La carrière de Suzanne / Suzanne's Career
When I finished at the brewery yesterday, all I wanted to do was relax. My body ached from the physical exertion of stirring, lifting, carrying all day long, a ten hour day at that. Since I am one of the three owners of the brewery, I feel like I must show up and prove that I can work as well as the rest of them, but perhaps I am just in the way. So it was under the conditions of physical fatigue that I settled in to watch La carrière de Suzanne.
I've watched La carrière de Suzanne three or four times before, a low number, considering I've seen Le genou de Claire and L'amour l'après-midi at least a dozen times each (perhaps more). The story (as filmed) is not so simple as La boulagère de Monceau. And the thematic structure isn't as obvious as it is in the other Six Moral Tales. The structure, recall, is a character tempted in someway by another, but who ultimately returns their affections to the one they are with originally. In La carrière de Suzanne the narrator is Bertrand. His "best friend" Guillaume is something of a rake engaging in conduct that Bertrand, at times, admires, and at other times, despises. The bill of central characters is rounded out by the titular Suzanne and by Sophie, who is part of Bertrand and Guillaume's circle of friends and who becomes Suzanne's confidant. The triangles shift during the course of the nearly hour long film. In front of Bertrand, Guillaume picks up Suzanne in the opening scene. In the subsequent scene, Suzanne and Guillaume are already romantic, and Guillaume announces that Sophie is Bertrand's girlfriend, a point which Bertrand immediately denies, even to the point of feigning disinterest. "I don't even know her," he says. Sophie intimidates Bertrand. She is beautiful, and seemingly unattainable. Unlike Guillaume who delights in love games (marivaudage) Bertrand is a reluctant seducer; he's cold and aloof throughout the film. In fact, I'd say that Bertrand doesn't appear to be having any fun at all. He mopes through the entire film looking a little sad and sick to his stomach (mal au ventre); he only smiles once, and that's when he's performing some parlor trick involving a coffee table and the spirit of Don Juan with Guillaume and Suzanne.
The foursome of La boulangère de Monceau can be mapped onto La carrière de Suzanne. Suzanne is a form of Jacqueline, even though the two characters differ in their qualities and motivations, they both play the role of temptress (even if unintentional) to the narrator. Bertrand's temptation is more nuanced than that of the narrator of La boulangère de Monceau by Jacqueline. Bertrand professes contempt for Suzanne and is cold to her and even suspects Suzanne has stolen money from him. Sophie is the Sylvie of La carrière de Suzanne. She is sexy, sophisticated, the real object of Bertrand's desire, and Guillaume's too, but Sophie is too wise for Guillaume. Guillaume, like Schmidt does for the narrator of La boulangère de Monceau, encourages Bertrand to pursue Sophie. Even Suzanne gets involved in arranging situations where Bertrand can be in the same place as Sophie.
In the third scene, right after Guillaume declares that Sophie is Bertrand's girlfriend, it is Guillaume who spends the evening chatting up Sophie. Guillaume professes to be disinterested in Sophie (a lie) and says he's only feigning interest in Sophie to make Suzanne jealous. Guillaume's intentions are clear. He plans on plucking Suzanne's flower that very evening (Don Juan). And he succeeds. Or does he? Perhaps it is Suzanne who has succeeded in getting from Guillaume what she wants. Instead of being the decorous and naive country-girl (as Guillaume sees her), she could be just as scheming and sexually adventurous as Guillaume. Bertrand thinks Guillaume has engaged in an easy conquest, but it could be that it was Suzanne's easy conquest. What does she see that is attractive or desirable in Guillaume? I wondered many times why Bertrand was even bothering with Guillaume.
24 mai. Day nine. Last night I drove to a very nice restaurant on the North Fork. The restaurant is attached to a bed and breakfast. I met the owner / chef a few months ago when he expressed interest in having our brewery collaborate with him on a themed dinner. While in my car (driving past the farms which are being developed and turned into "luxury neighborhoods") I imagined myself to be a character in a film. The evening ahead of me would be filled with conversation, talk, the substance of Rohmer's films, people engaging in discourse. The group of people that gathered together for this first of a series of themed dinners at this five star restaurant were a mixture of craft beer and wine people. I was reluctant to go because I knew there would be many questions about what's happening in the Long Island craft beer scene. I am well known in these circles as the author of the Long Island Beer Guide, but since the publication of the second edition of my guide, I've been working on other projects, novels, and this book on Rohmer's films. Indeed the first question that the wife of another brewer asked was, "Did you hear that Blue Point will be moving their brewery?" No, I said. I don't hear anything these days. I'm immersed in other projects. "Oh, what sort of other projects?" she asked. I told her I was writing a book about a French film director. And she asked a number of questions. But few people, other than film buffs, are immediately knowledgeable of the nouvelle vague. They are familiar with Godard and Truffaut and probably will have seen Les quatre cents coups in a class when they were in college, but beyond that, they are ignorant.
