“My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel.” – Eric Rohmer

Barbet Schroeder and Claudine Soubrier in La Boulangère de Monceau

Not sure how far this will go, but since Eric Rohmer’s death I’ve started rewatching his films, and I will try to post something about all or many of them here, as I watch them. Initially I was just going in random order, because I have most of the films on variously assorted video tapes that I’ve dubbed from library videos, and often I might have a single tape containing both a ‘conte moral’ from the sixties and a ‘comédie ou proverbe’ from the eighties. But right now I’m going through the Criterion set of the six Contes moraux, and so effectively am going in chronological order, for the time being anyway. So, I’ll begin these posts with the first of them, La Boulangère de Monceau.

Of course, chronology is a funny thing when dealing with the Contes moraux, and with Rohmer’s work in general. When lack of studio interest prevented him from making the film of the third of the moral tales he had written, Ma nuit chez Maud, in 1966, he went ahead and made number four, La Collectioneuse; when he was finally able to make Maud in 1969, he continued to regard it as the third film in the series, listing it as Number 3 in the opening credits, despite the order in which the films were actually made and released. The return to black-and-white photography for Maud further linked it to the first two films in the series, establishing a distinction between them and numbers four, five and six – La Collectioneuse, Le Genou de Claire and L’Amour l’après-midi – all of which were filmed in colour. Many would no doubt identify this single-mindedness and allegiance to a pre-ordained order as indicative of Rohmer’s “conservatism” (“conservative” is one of those descriptors of Rohmer – whose personal identity and artistic vision are presumed to be one and the same, this despite the intensity with which Rohmer kept his personal and professional lives separate throughout his filmmaking career – that have popped up incessantly in the obituaries and other ‘tributes’ to Rohmer following his death, along with “realist,” “moralist,” “Catholic,” “humanist”: descriptors that sit alongside other, equally predictable if somewhat less useless adjectives used to illustrate the particular qualities of his films, such as “talky,” “sophisticated,” “subtle”), but I think that, as always with Rohmer, there’s something more interesting going on in the odd dynamic between ‘real time’ (the dates when each text was written and each film was made; the material realities of money and resources that affected when each film could be made, how much time was taken between them and what was done with that time) and time as it exists for and in the films – for the overall series shaped by Rohmer, moving from one through six; for his male heroes, occupying as they do an odd, transitional yet (for them) frustratingly prolonged time, caught between the clarity of a past romantic moment (of falling in love with the ‘true’ object of their desire, a moment that in some of the films – La Boulangère, Maud – occurs in the early scenes, while in others – Le genou de Claire, L’Amour l’après-midi – it has happened some time before the beginning of the story) and the security of the future, when he will marry that original woman; and also time as it is experienced by those objects of temporary fascination, those women and girls (let us name them: Jacqueline, Suzanne, Maud, Haydée, Claire, Chloe) who find themselves occupying this transitional, apparently fleeting and frivolous moment in the lives of Rohmer’s heroes.

