Following their first collaboration with last spring’s French Cinema’s Secret Trove, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, have partnered again to present the CinéSalon film series Eccentrics of French Comedy. Running from January 6 to February 24, the series features a selection of rarely screened French comedies selected by FIAF’s Delphine Selles-Alvarez and Cahiers du Cinéma’s Jean-Philippe Tessé and Nicholas Elliott.
Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.
This review of Eric Rohmer’s “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” was originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 465 in March 1993. It was written by former Cahiers du Cinéma editor-in-chief Antoine de Baecque, who is the co-author with Noël Herpe of the recent biography “Eric Rohmer” (Stock, Paris, 2014). “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” screens Tuesday at FIAF at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
At first listen, Eric Rohmer’s new film seems relatively insignificant. Those who would like to see it as a political film find it full of “provincial café talk,” as Arielle Dombasle delicately admits. Those who were expecting a satirical tract discover the opposite, a world in which the effectiveness of words has rarely been so frankly called into question, for the film is governed by a game of seven chance encounters.
Is it an environmentalist film? Rarely have the “green ayatollahs” been so copiously badmouthed. A film full of bitingly anti-socialist irony? Julien Dechaumes, the young socialist mayor of Saint-Juire in Vendée, winds up wrapping the audience around his little finger, probably thanks to his naiveté and his attachment to the land. Maybe a diatribe against political and cultural Paris-centrism? But these Parisians are so sincerely interested in the little things and simple people of the countryside that we nearly come to believe the teacher’s daughter Zoé’s dream: the ideal thing would be “to build green spaces in the countryside,” rather than a media center, meaning to drop a little bit of the Parisian dream in the middle of the fields.
As far as being a politician, Eric Rohmer deliberately poses either as a barfly, an economist trusting to fate, or a gentle dreamer. Not very responsible.
At first glance, “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” is a very strange film. Rohmer has never done anything so simple. Not a single tracking shot, few camera movements, a few pans to reframe a character or a landscape. A film in which the style has become absolutely prosaic, to such a point that you could nearly forget it. On the other hand, the director has rarely mixed genres to this extent. From theatrical effects on the stage of a primary school to the real feeling of a documentary recording the confessions of an authentic farmer in Vendée, from scenes of Parisian life to walks through the bocage, from pillow talk to a musical’s happy end, the film offers its viewer a tour of a wide range of genres that is both gratifying and somewhat disconcerting.
As if each sequence had to have its own identity, testing the classical rules of the unity of place and time (two manifest ellipses: the journalist’s “voyage to Somalia” and the mayor’s abandonment of the media center project), as well as the notion of genre, which is more subversive, especially in a Rohmer film.
Yet one cannot refer to it as a good old “tragicomedy.” “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” is even more of a mishmash than that: it’s more like a fantasy, a midsummer night’s dream, or what landscape architects (who feature prominently in the film) called a “folie” in the late 17th century — a small space (an island, a garden) mixing plant varieties, even animals, in the heart of rigorously preserved lines and classical flowerbeds.
As a filmmaker, Rohmer seems here to be a deliberate spoilsport. Where one should make responsible, diligent, noble films (the noble genre in French cinema being the “cultural film”), he goes off on his own and schemes a simple film made of a hodgepodge of elements and releases it on a Wednesday in February right under everyone’s nose. Very school-boyish.
“The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” is not an “imposing” film. Yet it is a superiorly intelligent piece of work, as the teacher played by Fabrice Luchini might say to his stunned pupils. For through his fancy and his simplicity, thanks to the imposed constraints and necessary scheme of “this bright but somewhat unruly student,” Rohmer tells us fascinating things about cinema: First of all, politics isn’t a subject, it’s a language. One does not speak “about politics,” one talks “in politics.” In the same way that in a Rohmer film, one does not talk about love but as a lover (which is to say, triumphant, frightened, self-confident, doubtful, betrayed, lying). At the end of the day, politics is used to make characters talk and each character contributes his accents, misinterpretations, interpretations, and score to this language.
The young socialist mayor speaks politics akin what you see on TV, looking straight into the listener’s eye to convince him that he is sincere and committed; the farmers speak like you would imagine, in the “it was better in the old days,” “that’s progress for you,” and “small tal”” version; the teacher opts for a rather lost, nearly epic eloquence, sophisticated language, indignation up front, and his rebellion against the powerful follows the gestures of his theater-actor hands; the editor-in-chief speaks it as he is — initially brilliant, quickly superficial, soon demagogical; finally, the two Parisian women, the journalist and the writer, the ant and the cricket, speak it while glaring at each other, side by side, rivals, attacking with elegance and erudition, fragile baubles, talking animals straight out of one of La Fontaine’s fables.
Making people speak politics allows Rohmer to put characters “in a situation,” meaning in a position that is theoretically comfortable but is actually unstable, existential, subject to the trap of proximity to formulaic language: it is not what they say or want to say that counts, but rather what slips out of them, what often surreptitiously escapes the language of “media politics” (politics as it is spoken) to invest the realm of the city (politics as it is lived). Who do you meet in the country? Who do you meet in the city? Do people speak the same way here and there? Can you erect city monuments in the country? Where should you put the parking lots? Where should the trees be moved to? How do we talk about the trees and the parking lots? As a politician, an architect, a socialite, an ecologist, or a poet?
Rohmer now returns to Platonic issues: the organization of the Republic rests on the relationship between the city and the country, embodied on screen by the couples Julien Dechaumes-Bérénice Beaurivage, then Marc Rossignol-Blandine Lenoir. The relationship to nature is never clear in a Rohmer film: the characters are not stuck contemplating nature (a landscape film), but delicately experience contact with it, searching for words to express this unstable state. The politician finds “roots,” the teacher takes a Flemish painter, the journalist a tape recorder, and the writer the tone of the original discovery (“oh! lettuce!”).
Each character has a culture with which to understand nature, this revelation-screen of the “discourse on nature” that has always haunted Western philosophy, from Plato to Rohmer via Rousseau and Winckelmann, and which the director puts into play in his film by having characters meet each other. Each of the characters directly and visibly carries his nature and his culture, a body and a tongue, so that the real question Rohmer asks of his characters through his mise en scène is immediately how to appear when speaking politics.
Ultimately, what the characters are lodges itself in the gap opened between what is stated and what is apparent. The long opening walk taken by Pascal Greggory and Arielle Dombasle, the mayor and his mistress, embodies the gap. He speaks about “his” land and wears a single, excessively new gentleman farmer outfit. He is a politician. She speaks of the land and the city and over the course of 15 or so shots we imagine to be separated by costume changes she appears in all the outfits in her wardrobe. She is a chimera, one of those beautiful collages, half-woman half-beast, half-urban half-rural, half-fairy half-monster, who drives fables ahead.
For what “The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque” teaches us is more than a study of political discourse. It is the art of telling stories, an art full of ifs. The film neatly fits into the category of “films about cinema.” It is not only a practical guide (how to make an inexpensive film in 10 lessons), but a staged reflection on the construction of a film. I am not only referring to the cards that appear seven times to introduce new characters brought in through the chance results of their actions’ “fringe benefits.” More fundamentally, Rohmer, who illustrates “political ways of speech” through his characters, also entrusts each character with genres or manners of cinema (“TV straight talk” to the mayor, theatricality to the professor, documentary investigation to the journalist, the “cut” to the editor-in-chief).
Rohmer has always trusted the characters he shaped. That absolute trust in the truth of even the most Machiavellian characters is the strength of his cinema. The film is constructed before our eyes through characters’ successive encounters (generally dialogues, a form which creates connections in this heterogeneous film), encounters which are also — and especially — encounters between genres. From the start, Rohmer films Julien Dechaumes and Bérénice Beaurivage’s pastoral stroll like a drawing room conversation (Parisian genre meets rural genre), which gives it the cheerful old-fashioned charm of a present-day Astrée.
This “construction through encounters” quickly becomes fascinating, giving the film its authentic life, bringing characters closer together or pushing them away. For instance, the encounter between the television-mayor and the documentary-journalist, which is initially considered under the effect of seduction (it seems as obvious to the viewer that Blandine Lenoir — Clémentine Amouroux — is attracted to Julien Dechaumes as it is that the documentary is made to be shown on television), but can only engender a weak form (television does not know how to make documentary, it only knows how to produce “documents”).
On the other hand, the encounter between the journalist and the “real folk” in the village is a godsend, a way of recording revelations (which is where Rohmer meets Rossellini). The encounter with the teacher functions similarly. In fact, it is the film’s crucial scene: Blandine Lenoir has just interviewed some farmers and finds herself face to face with Luchini, holding her tape recorder. The actor faced with the feeling of reality meets the teacher faced with the journalist, as the improvised interview meets theatrical effects.
This is where fiction is born: naturally this encounter — the place where a story is invented — catches the newspaper editor-in-chief’s attention. He cuts the mayor, keeps a few farmers, and holds on to the teacher. The story published in his paper Après-demain consecrates the film’s construction: Julien Dechaumes and his project for a media center are invited to leave the story, while Marc Rossignol and his students are invited in. If the mayor’s mediatheque disappears behind the teacher’s tree, it is because they imprint themselves on film differently and unequally.
Not only does the former, a cultural discourse, not withstand the ontological presence of the latter, a natural element, but additionally, cinema has entirely constructed the plot by its demands and by the opportunity it gives different characters to subsist or not subsist in the film. Here, the art of narrative becomes an endogenous element, produced by the film’s internal evolution and encounters, as if there were a “natural selection” specific to genres and Rohmer has interpreted it by mixing genres and making them react to each other.
Cinema shut down the mediatheque, cinema brought politics back to its correct place (a pretext language), but all the characters are equal before it, even though they are different and subjected to the challenge of their “screen impression.” Thus they can all participate in the closing procession, a comedy in song in the manner of Beaumarchais or Molière, in which each draws his conclusions from the fable in a final confession offered to the viewer.
It is the final genre visited by the film, the final fantasy, as if Rohmer had insisted on closing by thumbing his nose at politics, at a French cinema that only believes in its “quality” and its “culture” (the film did not receive the French film office’s official label): not only is his cinema funny, thoughtful, contemporary, youthful, not only does it tell stories, but it also sings. The scheme hatched a major little film that lures you with its song.