Last weekend, a friend introduced me to one of his friends and said, "This guy knows a lot about beer." And fearing the inevitable stream of questions I quickly added, "But I can talk about other subjects as well, post-war French cinema, for example." Which elicited a good laugh from all in ear shot. Perhaps they thought I was making a joke.
Despite imaging that I was a character in a film, the conversations that I have with others are just talk, not Rohmerian dialog at all. When Rohmer's characters speak, they act. Talking is a form of action. Idle chatter, small talk, that is not intended to go anywhere or elicit a response, talk that just fills up time, is inaction and could go unsaid. However, I don't wish to leave the impression that I despise idle talk. I don't. Idle talk in the pub while having a couple of pints of beer is a pleasure. Rohmerian dialog is more dramatic and welcome in the pub, but real idling (while not the stuff of fiction) is the stuff of life.
The novel and cinema. This is the subject at the heart of this book, the relation of the novel to film. Or perhaps the relation of the storyteller to the medium of expression. If the storyteller chooses to write, then he will tell the story differently than if he chooses to film the story. The collection of Rohmer's writing called The Taste for Beauty contains several essays on this subject. Here is something that I found this morning while flipping through the book:
"I will not got so far as to say that one can make good films only with bad literature but, rather, with works in which literature did not assume the very task that the filmmaker performs: transforming the myth or the news item into a work of art. And of all the literary genres, the novel is the one that uses for this purpose the means closest to film's." [The Taste for Beauty, p. 107]
But immediately I think of the nouveau roman and how novels like Robbe-Grillet's Dans le labyrinthe and La jalousie adopt the descriptive function of film, describing with words what a camera might see. [Footnote: In Moral Tales, Filmic Issues the conversation between Schroeder and Rohmer included on the Criterion Collection disc set, Rohmer explicitly mentions that his writing style for the Six Moral Tales was influenced by (or merely similar to) the nouveau roman.] It's no accident that the two writers most identified with the nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and Duras, were involved extensively with film. (And I'll likely take up this subject as part of another, subsequent project. You see, I already imagine that this book on Rohmer's films will be the first volume of a three, or four, volume set collectively titled French and New. Volume 2 being on the nouvelle vague in general beginning with the two seminal films by Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour and L'année dernière en Marienbad and following on naturally from there. Volume 3 would be an exploration of the nouveau roman. And volume 4? The legacy of these movements. Who are the modern day Rohmers and Robbe-Grillets?)
This is what Rohmer says film is for: "...cinema is suited better than any other art to enable daily actions, ordinary things, to attain epic dignity." [ibid., p. 108] Better than any other art? Is this true? Isn't is possible that the novel can enable daily actions, ordinary things, to attain epic dignity? Is not this the function of the social novel which Franzen sees as being the reason to write novels in an age of images? And more importantly in an age of computer generated images? Images that look as real as the real things? (And even more so since the primary visual experience of people today is through movies and not direct experience of the world.) Special effects have changed what cinema is capable of. I suspect that Rohmer would have a different opinion of a modern adaptation of Moby Dick than he did of John Huston's "failure."
25 mai. Day ten. The textual version, the translation of Suzanne's Career, leaves me with a different impression of the story than the film. The performances don't succeed in revealing as much of the interior lives of the characters as the text. The text is also less developed and telegraphic in places (some of the dialogue seems unnatural, for example). The fact that some plot elements are left undeveloped isn't really a problem for me. I profess to appreciate stories that are messy and leave gaps for me (as a reader) to fill in (or not as I see fit). Does it really matter who took the three hundred francs from Bertrand? No. What matters is how Bertrand reacts and how Sophie reacts. These are the situations we get into in real life. We have to make choices about how we react that which will have significant effects on our relationships. Bertrand doesn't want to ask Guillaume about the missing cash because he's afraid that Guillaume will ridicule him. He prefers instead to blame the theft on Suzanne.