Which brings us to La Boulangère de Monceau, the film that is perhaps the most curiously placed in terms of chronology in the whole series. Rohmer has commented that the original text of La Boulangère was one of the last to be written, and was conceived only after he consciously noticed the thematic and narrative commonality between the different ‘tales’ in his series: namely, the transfer of the male narrator’s affections from one, ‘suitable’ woman, to another, ‘unsuitable’ one, and then finally back to the original woman. La Boulangère, Rohmer suggests, was written with the intention of cementing this consistency between the six tales, even as a kind of distillation of the Rohmer-ian structure. If this is true, it is unclear why exactly Rohmer decided to make it the first tale in the series – perhaps it was to establish this thematic consistency from the outset; perhaps because he knew at this time that he was going to make the moral tales into films, and he wanted the first one to be something short, quick to shoot and with few characters; probably it was for some combination of these and other reasons. In any case, the film’s odd position at both the beginning and the end of the series is intriguing, because it makes it hard for us to naively utilize the usual clichés about an auteur’s early work prefiguring or anticipating the ‘style’ he will later develop. It would be easy to make such a claim about La Boulangère de Monceau, but knowing what we do about the history of its composition, one is tempted to suggest that what looks like anticipation could just as easily be distillation – the distillation of a ‘style’ (though I am suspicious of this term as it is commonly used in regard to Rohmer, and am inclined to agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetskey’s proposition that ”the Rohmer style, supposedly unwavering in its consistency, never existed. What existed was the Rohmer scrutiny and the Rohmer intelligence, which could be applied to any approach”) before it had ever been elaborated, before there was yet any evidence of its existence.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the story of La Boulangère is linked to that of the final film in the series, L’Amour l’après-midi, in two crucial aspects. Firstly, in these two films far more than any of the others, the separation between the suitability of one woman and the unsuitability of the other for our hero is figured largely in terms of class – while the suitable women are both solidly haute-bourgeoises, Jacqueline is a lowly, naïve shop assistant, while Chloe is a once-successful but currently struggling bohemian of sorts; the adventure that each of them represents for the narrator/protagonist of each film is not so definitively erotic as in the other films, but has more to do with ‘slumming it’ (particularly in La Boulangère) and the idea of entering an unknown, largely prohibited social world through romantic entanglement with one of its members. Secondly, and relatedly, the two films are united by the blunt cruelty with which the men drop their ‘unsuitable’ women in the end, rushing back to the right woman and the bourgeois propriety inscribed by their union. In La Boulangère, our hero bumps into Sylvie in the street, moments after leaving Jacqueline’s boulangerie, where they have arranged a date for that evening by means of a “romanesque” wordless game involving the cakes at Jacqueline’s shop. Immediately upon seeing her, he asks Sylvie out to dinner with him, and they walk off together, as he tries to avoid being seen by Jacqueline from inside the shop. In L’Amour l’après-midi, Chloe is naked in bed, waiting for Frédéric to join her, when he has his revelation and rushes back to his wife and child, without a word to Chloe. This unity between the first and last films in the series does suggest that a kind of distillation of the essential structure of the series is occurring in each, and that these two elements – the blunt disregard for the feelings and identity of the second woman, as soon as she loses her allure; and the figuration of that second woman’s (fleeting) erotic appeal in terms of her social ‘otherness’ – are crucial to Rohmer’s form across the moral tales, even in the films where these elements are not so explicit.

But let’s return to those climactic scenes in La Boulangère de Monceau. The Romanesque game – the first case of what will become a recurrent motif in Rohmer’s films, the creation by his characters of a kind of game of communication according to a set of mutually agreed-upon rules – is quite simple: our hero (let’s call him Schroeder, after Barbet Schroeder, who plays him) tells Jacqueline that he will come into the shop later and ask for a biscuit; if she gives him two, this means their date is set for that evening. The elaboration of these rules take up considerably more screen-time than the performance of the game, which happens very quickly: in an exquisitely brief, one-shot scene, Schroeder’s character is heard off-screen asking for a biscuit in the voice of feigned disinterest that he uses in all the boulangerie scenes; Jacqueline takes one, then turns to look off-camera, effectively at Schroeder, and with a slight flourish quickly picks up another, looking back at him at some length before turning away (this will be her final appearance in the film). There’s enough in this tiny scene, this repeated gesture of picking up the biscuits, to suggest Jacqueline’s unstated excitement at the prospect of a rendez-vous with this young man from a different world to her own; but one also has the feeling that her excitement stems more from the illicit performance of the game itself, the sense that she is embarking on a Romanesque (a word she doesn’t recognise when Schroeder first uses it, requiring him to repeat it slowly) adventure, and that the world of romance consists of these mutually enacted secret codes, that that is what it’s all really about (and, indeed, who’s to say she’s wrong?).

Schroeder walks out of the boulangerie, and within moments bumps into Sylvie. After some initial conversation, his narration tells us that, upon seeing her, he made his “decision” “in an instant”. We then see this decision in action, as he asks her to dinner with him. Rather than putting off Sylvie for another night and keeping his date with Jacqueline, he makes what he calls a moral choice (“mon choix était, avant tout, moral” – a clear example of a line Rohmer included for the purpose of clarifying the overall structure of the moral tales, even as it is a line perfectly suited to this particular moment in this particular film). What Schroeder means by “moral” (which is not, of course, entirely the same as what moral action will be for the men of the other films) is definitive, principled, and, most importantly, in league with ‘truth’ – “L’une était ma vérité, l’autre l’erreur,” he remarks in voiceover. The error must be effaced by the blinding light of truth, not merely hidden away in a dark corner, and so Schroeder makes a total, an absolute decision, replacing one dinner date with another at the exact same time, replacing Jacqueline with Sylvie, the error with the truth (or “my truth,” as he calls her with perhaps less affection than solipsism).

