones, (apologies to Jean-Luc Godard and perhaps Francois Truffaut). But Rohmer was more of an eccentric, famously shunning cars and phones, and not even telling his mother that he was a famous filmmaker. The programmer’s essay by James Quandt spotlights the fact that Rohmer’s films are perfect for summer, and also that his “erotic-philosophical” obsession was similar to that of his beloved Hitchcock. Although Hitchcock is paired with Truffaut, there are Hitchcock elements to his films that make for some interesting pairings.

But here, his version of La Marquise d’O, Rohmer’s one and only German film, the form seems to fit the style perfectly, as he adapts his version of Kleist’s short novel as remarkably faithful to the text. The film features Bruno Ganz as Der Graf, (The Count, Ganz would go on to play Adolf Hitler in Downfall, among other roles). The film is celebrated for its close attention to detail. It is like being transported to the early 19th century, and the film feels very much a product of another time, due to its pacing, diegetic sound, lack of music and faithfulness to its source material, (the last a contrast to Amour Fou, which despite not being based on a book, very much wanders away from its source material). The heart of the film is that Rohmer is a questioner. As to the film and book’s mystery, he does not provide an answer. He gently questions.

While the entire Rohmer retrospective is well worth checking out, a special highlight is that Marie Rivière, who acted in many of Rohmer’s later films, including the Golden Lion-winning La Rayon Vert, will be on hand to introduce three of Rohmer’s films beginning on August 11th. In addition to Hausner and stlund, Rohmer continue to influence modern auteurs, (Linklater, Baumbach, Mia Hansen-Løve, whose latest will be at TIFF), so Handling’s statement is especially relevant.