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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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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