The Sign of Leo / Le signe du lion
Omissions. I don't want to spend my time reproducing what you can find elsewhere on Wikipedia or kamera. This is my story: I've been saving this film. By "saving" I mean that I've had a DVD copy in my home film library for more than a year now, and I've resisted the temptation to watch this film. There are three reasons for why I've been saving Le signe du lion, only two I've admitted to so far, the third reason is a confession.
The two reasons I've given for not watching this film yet are: (1) I didn't want to have watched "all" of Rohmer's films just yet, I wanted to have something to look forward to, in anticipation, and (2) my copy of the film doesn't have English subtitles and so I've been holding onto the film until my French was good enough to understand it without the superimposed textual crutch. Now here's my confession: I've been putting off watching this film because I was afraid I wouldn't like it.
I need not have feared. But when I was researching Rohmer's films in preparation for writing this book, I read that Le signe du lion was unlike any of Rohmer's other films. True, it has a soundtrack, a mood-setting score by Louis Sauger (never heard of him), and it isn't as "talky" as the typical Rohmer film, but it's still engaging. So, I didn't find viewing the film to be "a rather exhausting experience" (cf. Chris Wiegand's review for kamera).
Last Friday, Alice and I saw Sofia Coppola's new film Somewhere. That film, by any objective standards, can be described as "slow." I don't mind slow films. Rohmer's whole body of work could be described as slow. Slow is my speed. (Writing and reading are slow work.) About half-an-hour into Somewhere I leaned over and whispered into Alice's ear, "This is like a Rohmer film, but without the interesting dialog." What carries me through Rohmer's films is the dialog; I'm genuinely interested in what the characters have to say. I want to have conversations like that. When the characters aren't saying anything interesting, then the viewer has to rely on the visuals to maintain interest.
Coppola's Somewhere also employed what might be called a Rohmerian device: the first ten minutes of the film is devoid of dialog. Actually, probably only a few of Rohmer's films start with a succession of images of a character going about their business with very little information to orient the view about where the story might be going (cf. A Tale of Springtime where we see Jeanne driving, looking lost in a messy apartment, driving again, walking to another apartment, going up stairs, etc. all without any dialog). I like films that don't pander to me. Plonk me down in the middle of a situation and let me figure it out. Better yet, just show me images and give me normal sound (sound that is not scripted dialog). Let me engage the action with an inquisitive mind.
Le signe du lion starts with a word, Pierre shouts, "Merde!" and there's lots of chatter up to the point where Pierre finds himself (seemingly) friendless and homeless. Then the film becomes real with the camera following Pierre, capturing images of his suffering, allowing the viewer to infer what Pierre must be feeling. There's very little actually dialog in this long middle section of the film, just street sounds, and the solo-violin soundtrack.
Several times last night while watching Le signe du lion I was reminded of Agnès Varda's Sans toit ni loi or (as it's titled in English) Vagabond, the story of a homeless teenager wandering in the countryside of southern France. Perhaps Varda's film (1985) was a more grim homage to Rohmer's first film? The score for Sans toit ni loi (literally "without roof or law") also featured a violin, haunting strains composed by Joanna Bruzdowicz. Varda's Mona is a more tragic character than Pierre; however, Pierre's decent and despair are real and I wondered if he wouldn't die in some filthy gutter. Rohmer's film is a comedy. Things end well for Pierre, perhaps. In the end we see Pierre riding off with his friends, just having learned that fate contrived to make him a millionaire after all. Pierre begins and ends as a buffoon. Only when he is destitute does he become sympathetic.
In his famous Harper's essay (1996) Jonathan Franzen asserted a difference between novels and movies. Franzen's example was Paula Fox's Desperate Characters which was made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine (1971). The principle character in Fox's novel is Sophie Bentwood, the character played by MacLaine. I haven't seen the film, which is beside the point really. Franzen's insight is that because of the "work of reading" the reader can know Sophie in a way similar to, or approximating, the way we know a friend. Sophie as written and read becomes a part of the careful reader. I felt the same way as Franzen when I read Desperate Characters. Frazen then says that the movie version of Sophie wouldn't be the same as the written Sophie. Here's what Franzen says: "...Sophie would remain an Other, divided from me by the screen on which I viewed her, by the surficiality [sic.] of film, and by MacLaine's star presence. At most, I might feel I knew MacLaine a little better."
I immediately thought of Rohmer when I reread Franzen's essay (which has been revised and conveniently included in the book How to be Alone as "Why Bother?") and came across this distinction between the character as experienced in a novel and on a screen. My intuition tells me that Rohmer understood this and exploited it. So in Rohmer's hands, what might be considered a defect becomes a strength. Rohmer's characters are the actors. An actor doesn't just represent something, when the viewer looks at the screen, they are seeing the image of a living, thinking person who feels. Do we know the character as we might know a friend? Perhaps not, but a film is not a novel, not even a substitute for one. Even though Rohmer started out as a novelist and had written the stories for his Moral Tales series many years before he filmed them, he understood that what he wanted to capture was not something that he could write down. The stories he wanted to tell had to be filmed. (I'm come back to this point when I get to the Moral Tales, next week.) This is a different motivation than that given by Truffaut as a reason for making movies instead of novels. Truffaut cited temperament as a reason for filming his stories. He claimed the process of filming forced him to finish things. Do Truffaut's stories need to be filmed? Do Rohmer's? In the case of the latter, I think they do. Perhaps this is a point that only interests me, a novelist with an interest in film.
Right after Rohmer's death (January 2010), the expected flurry of retrospectives and lifetime reviews of his work went up on the web. I was reading a blog post by someone who did what I'm doing right now, they watched all of Rohmer's films and wrote about them. That author compared Rohmer to the prolific Belgian author, Georges Simenon. Immediately, I thought the comparison was apt because I had had the same thought myself only a few weeks ago.
For Spring Break I took my girls down to Nags Head for a week on the beach. The setting would have been perfect for a Rohmer film. In fact one afternoon as I lounged in the front room with the door open to the balcony watching the waves roll in, I day dreamed about making a film. I would bring a group of friends to this beach house and I would film them. The result would be a film in the style of Rohmer. But it was a day dream. The exercise might be diverting, but it would be hardly original. Or perhaps I wouldn't be able to prevent myself from imposing my own originality on the generic situation of people on holiday with nothing better to do than to talk to each other. I wouldn't make a film anyway. I'm a novelist, so I would work in my own medium. But I could attempt to transform the idea and the setting into a story.
One of the books I brought with me to the beach house was The Disappearance of Odile by Georges Simenon. The titular Odile is a seventeen or eighteen year old high school dropout who plans to travel to Paris to kill herself. She leaves a note for her brother, Bob, who then follows her from Lausanne to Paris. The first part of the story is told from Bob's perspective. Bob's investigation appears to be foundering. Then the perspective shifts to Odile and we follow her as she lazily prepares for her suicide. We pass an uneventful day or two with Odile. She is unsuccessful. She has a savior, a medical student staying in the adjacent room to the one she has rented to end her life in. Odile becomes a "failed suicide" (at term I picked up from my reading of Walker Percy). As a failed suicide, Odile is redeemed. It's a happy ending of sorts, but we can only guess that Odile will eventually find happiness, or perhaps return to her depression.
Simenon's tale of Odile appealed to me because it felt so real, so life like. The writing was simple and affected (even stilted) in places, some of the characters (like the father) were caricatures, but vivid and sympathetic ones. Bob and Odile were fully realized and brought to life and it was because of them that I wanted to stick with the story and see my new friends through to the end, whatever may have happened. I admired Simenon for boldly progressing with the story when it was clear that it was going nowhere. When the perspective shifted to Odile, I sensed that the author might have been frustrated with the dithering but persistent Bob. In my hands, I might have thrown out Bob's part of the story and tried to write the whole book from Odile's point of view. Simenon chose to keep Bob's story and to let Odile step onto the stage at the right point. It worked.
When I finished The Disappearance of Odile I asked myself how Rohmer would have treated this story. There would have been no gun. No threat of suicide. Rohmer instead would have dealt with the mundane, the utterly real -- that which is in the experience of anyone: a sense of loneliness, failure, alienation, a character searching for something, but there would be no threat of death. No one dies in Rohmer's world. Odile and Delphine (in Rohmer's Le rayon vert / Summer, 1986) have a lot in common, but Delphine never contemplates suicide.
The gun in Le signe du lion surprised me. Early in the film Pierre grabs a rifle, thrusts it out the window (ignoring the sensible attempts of his friends to stop him) and fires the gun into the air. (Is hunting Venus, the only visible heavenly body in the Parisian sky?) Pierre has just fired a gun in downtown Paris. From the window is a view of Notre Dame cathedral. The bullet had to come down somewhere. Will anyone notice? (A neighbor, in fact, comes down to inquire angrily and justifiably so.) If I had been at Pierre's party when he fired the gun, I would have left and never gone near Pierre ever again. I thought, how can I care anything about this character after he did such a rash and stupid thing?