The Empty Hour
An Inquiry into French existential films
By Axelle Ropert
There are spectators who go to the cinema in the late afternoon. There are those, much more numerous, who only go to the cinema in the evening. And there is the cohort of students, idlers, old people and children, the privileged in short, who only have use for the 2pm session, when everyone else is working or taking a nap. If going to the cinema in the early afternoon fills those empty hours, then these in turn sometimes appear on the screen in a disturbing mirror effect. Red velvet, gold moldings, miniature screen – in this theater in the Latin Quarter, with the scent of a libertine boudoir, I see in the early afternoon a film I neglected for many years despite many Rohmer encounters. In Love in the Afternoon (1972) I certainly find the moral grid of Rohmer’s films, but there’s also a new and unknown feeling that disturbs its clarity. The wandering affection of a character, a few furtive embraces, the vague anxiety of those early afternoons, an uncertainty of expectations, all seem to designate this as an existential feeling. It is not a dazzlement, but rather a persistent sentiment of surprise that pushes me to undertake this investigation: what is an existential film?
First Lead: Heloise’s Kiss
Two centuries ago, a first kiss exchanged in the darkness of a grove disturbed all of Europe who read Julie, or the New Heloise. “No, keep your kisses. I can’t bear them. They are too acrid,” whispered a very young man to a very young girl. What infuriated Voltaire, and continues to disturb two centuries later, is the almost indecent choice of this adjective, “acrid,” to describe the emotions of two young people who know nothing of love. This scandalous harshness, this sense of clandestine embrace and painful pleasure, I find them also in Love in the Afternoon. Bernard Verley flees Zouzou. “No, keep your kisses. I can’t bear them,” already confessed Saint-Preux. “I love you because you impress me… and you impress me because I love you,” whispers Bernard Verley, two hundred years later, to his wife. Could anyone imagine Éric Rohmer capable of such indecency?
First Enigma: Rohmer’s Absence
Thinking of The Mother and the Whore (1973) and The Man Who Loved Women (1977), I am convinced that Love in the Afternoon secretly dazzled his contemporaries, Jean Eustache and François Truffaut, whose films perhaps would not have had, without him, this feverish mood which illuminates and disturbs a whole section of French cinema of the seventies. If an existential film always brings into play an “intimate truth”, that, three times knotted, of a filmmaker, of an era, and of a generation, how did Éric Rohmer, the most secret of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, make Love in the Afternoon, as one commits a mistake, an indiscretion, or a sin? Unlike The Mother and the Whore, The Man Who Loved Women or The Soft Skin (1964), neither private experience nor any particular urgency seem to nourish this film held by a certain “existential anonymity” of the author. It is an enigma: was Rohmer’s most intimate film made in his absence? And this enigma is accompanied by the curious choice of representing oneself through somewhat lifeless masculine doubles (Bernard Verley for Rohmer, Jean Desailly for Truffaut), a choice that François Truffaut commented on, explaining that “this reserve sometimes applies to my films (The Soft Skin), or those of Rohmer (Love in the Afternoon), it comes from a certain modesty (yes!) of autobiographical filmmakers, unaware of what in them, charms or retains others.”1 And if we couldn’t dream of a better double than a phantom?