At several points in La carrière de Suzanne Bertrand and Guillaume identify each other as best friends. Perhaps this is an expression of a wish -- they want to be best friends. But they don't really act like best friends. Bertrand (morose throughout) appears to be more annoyed with Guillaume than pleased to have his company. Bertrand spends the entire story trying to refuse Guillaume's entreaties to go out. He says no and then immediately gives in when Guillaume insists. Bertrand does the same thing with Suzanne. He says he does like her, but yet he submits to her invitations and goes along with her plans. Bertrand is weak willed and ineffectual.
In the text Suzanne appears to be more sexually adventurous than in the film. I had always thought that Suzanne (like Bertrand) was weak willed. She appeared to submit to Guillaume. Bertrand even despises her for letting herself be abused by Guillaume, but in reality Suzanne got what she wanted: sex. Her actions might seem bizarre to the twenty-first century viewer who is used to sexually liberated women in novels and films. Suzanne's commitment to the vernier of propriety is a recurring theme in the story. Guillaume believes that Suzanne won't stay with him alone at his place after that first party because of her "provincial ideas." When Suzanne begins to bankroll her outings with Bertrand and Guillaume, she slips money under the table to Bertrand so that it will appear that he has money and that he is taking her out. Later, when Suzanne stays the night at Bertrand's place and he tells her to be quiet as they are going up, she teases him about being concerned for his reputation. Keeping up appearances.
The scene in Bertrand's hotel room prefigures the extended scene in Ma nuit chez Maud where Jean-Louis spends the night at Maud's apartment. In La carrière de Suzanne we see an awkward Bertrand, apparently sexually disinterested in Suzanne, dressing for bed and then leaving Suzanne in the chair. The text is more revealing than the film about what's going on in Bertrand's head when Suzanne is in his room. Bertrand asks at the crucial moment "What, in fact, was she looking for?" Is it possible that Suzanne wants to have sex with him? His hesitation (as he ruminates about what's happening) is enough for Suzanne to grow tired of Bertrand, the "boy" who doesn't know his own mind. Suzanne wants a man, someone who knows what they want and is willing to take charge and insist. (Not too different from Maud's attitude about Jean-Louis.)
27 mai. Day twelve. How many Suzannes are there? The filmed Suzanne and the Suzanne of the text. Both are ambiguous. Why does she bankroll Guillaume and Bertrand? Putting it another way: Why does she submit to being exploited? When Bertrand objects and tells her not to waste her money, Suzanne says that she "has her reasons" or "it's my business if I choose to pay your way." Don't worry about me, she says. Perhaps she's being ironic? Or does she want to see just how far Bertrand and Guillaume are willing to go with Guillaume's scheme to bankrupt her? When Suzanne finally runs out of money she nonchalantly tells Bertrand: "It's the twelfth of the month and I'm already out of cash, so the game's up." (I'm paraphrasing from memory.) She seems relieved. Now she can no longer be exploited. She's off the hook. Bertrand expresses concern (perhaps not genuine): Will you be able to eat? Suzanne says that she will manage. She has friends. (Not Bertrand and Guillaume, presumably.) And then Suzanne announces: "Oh, haven't you heard? I quit my job." She has no money and it is at that point she quits her job. She doesn't explain why. Bertrand doesn't ask. By not working she will cease to be the perceived dupe in Guillaume's little scheme.
What we have here is a story that is not determined, that is to say, Rohmer doesn't spell it out for us. We don't know why the characters are doing what they are doing. Nothing is tidy or resolved. For example, Bertrand claims at the end of the film that it is Suzanne who has her revenge on him. How so? She marries Frank. Bertrand's conclusion appears to come out of left field. Of what possible consequence to him is it that Suzanne has married Frank? Here is the last line of the text: "Whether she was innocent or guilty, shrewd or naïve, what did it matter? By depriving me of the right to feel sorry for her, Suzanne had taken her real revenge." As if anyone has the right to feel sorry for anyone else without really knowing them. [Footnote: There are shades of meaning in the verbs "to feel sorry for" and "to pity" which aren't positive. When pity is mixed with love, then it is something admirable and can lead to action, but Bertrand's pity for Suzanne has no love in it. From the start he has despised her and even if that has been mitigated over time, his contempt for Suzanne isn't completely gone.] Bertrand didn't really know either Guillaume or Suzanne. Nor does he know himself, or Sophie, or the subject which he is studying in school. (Bertrand is an ignoramus. Guillaume, a fool.) Suzanne's victory over him is in the context of "failing my exams and losing Sophie." Suzanne on the other hand is "happy as a clam." Suzanne, by marrying Frank, has freed herself from "the boys." Bertrand and Guillaume remain boys, undeveloped, outside the adult world. Suzanne with her self-reliance, her job, and now her status as the wife of Frank (the same Frank that escorted Sophie to that first party) qualifies her as an adult. Bertrand says she "was paying me back---paying us all back---and reducing us pitilessly to the level of the boys that we unquestionably still were." The language here suggests a reference to Bertrand's missing 300 francs, taken from the book in his hotel room where he had hid the cash. And revenge for Suzanne having been the object of Bertrand's "pity."
Novella. On the Criterion Collection disc of La boulangère de Monceau is an hour and a half conversation between Schroeder and Rohmer. The title of the conversation is Moral Tales, Filmic Issues. At one point in the conversation Rohmer talks about the relation between a film, a novel, and a play. He says a novel is easier to film than a play since dialogue for the stage is not natural the way dialogue in a film or a novel are. Rohmer prefers to make films that are characterized by unity of place and time, that is to say, his films tend to take place in a single location (a particular town, for example) and in a compressed amount of time (weeks to months, rather than spanning years). Novels are difficult to transform into films because they are typically too long and so the filmed version is usually a cut, a cropping of the novel. A novella, says Rohmer, is a film's true literary counterpart.
Since I turned to writing, I've been drawn to the short novel, or novella form. I prefer the short form because I typically grow tired of writing stories which are too large, or grand. I am anxious to move on to the next idea. This is a negative way of looking at how I work. A more positive way to see my interest in the novella (the short novel) is that the stories feel more like films to me.
28 mai. Shipments. Yesterday, I received a set of boxes in the mail containing additions to my Rohmer library, not discs, but books. Many years ago when I first conceived of this project as a series of issues in the literary magazine that I published for a while (The Angler), I checked out from the library a book by C.G. Crisp called Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist. The title made me laugh yesterday because I had just read elsewhere an emphatic denial that Rohmer was a moralist: he was moral, but not a moralist. Moralists tend to be preachy and annoying. Rohmer is neither. Moralists tend to deal with abstractions and generalities. Rohmer was more interested in the concrete and the particular. Crisp's book is firmly academic (it reads like a master's thesis). A better book is Derek Schilling's (aptly titled) Eric Rohmer for the French Film Director series published by Manchester University Press. Schilling's book is academic too, but the language and style is less self-consciously so. The other books are in French. One is a copy of Hitchcock by Rohmer and Claude Chabrol first published in 1957 when they were still at Cahiers du Cinéma. I haven't been able to find a translation of this one. And that's a good thing since having an excuse to read French will only improve my command (such as it is) of Rohmer's language.
Class issues. It's time to move on. To where I'm not sure yet, but to wrap up this meditation on Suzanne's Career I'll mention something that I read yesterday concerning the role of class in the moral choices that face Rohmer's protagonists in the Six Contes Moraux. Here's a line from a review (posted on a blog, now moribund):
"...the separation between the suitability of one woman and the unsuitability of the other for our hero is figured largely in terms of class..." [quoted from Catabloguing, 16 Jan 2010]
The author (who identifies themselves only as "one of the editors of Screen Machine" a Melbourne-based online film magazine, so it's either Brad Nguyen or Conall Cash) was writing about La boulangère de Monceau and L'amour l'après-midi, specifically about the "lower class" Jacqueline and Chloe. This is an interesting observation for me since I don't typically think in terms of class distinction. Even though the narrator of La boulangère de Monceau makes it perfectly clear that he doesn't typically fraternize with "shop people" (a statement which draws attention to his class prejudice) I read his disdain for familiarity with clerks by imposing my own thoughts on the subject. When I am in a shop or in a café I am not looking for a relationship with the clerk or my server. The clerk or the server are at work. It is their job to attend to my needs. There are set roles that each of us are supposed to play in the transaction. I place my order, they retrieve it, and if I'm at a café or restaurant I leave a tip for the service. (I make an exception to this rule when I am sitting at a bar. The role of a good bartender is to be personable, to host those sitting at the bar. Engaging the bartender in conversation is part of the role. However if the bartender is female, I refuse to engage in any flirting. But I digress. I can take up the dynamics of the drinker / bartender relationship later.) The point is that the clerk or server is not in a position to refuse me. To ask for more than what it is their job to provide is a violation of etiquette. Thus I don't typically show my protagonists developing a romantic interest in clerks or servers. The one exception was in my (intentionally Rohmerian) My Night at Gwen's where Lance is attracted to the titular Gwen when he goes into the bookstore where she works. (Yes, Lance and Gwen are characters in my Labyrinth text.) To make this situation work for me, I made Gwen the owner of the bookshop and Gwen approaches Lance who decorously avoided showing any interest in Gwen while she was "serving" him.
When I read this line about class distinction in Rohmer's stories, I immediately thought of Suzanne and how she is "lower class" compared to the bourgeois Bertrand and Guillaume. Suzanne works to support herself. Bertrand and Guillaume sponge off their parents. Then I wondered if Guillaume felt entitled to exploit Suzanne because of class differences. Of course, Guillaume's misogyny is part of that grand (but certainly not admirable) tradition of men exploiting women. In addition to that though, Guillaume exploits Suzanne because that is always what the bourgeoisie do to the working class. Suzanne even makes explicit reference to Bertrand's class: "How bourgeois you are!" In the translated text, bourgeois is rendered as "middle-class" which softens the Marxist connotations, but the meaning is not lost. Suzanne could have said, "How square you are!" She was critiquing Bertrand's morals, his commitment to the appearance of propriety in the sexual arena. An interesting juxtaposition to Suzanne's square (conventional) ideas about money and the sexes --- with her slipping money to Bertrand under the table so that he can pay. Or, perhaps Suzanne was just being sensitive to Bertrand's squareness and bowing to his convention so that he didn't have to be uncomfortable.
Seen in this light, Suzanne's victory at the end of the story has to do with class advancement. Suzanne wins because she marries Frank, a member of the bourgeoisie. So her declaration (seemingly a random one) about quitting her job, is a class statement: I am no longer working class, she might be saying. And look, I am a social climber. I will marry a solidly middle-class man and live a solidly middle-class life and rear his middle-class kids. So there's something in this story for everyone to hate. The feminists won't like it because Suzanne isn't sufficiently liberated (despite her sexual adventurism). And Marxists won't like it because Suzanne's salvation is in being absorbed into the bourgeoisie.
Next steps. Having started with Rohmer's Moral Tales it would be natural for me to continue on with the next four in the six part series. The next film is Ma nuit chez Maud if one respects Rohmer's order. However, the next of the Moral Tales to be filmed was La collectioneuse. Part of me is tempted to follow the sequence of production and thereby keeping to a chronological order; however, since my interest is more in Rohmer's stories, themes, and characters (rather than the "filmic issues") I should go with the story order. Ma nuit chez Maud is the next story in the written text, and so from the view of the story, that is the next of the Moral Tales I'll write about.
Ma nuit chez Maud is so big though. I'm almost afraid to jump into the sea of that story. In order to prepare myself, I will have to read. Since Pascal figures large in that story, I should dust off my copy of Pascal's Pensées and, perhaps also The Provincial Letters.
This text (this "book" on Rohmer that I'm writing) also has an electronic existence. The electronic version has links which enable you, oh Reader, to click and follow whatever path you choose through this material. I, as the writer, am bound to a linear exposition, but my line doesn't have to dictate the line you take. I have already, in my viewing, taken excursions into other of Rohmer's films. I have recently watched Nadja à Paris, Place de l'Étoile, and (last night) 4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (just because I felt like it).
I have options. Next, I could write a chapter on Nadja à Paris together with the two other films that make up a thematic set: Une étudiante d'aujourd'hui and Fermière à Montfaucon. All three of these films were commissioned projects for (what we Americans would call) educational television; however, they still bear all the qualities of a Rohmer film, and taken together might make for an interesting chapter.
What about Place de l'Étoile? It's a short. Should it get it's own chapter? Or should I save it for the second volume when I take up the nouvelle vague in general? I've already settled on the idea of treating the early Rohmer / Godard collaboration, Charlotte et Véronique (four short films in all), in the next volume. (I'm thinking there will be four volumes in all.)