Decision made, truth reclaimed, Schroeder waits for Sylvie to fetch her things and come downstairs (he and the viewer have just discovered that Sylvie lives directly across the street from Jacqueline’s boulangerie). Then, rather irritatingly, “to complicate the situation,” it starts to rain. “Yet,” he adds, “that is what saved me” (C’est cela pourtant qui me sauva). What does he mean by this? It seems, though it is never explicitly stated in the film (it is in the written text), that Jacqueline is staying inside the boulangerie because of the rain, and so won’t spot him with Sylvie, won’t be able to make a scene – this is what he means by being “saved” by the rain. The rain prolongs his torment, prolongs his position both physically and romantically between these two women – Sylvie takes even longer to get ready for dinner because now she has to get a raincoat as well – and yet it saves him, saves him from their confrontation with each other, from their mutual acknowledgement of his cowardice. And this rainfall alters time as it exists for the film and for its three characters – for Schroeder, who must stand there, trying not to get wet, prolonging his awkward position between the two women, but at the same time prolonging the moment of decision, and thus prolonging the smug feeling that he has performed a moral act; for Sylvie, as she slowly gets ready for dinner, paying little heed to Schroeder’s pathetic waiting; and for the unseen Jacqueline, who may be standing at the door of the boulangerie, waiting for the rain to let up, witnessing everything that is happening across the street – or who may after all have gone home unnoticed, deciding that the Romanesque game of communication was the only thrill to be had between her and Schroeder, and that anything more would have been only a disappointment.


Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, on their wedding day, in /Pursued/

I’ve watched two oddly similar films in the past two days – Delmer Daves’ noir Dark Passage, and Raoul Walsh’s western Pursued, both from 1947. Walsh is of course most famous for his gangster films, while Daves was certainly known to make some fine westerns, most notably 3:10 to Yuma – so it’s interesting to see the two directors working, in effect, in reverse on these two films. Both films are quite genre-ambiguous, to be sure – Martin Scorsese, who was partly responsible for the recent restoration of Pursued, calls it a “noir western,” which is not a bad description; Dark Passage is in many ways a straight noir (in its photography, its presentation of a social milieu, its dialogue), but its basic narrative thrust, concerning an outcast trying to redress the evils of a backward society that has passed unfair judgement on him and to claim a piece of the social for himself, could easily be that of a western. A noir western and a western noir, then; but what, more precisely, can we learn about how the two films are functioning, having made this observation?

At the most basic narrative level, Dark Passage and Pursued are united by the plight of their protagonists: in Dark Passage, Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) has escaped from San Quentin, and spends the film trying to stay one step ahead of the police chasing him while at the same time trying to figure out who really killed his wife, for whose murder he has been wrongly imprisoned (as this description suggests, Dark Passage is an obvious inspiration for Andrew Davis’ overrated The Fugitive [1993]). In Pursued, Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) spends most of the film trying to avoid being killed by Grant Callum, a mysterious relative of the family Jeb grew up with after he was orphaned as a child. In trying to escape Grant and the various others Grant seduces into helping him act out his bloodlust, Jeb must search in his past to learn why Grant is after him and how he can be stopped.

When we say that both films contain elements of the western and the noir, then (or, more accurately, that Dark Passage is an ostensible film noir with a [perhaps unacknowledged] western underpinning, Pursued an ostensible western with a noir underpinning), what we more precisely mean is that both narratives are structured in terms of simultaneous processes of forward movement (the western) and backward movement (the film noir). Ultimately, both films will attempt to bring these complementary trajectories together in a climactic ending, the revelation of past trauma immediately motivating a conclusive act in the present that will bring emancipation and the achievement of sociality as represented by the female love interest (Lauren Bacall for Bogie, Teresa Wright for Mitchum – neither of whom figures much as an object of sexual desire, but in both cases as a stand-in for the achievement of the social world, an admittance for our protagonist). In both cases this attempt is rather forced and perhaps unconvincing – there are too few characters and too little plot contrivance for the identity of Dark Passage’s murderer to be much of a mystery, or its final revelation to be nearly as compelling as the other part of the story, the run from the authorities; Mitchum’s final revelation (of a forbidden love between his dead father and Wright’s mother) is too disappointingly bourgeois to satisfy the fascination the film has attempted to build through an hour and a half of interweaving flashbacks.

