"I saw a Rohmer film once. It was like watching paint peel."
--Gene Hackman in "Night Moves"
Eric Rohmer's latest film, "Summer," may seem to provide more fuel for his detractors--or, worse, those who ignore him. It's a seemingly austere movie, with a subject some may consider inconsequential: The endlessly frustrated vacation of a Frenchwoman, who keeps turning down prospective lovers and fleeing from place to place--Paris to Cherbourg to the Alps to Biarritz. Like all Rohmer films, it contains a great deal of talk and very little action. Nothing happens in the film that might not plausibly happen to any of us--if we were young, female and had as much money and as many fixations as the movie's Delphine (Marie Riviere). So . . . is it really thin as watching paint peel?
Not at all. "Summer" is one of the masterpieces of 1986. It's one of the most finely wrought, stimulating films of an erratic year. It's intellectual in the best sense: engaging you emotionally and mentally. It moves faster, wastes less time, and has more to offer than most movies now on view--and those who are skipping it are missing one of the year's real treats.
The French title of the film is "Le Rayon Vert" (or "The Green Ray")--also the title of a Jules Verne novel discussed by several of its characters and overheard by Delphine. The "green ray" is a prismatic optical illusion, created when the sun sinks below the horizon and the last few rays are "bent" into the appearance of a green flash: At that moment, legend says, you have a sudden flash of clarity. Delphine--constantly seeking portents--seizes on this. And though it seems neurotic, the film fools us: It really is about spiritual quests and moments of revelation.
"Summer's" characters are so well observed that we grow to understand them--especially Delphine--enough to forgive, be amused or fascinated by, everything they do. (Except, possibly, those audiences who consider anything without a murder a tame story.)
It's ironic that Rohmer is often seen as "difficult." We'd be better off and more richly entertained if more movies followed his approach. Rohmer's films are constructed from the inside; they have an organic logic and flow. They're far removed from most film "product" these days: made by committee, plunging from shtick to shtick, movie makers and actors struggling to make it all plausible. Watching "Summer," we get the delight of seeing a world, fully, through the eyes of another.
There's an interesting paradox: Rohmer, far from being opposed to the classical Hollywood movie, was nurtured by it--and he contributed back in ways many people forget. It was Rohmer who was the prime influence in the '50s Cahiers du Cinema staff. Andre Bazin may have been their editor-mentor, but Rohmer (10 years older than his colleagues) was the most rigorous of the "Hitchcock-Hawksians": the group whose ideas and tastes spread from country to country after 1960, helping a cinematic renaissance in each, including the United States--the '60s film school generation of Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg.
Here is what the then-36-year-old Rohmer had to say about Hollywood in 1955, seven years before embarking on his film sextet, "The Moral Tales": "I am willing to forgive my fellow countrymen for their mistrust of the American cinema; a mistrust I once shared. But not for long! To be precise, the three months between my seeing 'Quai des Brumes' and a rerun of 'It Happened One Night.' . . . That was the day when, in the shape of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the cinema held up to me a face without artifice, unpolished but not rough, speaking in a language open, yet without a hint of coarseness. It touched not my schoolboy's heart, with its ardor for Gide or Breton, but that innate taste that we French never lose for a moment--for the art of the moralist.
"If the American film enjoys so much popularity on the world market, it is not only by virtue of its economic power--or because it panders to the masses, or has imposed, worldwide, an unvarying bad taste. I acknowledge that there is some truth in all this: Hollywood's popularity owes more to the Devil than to The Almighty. But in the midst of this output which includes--like any other--both masterpieces and disasters, to see a film by Griffith, Hawks, Cukor, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz--or even a comedy, thriller or Western by a lesser-known director--has always been enough to convince me that, for the talented and dedicated film maker, the California coast is not the den of iniquity some would have us believe. It is rather that chosen land, that haven, which Florence was for painters of the Quattrocento, or Vienna for musicians in the 19th Century."
To certain readers, these lightly ironical remarks might seem precious. (Isn't he one of those daffy French intellectuals we're always hearing about: The worshipers of "Monsieur Le Crazy: Zherry Lewis?") Yet Rohmer's viewpoint prevailed and flourished--in a very positive way.