You Say You Want a Revolution

Eric Rohmer's films are notoriously talky. In his Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Seasons cycles, the restlessly sexy, searching characters spend most of their time lounging on lawn chairs and engaging one another in meandering, often faltering, philosophical exchanges on topics from temptation and renunciation to the charms of lettuce.

The eighteenth-century nobles in Rohmer's remarkable new movie, The Lady and the Duke, also converse almost nonstop. Though the sound of their more formal back-and-forth lacks the easy flow of his moderns' chatter, it does seem to well up from the same dialectical spring that irrigates almost all of Rohmer's pictures. And as the movie unfolds it prompts in the audience a dithering and rather, well, Rohmerian back-and-forth. I spent the length of the picture arguing with myself about Rohmer's politics and his aesthetic, wondering: Is the director a flaming radical or flaming reactionary? A cinematic pioneer or filmic fundamentalist? Or could this octogenarian maverick, the old man of the New Wave, be all of the above? In virtually every scene, I changed my mind several times. And I wasn't surprised to find afterward a statement he made nearly 40 years ago: "The more you respect the past, the more modern you are. Extreme conservatism and extreme progressiveness are brothers."

At first glance, Rohmer seems to align himself unambiguously with the forces of conservation. English cinema has known its heroic Scarlet Pimpernels over the years, but The Lady and the Duke is, to my knowledge, the first French film about the revolution to take the side of the aristocracy. The movie is based on a memoir written "at the express desire of his Majesty King George the Third" sometime after 1801 by Grace Elliott, a Scottish gentlewoman, divorcée, and fierce royalist. She had been mistress to the prince of Wales and then to the French king's cousin, the duke of Orleans, who brought her to France in 1786. The affair between Grace and the duke came to an end soon after. They remained close, however, and she stayed on in France -- despite the fall of the Bastille and the obvious discomforts that the ensuing bloody events visited on her and other members of her silk-stocking-clad circle.

Perhaps "discomforts" is putting it mildly. Besides enduring house searches, interrogations, and arrest, Grace saw the heads of several friends impaled on sticks and paraded through cheering swarms of sansculottes. Her memoir is, understandably then, a document that shows little sympathy for the liberatory mood that seized the Paris streets as the age of Voltaire and Rousseau swooped to a climax. Her prose is vivid; her tone energetic, haughty, determined. And she is, throughout, almost comically unapologetic about her privileged status. (The book is a fascinating document in its own right, and one well worth tracking down in an out-of-print edition like the battered, 1910 leather-bound copy I found on a library shelf.) Grace adores the king, "that virtuous monarch," and has absolutely no patience with what she calls "those horrible revolutionary principles," or the "miscreants" and "monsters" who uphold them.

Played in deliberately mannered fashion by the strawberry blonde, slightly gap-toothed English actress Lucy Russell, Rohmer's Grace has the pluck and the strong will of the Grace in the book -- along with the tendency to bark at her servants and to enjoy being pampered. (After a scene where Grace comes face to face with the severed head of an old pal, another friend comforts her with a dainty glass of cordial, When she is jailed, one of those same henpecked servants manages to smuggle into prison a lavender sachet, so that her lady might not suffer the stench of her fellow inmates.)

Rohmer's Grace is, though, a milder political creature than her literary counterpart, which makes the director's own ideological sympathies a bit harder to read -- but arguably more interesting. Rohmer has said he was drawn to the book for the characters' "lack of fanaticism," and though anyone who has read the memoir will be hard-pressed to say what in the world he's talking about -- "I ever detested the Revolution, and those who caused it," Grace writes, hardly the vocabulary of a moderate -- the woman that emerges from his film is indeed a more temperate soul. She is a heroine in Rohmer's scheme not because she does or doesn't support the king (one long section of the film centers on her attempts to save him from the guillotine), but because she insists on upholding the old values. Grace is noblesse oblige personified, and no matter what horror comes her way, she holds fast to her honor and firm sense of what's proper.

Her actions are based on moral determinations, not political ones, though by "moral" here I mean what Rohmer himself once said in an interview: "In France we give the name 'moralist' to anyone who studies the ways of the heart -- that is, of the personality, of social behavior, of the feelings." In each of the extended vignettes that make up the film, Grace is faced with a moral -- really a social -- dilemma: Should she help a wounded royalist fugitive (François Marthouret), whom she personally can't stand, to escape the mob? Should she use her formidable powers of persuasion to dissuade the more left-leaning duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) from voting for the king's execution? And when she is threatened with imprisonment because she has been found in possession of a letter from one Englishman to another, should she go along obediently, without breaking the wax seal and showing her accusers the pro-revolutionary (that is, exculpatory) declaration inside? Ladies, apparently, never open letters not addressed to them -- even if it means going to jail. It's hard to imagine any of Rohmer's younger friends from his Cahiers du cinéma days -- Godard or Chabrol, for instance -- building a movie around such subtle (some might say stuffy) points of etiquette.

Which brings us back to the radical aspects of Eric Rohmer's approach: For starters, he has seized upon a defiantly unpopular historical point of view, abandoning in the process the form -- the intimate, contemporary, glycerin-bubble-weight love roundelay, shot on standard film stock in natural light and with dialogue that sounds almost improvised -- that has made him quietly famous among connoisseurs. (This is not just the first Rohmer picture shot on digital video, it's also the first to feature extras: in the past when he photographed his beach and street scenes, he simply wandered out into real-life crowds and unobtrusively turned on the camera.) He has also turned his back once and for all on the Bazinian orthodoxies of his youth, the deeply Catholic belief that the filmmaker's job is to reveal the beauty inherent in the natural world. Here, he turns his attentions to the beauty inherent in the most self-conscious sort of artifice.