Though it would be easy (and not entirely wrong) to simply chalk this up to flawed screenwriting (from Daves on his film, Niven Busch on Walsh’s), we might also say that these unsuccessfully converging endings mark a fissure between the twin generic logics the two films are formed upon. That is, the ‘flaw’ in the endings is constituted by that which makes the films’ very existence possible – the pairing of the two genres, the dovetailing of the narrative that moves forwards with that which moves backwards. The point of this argument is of course not to suggest that these two films are failures, or that any attempt to bend or combine or complicate genre in a film is destined to result in an unsatisfactory ending; what it does show, I hope, is something of how the workings of genre can take over from or interrupt the ‘personal vision’ of the writer or director (not at all in the pejorative sense of genre as an uncreative, repetitive purveyor of the same impersonal stories over and over; rather in the sense that film genres, like all human acts of classification and delineation, define and delimit and make possible our capacity to see the world and its inhabitants, in ways that cannot but supersede the individuality of the author [of a film] or subject [of the social/institutional world]). I think also what we learn from the workings of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued is something of how classical Hollywood cinema constitutes human psychology, affirming a certain ideologically dominant version of ‘the human,’ while also responding to and incorporating elements of more subversive theories of subjectivity – namely, psychoanalysis.

Hollywood was of course curious about psychoanalysis during the forties – these two films came two years after Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a film that has a lot in common with Dark Passage, and two years before Preminger’s Whirlpool. In these as in other – less explicitly ‘psychoanalytic’ – films of the time, an effort was made to incorporate certain aspects of psychoanalytic discourse into Hollywood cinema, which essentially meant to redefine psychoanalytic discourse within Hollywood cinema’s own terms. Freud’s investigations of fetishistic and symptomatic manifestations of trauma are incorporated into these films, but always (or nearly always, for there are exceptions, or at least partial ones) moulded to accommodate to an aggressively teleological narrative which necessitates a successful unification of the human subject with the social world by the film’s ending (the hero gets married, goes to jail, dies and is mourned, etc). As with our discussion of genre-ambiguity above, what we see here is an attempt to combine or interweave two discourses for the purpose of achieving a kind of totalizing knowledge – here, instead of the combination of two Hollywood film genres, we have the combination of psychoanalytic discourse with the discourse of classical Hollywood cinema (which we could, perhaps naively or perhaps not entirely accurately, more broadly define as the discourse of US liberal-capitalist hegemony). As was true of the combining of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued, this pairing does produce fissures, points where the incorporation is not perfect and where those less congenial aspects of psychoanalytic discourse rear their heads, interrupting the inevitable teleology of the Hollywood narrative (psychoanalytic theory itself here functions as an enactment of one of its own concepts, the ‘return of the repressed’).

Any incorporation, then, any attempt to legitimize and totalize a dominant position through incorporating contradictory or subversive discourses into this position, contains the risk – if this incorporated discourse is sufficiently sophisticated and sufficiently ‘real,’ if its inherent logic produces revelations concerning the world and the human that are not easily dismissed (true enough of the film noir, the western, and psychoanalysis) – that the incorporation will be incomplete, that what is incorporated will act upon its host in unanticipated ways (many a science-fiction film has been inspired by this idea). In Dark Passage and Pursued, we have discussed how this incorporation functions in one case – the incorporation of the noir into the western, and the western into the noir – but not yet in the other: the impregnation of a certain external theory of human psychology (psychoanalysis) into Hollywood cinema and its pre-existing ideological conception (in all senses of the word) of the human. For, like any good film noir – and any good western – ‘psychoanalysis,’ whether in its ‘legitimate’ or its ‘incorporated’ version, has an undoubtable presence in these two films.

In Pursued, we have a character (Jeb Rand) and a situation (a flight from assassins that can only be finally achieved through the unearthing of a buried childhood memory) that have been to a large extent produced by (pop-)psychoanalysis. Jeb’s two homes (the Callum home where he is raised and falls in love with his adopted sister, Thor [Wright] – and which, in a brilliant move by Walsh and Busch, he buys back for himself and Wright when they are married; and his own, massacred family’s farmhouse at Bear Paw Butte, where the final showdown takes place) potently represent Jeb’s differing psychological states, while the erotic interplay between Jeb, Thor and her brother Adam produces a kind of Freudian ‘family romance’: details like this make Pursued readily identifiable as a ‘psychological’ film, a noirish western. Psychoanalytic discourse is present in this film, and not merely as a by-product of the incorporation of the (more psychologically ‘complex’) genre of the film noir into the western; even if the second incorporation was initially triggered by the first (even if psychoanalysis was not asked to enter, but entered quietly, innocently, in the tame, popularized form given it by the noir genre), in effect, once it is there, it cannot fail to do its work, even if surreptitiously and inconclusively.

