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Éric Rohmer gets inside the mind (and fantasies) of a married man

Illustration for article titled Éric Rohmer gets inside the mind (and fantasies) of a married man
Scenic RoutesIn Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Most sexual fantasies involve control in some form or another. Some people want control; some people want to relinquish it; for some, it varies with their mood. Movies cater to these desires, but they do so kind of furtively, except in the rare cases (like Fifty Shades Of Grey) when BDSM hits the mainstream. In particular, male fantasies are mostly taken for granted rather than explored or interrogated, with the emphasis always placed on simple titillation. Laura Mulvey popularized the concept of the male gaze in 1975, but while her ideas still inspire think pieces today, they don’t inspire many filmmakers; nobody is making movies about what’s going on sexually in straight guys’ heads, about how they think. Part of that is just the difficulty of getting inside any character’s head on-screen—internal monologues are better suited to literature, generally speaking—but there’s a wariness, too, I think. It’s not at all surprising that when Lars Von Trier decided to make a five-hour epic about raw sexual desire, he made it about a woman, even though it’s unlikely that he has more than the vaguest clue what women fantasize about.


One of the few directors who regularly tackled the mystery of the male libido was Éric Rohmer. His approach to cinema was uniquely suited to the task: Characters speaking their innermost thoughts aloud in dialogue—a big no-no in most writers’ minds, for good reason—was something he embraced rather than avoided, and he wasn’t afraid of voice-over narration, either. Rohmer’s fifth feature, Love In The Afternoon (as it’s now called in English—it was originally released in the U.S. as Chloe In The Afternoon), even goes so far as to include an overt fantasy sequence, which is as telling as it is hilarious. The movie depicts the will-they/won’t-they relationship between a happily married man named Frédéric (Bernard Verley) and Chloé (Zouzou), the ex-girlfriend of his best friend from his bachelor days. But early on, it gives Frédéric ample opportunity to relate what draws him to women, even as he claims to view all other women as an extension of his wife. And it reveals his ultimate fantasy: not just control, but mind control.

Love In The Afternoon is an atypical Rohmer film in certain respects (and a prototypical one in others). Not having seen it in over 20 years, I was surprised by how much urban hustle and bustle invades the story. Rather than isolate his characters, as he often would, he deliberately places them in spots where the presence of others will serve as a distraction—one conversation between Frédéric and a friend has them seated in front of an enormous glass window, with a constant stream of cars and foot traffic visible behind them as they talk. As it turns out, that’s preparation for this sequence, in which Frédéric expresses his frustration that so many desirable women are walking around absorbed in their own lives, indifferent to his lust. The first several women we see look as if they might not even be actors—just pedestrians caught by Rohmer’s camera as they hurry past. (I’m not sure if one would have needed to obtain a release in France circa 1972.) It certainly doesn’t appear as if Rohmer has locked the street down and filled it with paid extras. The shots throughout the montage, and afterward, exhibit the utterly random tumult of real life, including a few people who can be seen looking curiously at the camera as they pass it.

Eventually, however, we come to half a dozen women who’ve definitely been planted. We can be confident of this since they collectively represent pretty much the entire roster of lead actresses in Rohmer’s previous films. “Indifferent” is Françoise Fabian, who played the title role in My Night At Maud’s; “Hurried” is Béatrice Romand, who’d been in Claire’s Knee and would star in several subsequent Rohmer pictures; “Hesitant” is Marie-Christine Barrault, also from My Night At Maud’s; “Busy” is Haydée Politoff, the female lead in La Collectionneuse; “Accompanied” is Laurence De Monaghan, the Claire in Claire’s Knee; “Alone” is Aurora Cornu, from Claire’s Knee as well. Somebody with more knowledge about Rohmer’s personal life might better be able to speculate about his decision to populate this sequence entirely with actresses he’d already cast in major roles, and whether it amounts to a confession about his own fantasies. Perhaps these were just people he could call to run over and perform on short notice. Still, their history with Rohmer does give the scene a suggestion of covert autobiography, which only helps.

In any case, mind control is a common enough male fantasy (do women fantasize about turning men into sex zombies?) that it pops up as its own category on erotic-story sites. What’s fascinating about Frédéric’s version—which he himself characterizes as childish; it involves a magic amulet worn around his neck—is how un-authoritarian it is. If he wanted to, he could imagine that every woman he encounters takes one look at him and desperately wants to fuck him. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he concocts a fantasy in which his amulet overrides their free will, but in a way that allows them to retain the illusion of free will. “Indifferent,” for example, initially replies “I don’t really know” when Frédéric asks if she’d like to spend an hour with him. For whatever reason, he needs this woman to briefly hesitate before succumbing. Likewise, “Alone” is a prostitute who tries to charge him at first (though the amulet convinces her that he’s a bargain at twice the price), and “Accompanied” is reluctant to dump her boyfriend when instructed. Frédéric is excited by the idea that women will do whatever he wants, but at the same time he’s apparently bored by instant capitulation in every single instance. He wants some of them to resist a bit.

This divided desire finds its offbeat culmination in “Hurried,” who proves immune to Frédéric’s (magic) charm. (Romand, by far the most headstrong Rohmer actress, is the perfect choice for the part. Anyone who’s seen Le Beau Mariage, made a decade later, will nod in recognition when she shoots him down.) It’s a fine joke that a woman eventually comes along over whom he has no control, even in his fantasy, but it’s also a clever sort of reverse-foreshadowing. At this point in the film, Frédéric hasn’t yet encountered Chloé—the first 23 minutes, right up to the moment this clip ends, are designated as a prologue—and the rest of Love In The Afternoon will constitute a test of his resolve, as he repeatedly spends afternoons with her, getting more and more intimate, but remains determined not to sleep with her. He’s confident that the relationship will conform to his mental conception of it, respecting whatever boundaries he erects, but the conclusion of this droll fantasy reveals how self-deluded he is about his ability to rule his brain, much less any other parts of his anatomy. At the same time, the parallel isn’t direct: Here, he wants what he’s surprised to find he can’t have; later, he’ll be surprised by his need to have what he doesn’t want. It’s an insightful peek into a thoroughly confused psyche, and more frank about sex than any number of so-called erotic thrillers. Not bad for a guy whose films (according to Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves) are supposed to be like watching paint dry.