Friday, September 5, 2014

The Sign of Leo (Le signe du lion)

Jean-Luc Godard making his appearance during the party sequence

Éric Rohmer on the Rue de la Huchette during the making of the film short La Sonate à Kreutzer, 1956

THE SIGN OF LEO (Le signe du lion)             B+                  
France  (103 mi)  1959  d:  Éric Rohmer

Maintaining his secrecy throughout his life, Rohmer was either born in Tulle (southwestern France) under the name Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer or born in Nancy (northeastern France) under the name Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer.  The truth remains a mystery.  His first feature was made in 1959 for Claude Chabrol’s new production company AJYM, though the film was recut and restored in 1962 when Chabrol was forced to sell the company and Rohmer disowned the recut version.  In 1962 Rohmer and his longtime producer Barbet Schroeder co-founded the production company Les films du losange which produced all of Rohmer's work except his final three features.  A lone film, not part of his Comedies And Proverbs or Moral Tales, it has continually slipped under the radar of Rohmer retrospectives, along with half a dozen rare short films from the 50’s ranging in length from 10 to 50 minutes that never screened outside of France.  Rohmer was already over 40 by the completion of this film, at least ten years older than any of the other critics who went on to become filmmakers in the Cahiers du Cinéma group, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette, and his first film failed to have the explosive impact of his contemporaries, where The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), LES COUSINS (1959), and BREATHLESS (1960) were very much in the style of early French New Wave, becoming a major disappointment for Rohmer who returned to his work at Cahiers and continued making 16 mm shorts while having to wait another decade before making another feature.  Unavailable on DVD (though available on Region 2, Eric Rohmer - The Early Works) and one of the hardest Rohmer films to see, viewers will have to search out film schools and art house theaters for a screening of this film. 

Rohmer is considered the most literary and conservative-minded of the Cahiers group, whose low-budget films were rigorously prepared and shot, but in contrast to the early films of his contemporaries, where every frame announces it intends to change the course of cinema, this has none of the jarring New Wave techniques, yet it aptly belongs with those films by bringing the camera out into the streets, making bold use of urban locales as the aesthetic architecture of the film, where shooting locations become an expression of the character’s interior world.  While it’s a very poised and austere morality tale, taking an absurdist view of life where fate can be uncommonly cruel and without mercy, the heavily despairing overall mood is a sobering cinematic experience.  Rohmer is accused of focusing his attention on the banality of life, characterized by overly chatty, dialogue-driven films, often featuring educated, yet highly materialistic characters, including intellectuals and artists, who are constantly talking about themselves, placing themselves at the center of their existence, yet happiness, and the security of emotional attachments, remain elusive.  Rohmer has used no music in his films after this one and has always been an interior storyteller, confining himself to conventional, neatly contained, bourgeois worlds where racial diversity, for instance, simply doesn’t exist, and characters quickly grow alienated from the world around them, often displaced from God and unable to find meaning in their existence.  What is perhaps most unique about Rohmer is not so much his heralded literacy, but his undeniable success in finding cinematic images for common, everyday and ordinary moments that would otherwise seem so uncinematic.  While characters usually discuss these moral concepts at length, known for his characteristic literary and philosophical classicism, not in this film, a more gloomy effort where themes of disillusionment are instead wordlessly introduced through visual internalization.  Supposedly a favorite of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, where his film FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975) could be described as a variation on a similar theme, unrelentingly pessimistic, where a down and out carnival worker (Fassbinder as Fox) wins the lottery and suddenly has friends mooching off him left and right, all contending to be friends, which Fox desperately wants to believe, until they’ve stolen everything he has, leaving him utterly penniless and alone. 

