Gilbey on Film: Eric Rohmer remembered

The French New Wave director specialised in love gone astray -- and the occasional severed head

With the death yesterday of Eric Rohmer, incorrigible romantics and cinephiles everywhere lost a great ally and cheerleader.

He was 89 when he died, and seems to have been that age for at least two decades; certainly when I first saw a Rohmer film (the 1983 Pauline at the Beach, a bright but barbed roundelay), the image I held of him was a white-haired sage who hadn't forgotten what it was like to be young and impetuous. He was often commended for his understanding of youthful hearts; he was nearly 50 by the time he made his late-Nouvelle Vague masterpieces My Night With Maud and Claire's Knee, and retained those films' acuteness in even his most recent work.

While cherished for his stories of love misdirected and mishandled, he made the occasional surprising departure, such as 2001's French Revolution drama The Lady and the Duke. How surprising was it? Well, it was shot on digital video, featuring digitally enhanced backgrounds and mise-en-scène. (In Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, a book of movie lists, the critic Anne Billson included it in her tally of "Ten Places You Wouldn't Expect to Find a Severed Head": "Of all the film directors in the world, Rohmer -- auteur of tasteful films full of droopy young French people who talk a lot -- is probably the last in whose oeuvre you would expect to find a severed head. And yet here it is, on a pike.")

My own late-period favourite remains A Summer's Tale, from 1996, one of his "Contes des quatre saisons". He moves his camera and directs his cast with such intuition and clarity that you are drawn into a scenario that seems at first to be a bagatelle.

It concerns Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, who also turns up unexpectedly in this week's British thriller 44-Inch Chest), a pretty young graduate holidaying in Dinard. There, he has sort-of arranged to meet his sort-of girlfriend, Lena. Gaspard is like that; he's a sort of musician, too, though the sea shanty he's toiling over suggests he should sort of quit sort of immediately.

He starts hanging out with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a student who is spending the summer waitressing. They walk and talk and flirt with each other, and Margot has enough savvy to rebuff Gaspard's cumbersome advances. But that's OK: another local girl, Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), wants his body. She and Gaspard begin their own little romance, which is just dandy until Lena (Aurelia Nolin) finally shows up.

Rohmer's knack in the film is for bringing compassion and emotional complexity to the tritest situations. You could find a predicament like Gaspard's on at least two stages in the West End in any given month. But Rohmer is more interested in stripping away Gaspard's façade than exploiting his discomfort, revealing not the hapless puppet we had expected, but a master puppeteer capable of surreptitiously manipulating those around him -- at least until his strings start to get knotted. The protracted takes and gentle volleys of dialogue create a kind of harmony out of the emotional discordancy, so that it takes you a while to notice that the romantic entanglements have gone as haywire as Gaspard's hair.

"I'm curious about people," Margot tells Gaspard at one point. "No one is totally uninteresting." That could have been Rohmer speaking. In fact, it wouldn't make a bad epitaph.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge