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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage