Eric Rohmer, Full Moon in Paris
Eric Rohmer, Full Moon in Paris (1984)

The Moon, the Marquise, and Other Sad Romantics in Éric Rohmer Films

Filmmaker Éric Rohmer and author Heinrich Von Kleist converge in a parallax of misguided literary loves.

Éric Rohmer was the king of photographing conversations, especially between men and women, about love and relationships. The films he called “Comedies and Proverbs” were wry slices of modern French life in which each film began with the epigraph of a proverb to be illustrated by the film. Full Moon in Paris (1984) begins with the statement that a man with two women loses his soul, and he with two houses loses his mind.

Full Moon in Paris reverses the sexes. Louise (Pascal Ogier) is a young woman with a big possessive boyfriend (Tcheky Karyo) who gets angry easily. She decides to keep her Paris apartment as a weekend retreat while she and the BF live in a suburban house. She argues that she still wants to enjoy city life, but it’s also that she can’t commit herself to the transition of not being single anymore. She chats about “freedom” and “trust” with a married city friend (Fabrice Luchini) who makes no bones about wanting to sleep with her, and meanwhile our bored and exasperating heroine becomes attracted to a skinny guy in a rock band. It’s set over the course of several months, presumably always on a night with a full moon; the film’s French title is Les nuits de la pleine lune, or “nights of the full moon”.

You may predict the elegant and inevitable ending before Louise gets there, especially if you take the proverb seriously. One could argue that her restlessness is based on an intuitive understanding that she hasn’t found the man who deserves her, though it’s also that she’s annoying and immature. Significantly, it’s an immaturity more commonly seen in male characters who fear being “tied down” to the “ball and chain”, so Rohmer is demonstrating that women can feel the same way instead of wishing to “nest” immediately, according to their gendered reputation. Rohmer sees and understands everyone’s foibles and doesn’t believe in perfect people, only people who search and sometimes flounder.

Above all, Full Moon in Paris is crafted for the express purpose, as David Thomson suggests in his essay, of letting the viewer watch Ogier, who’s at the center from beginning to end – sometimes without clothes. The only extra is a brief interview with her. She was the daughter of Bulle Ogier, the celebrated actress best known for working with Jacques Rivette. Mother and daughter co-starred in Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord, made two years earlier (and now on Blu-ray). She died at 25, according to Wikipedia, probably because of a heart condition combined with drug use. If you know this, it’s difficult not to see both movies as a kind of eulogy.

Aside from his talky, cerebral, erotic teases of contemporary life, Rohmer made several historical films, often in elegant and artificial settings, and most of these are masterpieces. Case in point: The Marquise of O (1976), a beautifully staged film of almost delirious intelligence and suppressed rapture, and its digital restoration looks all the more stunningly luminous.

Edith Clever plays a young widowed marquise kidnapped by soldiers during the 1799 Russian invasion of Italy. After being rescued by Count F (Bruno Ganz), the Russian commander, she finds herself courted by him when rumours of his death prove false. The real strangeness begins when she finds herself pregnant through no knowledge of her own and announces that she will marry the father if he makes himself known.

The real mystery in The Marquise of O is human behavior, as the practical “mystery” is reasonably clear from the beginning. There’s classical irony (not the misapplied modern hip kind) in our observation of how these clueless people carry on so passionately; the viewers experience a tension between our tendency to allow ourselves to be swept away by the intensity of their feelings and our desire to put the brakes on and say “these folks need to wise up”.

This ambivalence becomes its own source of mystery, which in combination with the movie’s beautiful physical design and graceful photography (by Néstor Almendros) creates a magical, riveting spell that won the film a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It’s still one of Rohmer’s best films, and that’s saying a lot. The contemporary “comedies and proverbs” Rohmer, who casts a moral eye on the delusional behavior of lovers in modern Paris, harmonizes easily with the mordant German romanticism of Heinrich Von Kleist, who wrote the original novella.

The jaded sense of ambivalence toward the material, even as one is committed to it, describes exactly the attitude of Austria’s Jessica Hausner in Amour Fou, a biopic about Von Kleist, who shot himself in a murder-suicide with a young married woman named Henriette Vogel in 1811. Along the way, they have discussions about his story, The Marquise of O.

Hausner explains her approach in a brief extra and a commentary, but her film’s analysis is already as clear as her images are gorgeous and her pace controlled. Hausner seems influenced by both Von Kleist and the intellectual yet visually ravishing approach of Rohmer – the compositions shimmer with color and light – and also by the restrained, dampened and bemused performance and presentation associated with the New German Cinema. (A good comparison is Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Earthquake in Chile, also based on a Von Kleist story.)

Hausner resists getting herself or the viewer or her characters swept away in exquisite Romantic raptures like Goether’s Werther. (“I prefer my Goethe,” sniffs Henriette’s cold-fish mother, although she surely doesn’t approve of Werther’s suicidal madness either.) The rather weedy Heinrich (Christian Friedel) and the winsome, mousy Henriette (Birte Schnöink) are presented as neurotic, confused and conflicted. Henriette has been mistakenly told she’s got a fatal tumor, and this leaves her open to Von Kleist’s invitation to die with her, which he’s extended to other women who rejected him. He’s depressed and frustrated by material as well as psychological issues.

While Henrietta’s middle-class marriage is anodyne and not very physical, it goes against stereotypes by being honest and considerate on both sides, and her dull stuffy husband turns out be kind and compassionate. With its nods to high art in music and painting and literature and its sense of slightly surreal gravity, not to mention the slyly calculated delays in Von Kleist’s “consummation devoutly to be wished”, the movie becomes a comedy of manners with a dark punchline.

Amour Fou presents the events in the most arty and glorious manner, yet it refuses to endorse them. It’s analytical and intellectual rather than melodramatic. In other words, you could say it applies Von Kleist’s paradoxical anti-romantic Romanticism to the man himself, and that’s probably how it should be.

RATING 6 / 10