Rohmer's two previous -- underrated but wonderful -- costume dramas, Die Marquise von O....(based on a novel by Kleist) and Perceval le Gallois (from the twelfth-century epic poem by Chrétien de Troyes) were shot, respectively, on location and on a stylized studio set. Both these approaches were dismissed by Rohmer this time around: The available locations, he said, are historically misleading, but he wanted to create a sense of reality -- a sense of what he calls "truth" -- that an ordinary soundstage wouldn't allow. So he opted instead to use the computerized special effects techniques that Hollywood has developed to make action movies of the Schwarzenegger school. By placing his actors in front of a so-called blue screen (which is actually green), Rohmer was able later to digitally insert oil-painted backdrops based on eighteenth-century cityscapes by Corot, photos by Marville, as well as period engravings and maps. In this way, he re-created Paris of the time -- a Paris at once real and imagined, refracted as it is through these other artists' sensibilities.

The results are startling. We are always aware, watching the exterior shots, that what we are seeing is somehow make-believe. Not only are the twenty-first century brushstrokes of Jean-Baptiste Marot's scenery paintings evident, but the light itself has an oddly heightened resolution: It suggests something like the weird, black-tinted sun that shines in the minutes before a solar eclipse.

But the Seine flows, the birds fly, and the foreground drama is also tremendously alive. Despite an occasional airlessness, a staginess that sometimes takes hold as Grace lets rip some fevered disquisition, we are swept along by the characters and story. Even more urgently, we're drawn in by the tension that exists throughout between the real and the artificial. And this is the most profound innovation of the film: Rohmer doesn't just hijack pop-cultural means for highbrow ends, but makes us constantly conscious of the strangeness of these methods. For isn't the dead quality of, say, a Deep Impact due to the oh-so Spielbergian denial that there is anything peculiar at all about footage of a mega-tsunami wave swallowing the Brooklyn Bridge? By losing sight of the gap between magical trickery and truth, latter-day Hollywood most often achieves neither.

Rohmer believes religiously in both. And that conviction amounts in filmic terms to nothing less than poetry. Marianne Moore, for one, seemed to have had Eric Rohmer and The Lady and the Duke in mind when she called poets "literalists of the imagination" and defined poetry as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Rohmer's Tuileries may be imaginary, but his well-dressed toads are real as Marie Antoinette. He is one of contemporary cinema's only genuine poets.

Due to some strange alignment of the cinematic planets, this month also brings the American release of another French film about another revolution -- or attempted revolution -- by one of contemporary cinema's only other genuine poets. Like Rohmer, Chris Marker is a veteran of the French New Wave now in his eighties. Like Rohmer, he chose early on to work under an assumed name (Rohmer was born Maurice Shérer; Marker was originally Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), and he also prefers to keep a low personal profile. (Both men have balked over the years at being dubbed auteurs; both are notoriously modest.) And like Rohmer, Marker's project has been, this last half century, unflaggingly shifting, intelligent, singular, and pitched at a constantly inquisitive angle toward the Real.

There, however, the similarities seem to end. Marker has long been associated with the so-called Left Bank branch of the New Wave -- a slippery term but one that basically implies a "committed" approach to art and to life. (Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda are the two other well-known members of this group.) While all Marker's films are political, A Grin without a Cat (or Le Fond de l'air est rouge) is perhaps his most ambitious on this front. Marker's emotional three-hour-long imagistic essay-fugue is all about the rise and fall of the New Left. Originally compiled in 1977, it was then "re-actualized" in 1993 and is being released now for the first time in the States (at Film Forum in New York City, for a limited run, which started on May Day). Polemically, aesthetically, ideologically, and rhythmically, the movie is, in almost every sense, the antithesis of Rohmer's latest. Marker has compiled from dozens of disparate sources -- many of them censored scenes, or bits cut from other directors' films and never seen before -- a sprawling documentary tribute to the revolutionary struggles of the 1960s and '70s, from the Vietnam War protests in the United States to Paris in '68 to Prague Spring, Cuba, Bolivia, Japan, Chile.

His sympathies are with the students, the workers -- in other words, with the "mob" that would have so distressed Grace Elliott (and probably Eric Rohmer). In filmic terms, his is a much more associative, classically leftist approach, relying as it does almost entirely on montage to do its rhetorical work. The movie starts, in fact, with Eisenstein's ur-Revolutionary shots of the Odessa Steps and cuts, for a few frantic, electric moments, from scene to scene of crowds all around the world running, massing, rising up. By the end those throngs have dispersed -- the final frames show wolves being shot and killed, one by one, from an airplane -- and Marker mourns their loss.

But here, in an odd way, is where the movies of Rohmer and Marker do meet up again. For all their essential differences, both are elegies to an old order -- a once-endangered (by now extinct) class. That Rohmer's heart belongs to the well-dressed aristocracy and Marker's to the struggling proletariat seems, in the long run, almost beside the point. Each film rests on a kind of nostalgia, yet each director understands that he can't go back, and each finds in his filmmaking a source of sustaining vitality -- even youth. And this is perhaps the greatest irony of this particular moment in movie and world history: that two of the freshest films in years were made by these members of -- what else to call it? -- cinema's ancien regime.