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La Collectionneuse

Éric Rohmer  1967  83m

For student cinephiles, whose academic schedules never permit us to watch as many movies as we’d like, there is hardly a time that should be more exciting than summer. While so much of the year is spent analysing, summer break is the time for watching. It’s those weeks leading up to summer where we dream of the cinematic riches that we’ll undoubtedly unearth over the coming months, and determine how we’ll uncover them. Should I write up small reviews of each film I watch in a kind of ongoing journal? Should I start a blog? Which Antonioni film was it that what’s- his- name was raving about a couple months ago? These are just some of the questions that I remember circling through my mind and echoed by my more movie-obsessed friends during this excitingly prospective time at the end of last semester. Fellow film lovers were consulted. Lists were made and remade.

After all this preparation I didn’t end up starting a blog, or keeping a journal. I even wound up leaving the lists at school. My summer break, the movie watching part at least, wasn’t spent writing, scrutinising or evaluating movies, but just watching them. Going off the book. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s late-in-life, almost religious habit of viewing a film every day at 3pm, I took on the exact same routine. Everyday at 3 PM I sat down and watched a film from start to finish. 3 PM offers a great advantage to film buffs, I discovered, as nothing usually happens from 3 until about 5 or 6, making this block of time ideal for complete absorption without interruption.

My selection was unprejudiced—any type of film from any country and any time was viewed in just the same way. Almost every movie was one I’d never seen, usually borrowed from friends. Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth was followed by Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence. Slowly, I became obsessed with this practice of fervently consuming movies, scheduling everything else around it. The routine defined my summer.

Éric Rohmer, however—whose film series Six Moral Tales I watched over six days—proposes a cinephilic challenge to the typical cinephile’s summer. For Rohmer, himself a cinephile of the most avid variety, summer is not a time of planned activity so much as planned inactivity that, in turn, allows for only the most passive of vacations. His films are spurred on by undisciplined decision-making where people improvise their choices on an instant-by-instant basis. Their motivations will often change not just between scenes, but between moments within scenes, sometimes shockingly so. Summer is, for Rohmer, a short sprint of uninhibited aimlessness, a measured stretch of time where characters readily let go of any moral standards they hold steady, or at least the standards they claim to hold steady in, say, winter or spring.

The Six Moral Tales were made by Rohmer from 1963 to 1972  and all feature main characters who are faced with with ethical conundrums involving the intricate complexities of seduction. Of the Six Moral Tales, one of the two set in the midst of summer, La Collectionneuse, is also one of the most engaged with characters whose concerns and choices are short term. The main character, Adrien talks only of his life up to the end of summer, as he focuses his attention on whether or not he will make into bed with Haydee, the film’s alluring “collectionneuse” and one of Rohmer’s most fascinating heroines. This is in contrast to the concerns of the winter-set My Night at Mauds, another of the Moral Tales, which opens with the main character, Jean-Louis, glimpsing a woman next to him in church and determining that by the time he dies, they will be married with children. He closed-mindedly wants to foresee his entire life, whereas in La Collectionneuse when Adrien decides at first sight he won’t sleep with Haydee, he is only concerned with the next few sunny months. Soon, fall will come and they’ll all part ways. His decision is an easy one as it relies on a measurable end. The difference between the principled choices of these two men emphasises a seasonal difference. Jean-Louis holds steady to his winter ambition to marry Françoise, and by summer we see its fulfilment. Adrien, however, does not stick to his ultimatum. His moral code proves to be as fragile and transient as the summer’s gentle breezes.

That Rohmer waited a year for the necessary snowy backdrop required by his vision for My Night At Mauds tells us something about the way the seasons not only affect his work, but the way he himself worked. Rohmer’s methods on La Collectionneuse, shot in this pre-Maud stalling period, are infused with this sense of waiting, the idleness of summer. He and his cinematographer Néstor Almendros shot the film almost exclusively with natural light, shooting scenes under the shade of trees, and using reflectors rather than the large carbon-arc lights that were the norm at the time. Even in interior scenes only practical light is used—sometimes a single table lamp suffices. Rather than cutting, Rohmer prefers to visualise the landscape with long eloquent camera moves and breathing wide shots reminiscent of how Renoir showcases the beautiful landscapes in his pastoral summer films like Toni and A Day In The Country. Cinematic allusions like these are laced throughout Rohmer’s work. Echoing the fluidity of the film’s aesthetic—as the film’s trailer states—much of the dialogue was improvised by the actors Patrick Bauchau, Haydee Politoff, and Daniel Pommereulle, although we know Rohmer rehearsed them endlessly, only committing to film one or maybe two takes.

Adrien’s monologue about ten minutes into La Collectionneuse is something of a reflection of my own summer routine, or at least its planning: “since I lived all year without fixed hours or dates I wanted to set some rules for myself. First, I’d get up early . . . The idea was both invigorating and oppressive . . . And what did I intend to do? Precisely nothing. For once I’d take a real vacation.” Of course Adrien’s self-ordained rules fall through almost immediately, and with them his vacation becomes a mess of confusion and unrestrained decisions. Rohmer’s conceived departure from a more classical style of filmmaking is in turn infringed upon by his almost entirely classical influences, and not just classical cinema, but music and literature as well. Just as Adrien can’t maintain his summer plan, it is plain that Rohmer’s escape from the Latin Quarter cinemas where he practically lived while in Paris, was hardly an escape at all. These brief nods almost unconsciously shimmer through his work.

I myself, in finishing a film I started the summer before this one, can sympathise. While I can’t even remember off hand a good deal of the films I saw during this stretch of habitual movie watching, there are scenes, shots, and stretches of dialogue that run through my head over and over and seem to exist, and to have existed, only there. Their influence is already in the movies of my own invention that play out in my head. But in what fashion I have no concrete notion. I imagine their impact will be a passive, almost unconscious one, in the same spirit in which the films were consumed—a Rohmer-like submission to the fact that his complicated relationship with watching and making movies seemed to, during the summer months, be out of his active control. We can imagine him on the set of La Collectionneuse, like myself and other cinephiles at summer’s start, making viewing lists for his return in the fall.