Jeb’s psychological maturation – ultimately enacted by the conscious recall of his childhood trauma, which allows him to right the wrongs of the past and to establish a healthy marriage with Thor – is intended to bring together not only the film noir and the western (making peace with the past; achieving a certain social stability in the present) but also the psychoanalytic and the Hollywood ‘psychologies’: respectively, the subject as a bundle of libidinal drives, produced and perennially undermined by its attempts to sublimate and order them; Versus the subject as a more-or-less successfully produced whole, dogged by external malevolencies, in pursuit of a harmonious erotic/social unification so as to reaffirm its wholeness. The film remains compelling because it cannot (it does not ‘want to,’ despite what it professes to want) entirely manage this incorporation, and the attempt produces all kinds of dispersals that cannot be contained in this conclusive act – the psychological damage the unfolding of the narrative has had on Thor (in a fantastic portrayal by the underrated Wright, giving as interesting and ambiguous [if less erotically charged] a performance here as in Shadow of a Doubt); the uncontainable depths of hate, vengeance and rapacious bloodlust that have motivated Grant, but always been something less clean and ordered than a mere motivation, acting rather as a kind of compulsion. These and other dispersals of psychic trauma and libidinal energy point to this incompleteness of incorporation, but they also suggest that this is not simply a failure of Pursued, rather that such acts of incorporation resulting in the manifestation of the buried/pacified elements of the incorporated other can occur all over the place, are inherent not only to films that combine genre but to each individual genre itself (which is of course always a combination and adaptation of a multiplicity of pre-existing mythic and generic traits); Pursued is the rare film that allows its contradictory impulses to develop, resulting in this tremendous dispersal of energies that its ending inevitably does not, cannot, will not contain.

Agnes Moorehead jumps to her death in /Dark Passage/

Agnes Moorehead jumps to her death in /Dark Passage/

Dark Passage, as I mentioned above, has a lot in common with Spellbound, in the relationship between the couple, the formulation of Woman-as-cure, etc. But it can also be seen as a precursor to that greatest masterpiece of ‘psychological’ Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Pursued, on the other hand, is Marnie all over) – a precursor not only for its remarkable use of the San Francisco setting, but also in regard to how it deals with this simultaneous backwards-and-forwards trajectory, the movement towards future emancipation necessitating a simultaneous move back into past trauma. As in Pursued, the attempt to bring these twin movements together – as enacted through the generic combination of the noir and the western – results in an uncontainable dispersal of energy, the attempt to ‘tidy up’ and have these combined discursive effects dovetail neatly resulting in abrupt summation and dismissal of elements that will not be put away so easily. What Dark Passage manages momentarily is to have these two events, the act of summation and aggressive, dismissive conclusion and the event of the dispersal of exactly that which this summation wishes to contain, occur simultaneously: here it is the sudden death (accident/suicide?) falling out of a window of the murderess, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), in a scene that anticipates Madeleine/Judy’s death(s) in Hitchcock’s film.

At once completely necessary and completely crazy, Madge’s death is haunting precisely because it is both highly motivated (by the machinations of the narrative which require it in order to bring the interweaving temporal and spatial movements and the interweaving generic forms into a conclusive unity) and largely unmotivated (at the level of what we are given to be her character, the jealous obsessive). The act that brings about the narrative summation, the reconciliation of the different generic discursive registers, is itself a dispersal, a manifestation of all that will not be contained by this totalizing reconciliation-by-incorporation. Moorehead (brilliant as always) understands that the power of her death scene must come from this odd incongruity, and so she ups the ‘psychology’ of Madge, the use of her voice moving from manipulative and controlling to aggressive and terrified, the (simultaneously anxious and sexually charged) tautness of her body giving way, finally, to looseness as it falls to its destruction on the pavement below (“You need something concrete,” she has said to Vincent moments earlier, and he is about to get it); but in so doing she in a sense gives us too much, presenting a psychological complexity which seems to motivate her death and yet overruns this motivation, continuing to haunt us, as we move swiftly towards Bogart and Bacall’s final reunion, with the knowledge that the (social/sexual) desire we see fulfilled here also produces subjects (like Madge – but also, really, all subjects, even Bogart and Bacall) swallowed whole by desire in its isolating, ravenous, murderous forms.