Rohmer’s film has an unusual lead, Indiana-born Jess Hahn, a U.S. Marine who served in France during the war and became a French citizen afterwards, playing Pierre, whose heft and strong man appearance could easily pass as a gangster in a Jean-Pierre Melville film, a French-speaking American musician living a bohemian existence in Paris who is surrounded by well-to-do friends, who at the outset is informed his fabulously wealthy aunt has died, where he assumes right away he’s rich beyond his dreams, even sharing the inheritance with his cousin, inviting everyone he knows over to his flat for a celebratory party, borrowing money and running up huge debts, as accumulating bills are suddenly the least of his worries, where in typical Chabrol style (each of his earliest films feature an elaborate party sequence), he features an exuberant, but entirely naturalistic, bohemian party scene with an abundance of food and free flowing wine, where none other than Jean-Luc Godard in dark glasses, taking a break from shooting BREATHLESS (1960), shows up playing his favorite passage on the phonograph player over and over again.  In the morning he’s served an eviction notice, also news that his cousin inherited everything, so he’s quickly booted to the street, the first sign of his precipitous fall from grace.  At first, he maintains his friendships and easy connections, but they soon lose touch when’s he’s thrown out of every last known address, where angry hotel landlady Stéphane Audran (lead actress and former spouse of Chabrol) insists upon reporting him to the police (her brother is a policeman), so all hotels refuse to accept him.  As a result, Pierre spends his time endlessly walking around the Parisian neighborhoods, becoming something of a love letter to the bohemian quarters, selling his books to a mystery lover street vendor, none other than Jean-Pierre Melville, spending his final few pennies on bread, where eventually he’s forced to sleep on the street, where a dissonant and psychologically shatteringly Louis Sageur violin piece plays throughout (a rarity in a Rohmer film), whose exasperating repetitiveness may prove irksome for some.   
The jovial tone of the film shifts to neo realism and becomes a long, drawn out and near wordless encounter with the streets of Paris in the 50’s, capturing the mood and atmosphere of the steamy hot month of August, using the available natural light of summer, shot by pre-war cinematographer Nicolas Hayer, where despite the New Wave’s love of the streets in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), Godard’s BREATHLESS, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (both 1960), Rivette’s PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), or even Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), no other film is as graphically detailed in such carefully observed documentary style, where the city becomes the dominant force of the film, literally teeming with life from the cars on the street, strolling pedestrians, patrons sitting in outdoor café’s, to the narrow confines of hawking street vendors, like a street bazaar, and on into the heavily populated city parks, where the idle can sit uninterrupted for hours on benches, or even sleep at night, literally a time capsule conveying the sights and sounds, something along the lines of George Orwell’s autobiographical first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which details prolonged periods of hunger, taking odd jobs to avoid destitution, and living among the working poor.  Similarly, Rohmer’s film is a bleak portrait of despair, where without friends or money or food, Pierre’s life is spiraling into a physical and spiritual decline, where his existentialist journey of endlessly walking the streets also becomes a picturesque cinematic travelogue not only of the photogenic bridges extended across the Seine River with people sitting along the river banks, but Paris is also viewed as a cumbersome city, often loud and dirty and hot, especially when seen through the eyes of the impoverished, where an air of gloom hangs over the city, especially alone at night, lonely and painful moments conveyed through the emptiness of a series of night shots. 

The is not the familiar New Wave setting of Paris with pretty girls, fast cars, or gunfights, but is a nightmarish, cruel, and indifferent city where the protagonist is not seen hanging around the street café’s, but along the lower riverbanks of the Seine, where the city is seen as an urban inferno, frustrating, and utterly forbidding.  The city itself stands for the doomed protagonist’s deteriorating state of mind, where the customary welcoming attraction of the City of Lights, where Paris is considered the romance capital of the world, sweet and inviting, instead turns into a heartlessly dark city where he finds himself abjectively alone.  Pierre is continually portrayed as a human ghost walking among the living, watching intimate couples kissing or overhearing bits and pieces of conversations, until it appears he is beyond hope, that he has lost all connection to humankind.  For whatever reason, the man is never seen looking for work, though he does work up a musical act performed in front of tourists in the street café’s under the wing of another street tramp (Jean Le Poulain) he meets on the banks of the Seine, a loud street peddler who ingratiates himself to American tourists and the wealthy, asking for donations, as he often makes a spectacle of himself, which Pierre hates and finds humiliating, though there are moments of humor, such as this stream of overheard conversation, “Is that beggar playing Bartok?”  “No, he’s just out of tune.”  “Well, it’s modern at any rate.”  Co-written by Paul Gégauff (who wrote the dialogue), ironically this was the only time that Rohmer did not write the dialogue to one of his movies.  Interspersed throughout Pierre’s wanderings are glimpses of his former friends, a newspaper photographer continually sent out of the country on work assignment, or friends discussing his disappearance, where now even if they saw him, due to his haggard appearance, they wouldn’t recognize him.  But what Rohmer’s really suggesting is that money determines your identity and social status, that without it you’re invisible and may as well not even exist to the rest of the country.  The director then rethinks that thought and offers a less fatalistic view, one apparently more in tune with chance and the possibilities of the cosmos, more akin with the finale of his later work, Le Rayon Vert (Summer) (1986).  THE SIGN OF LEO is the only Rohmer film to exhibit any hint of lower class consciousness, where the tragic hero descends into dire poverty and homelessness, but nonetheless continues to wear a suit, like most all of Rohmer’s male characters, spending the rest of his career exclusively probing the interior consciousness of the middle class.    

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