Second Lead: The Ghost of Proust (and a false lead: Akerman against Oliveira)
This ghostly presence that does not compromise and prefers to linger on, it is also that of Marcel Proust, whose work imposes the same convocation of women loved, the same vertigo in front of the possible feminine adventures embodied by the parisian passersby, hiding a unique woman, always different, the same emergence of a small world of desires from only the anguish of an hour of the day, the same deserted Paris reduced to its intimately strategic places…2 If “to unleash this sadness, this feeling of the irreparable, these anxieties which lay the ground up for love, there must be a risk of failure,” the silky Proustian web is not always enough to bring out this existential spider, and La Captive (2000) by Chantal Akerman is the most recent example. If the luxury of means deployed already takes it away from an impoverished cinema, La Captive seems to me above all a cultured version of The Letter (1999) by Oliveira, from which the film borrows many choices (actors too young for their roles, the languor of scenes, colors, a ghostly Paris…). Why what surprises us in Oliveira, like the repetition of certain scenes in Francisca (1981), annoys in Akerman, like the repetition of certain dialogues in La Captive? Perhaps it is the Oliveiran humor, so difficult to define, which separates The Letter from La Captive, this humor which gives the last word of the story and which cannot be reduced, as in The Convent, to a heavy-handedly baroque irony that flattens actors, replicas and sets at the same level, so Jesuitical that it almost becomes asphyxiating. Oliveira’s humor is his ingenuity, a way of giving his inventions a scent of discovery, as if, like an adventurer cast away on a treasure island, he kept discovering crazy finds that he himself has invented: the poses of the actors, dictions, frames. Where Oliveira renders his radical choices ingenuous, Akerman culturalizes them by giving them a patent of nobility, that is to say, the identifiable signs of the presence of “Grand Art”. But this inquiry digresses a little…
Second Enigma: Films of Exception, Storyteller’s Films
Be it Four Nights of a Dreamer (1972), and its scenes, on the banks of the Seine, of musical farniente which we did not suspect Bresson being capable of, or Model Shop (1968) and its sense of hippie wanderings which we would not think Demy would be fond of. Just like Love in the Afternoon, these two films, little known and unique in the filmography of their directors, verify the same secret of the trade: it is the lovers of fiction – Rohmer, Bresson, Demy, Eustache – who make the most beautiful existential films, even though these seems to be able to do so without the same strategic sense of narrative economy. What can the mastery of fiction by the storyteller bring to the existential film?
There is an example of the opposite – a magnificent fictional film, made by a filmmaker whose work is not that at all. In La maison des bois (1971) by Maurice Pialat, it is indeed the obligation to comply with the story, if not with the form of the serial (this is a television commission), which releases a sentiment we do not suspect in the rest of Pialat’s work, reconciliation (between self and self, between self and others), through the tragedies, which gives the story a long-lasting serenity that the Charles Dickens of Great Expectations could have claimed as his. Here, fiction soothes what the existential feeling tenses up. The first amplifies what the second bitterly crosses out; the opposite, in short, of our minimalist storytellers.
Second False Lead: False Modesty
Can an existential feeling be academic? A character collects themselves, viewed from behind, or in profile, in front of a window bathed in blue light, and softly a solemn piano strikes note by note, taking over… Or again, in the midst of a muffled conversation, the sentences halt, the faces become expressionless, and the editing very cut (“Cut, Cut, Cut,” cluck the public, like hens), overstating this muted slice of mourning, the one that Claude Sautet loved late in his career (Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, 1995). How many times have we seen this recently, especially in these films devoted to the great theme, full of affected seriousness, of “Mourning”? If a sentiment becomes academic when it is reduced to being only the sign of its presence, or rather the demonstration of the usual precautions surrounding its manifestation, so this way of ostensibly showing modesty, of magnifying the “arthouse” ellipse against the ham-fisted psychological-explanatory gimmicks of commercial films, has become the unifying signal for these films specializing in the shattering things left unsaid that would supposedly open the abyss of a wound, this wound that has lost much of its Fitzgeraldian elegance.
Third Lead: True Modesty
There is, I believe, another form of modesty in existential films, an impregnable, positive form, which, defeated, still prefers to put on the mask of this very French hauteur that we find the christic subtitle chosen by Jacques Rivette for Out 1: “Noli me tangere” (Touch Me Not). Two writers may have inspired this form of hauteur, Charles Peguy and Jean Paulhan, whose contre-nature association condenses the mixture of ardor and stagnation, of moral rectitude and provocation, rigorous words and paradoxical rules. I am thinking of the refractory youth of Bresson’s films, of course, of the taste for cold fascination (the bus scene in The Devil Probably, 1977), the youth found in the taciturn hero of Model Shop, or in the comatose pride of Skorecki’s Les cinéphiles (1988), the fever of Jean-Pierre Léaud of Out 1 (1970), the enfants terrible of the very young Ferreira-Barbosa (Paris Ficelle, 1982), the exaltation of the hero of Patricia Mazuy (Travolta et moi, 1993), the obstinacy of Pierre Léon’s teenager (L’adolescent, 2001).
Third False Lead: Get lost, Affects
What feelings do existential films deal with? There is a word that evokes a very contemporary way of experiencing a sentiment, an “Affect.” Having “Affects” is a way of suffering, brought to light by the taste for analysis. It is also a demonstration of self-irony, a form of elegant relativism to which the barthesian emotions of A Lover’s Discourse bear witness, and whose cinematographic equivalent would be perhaps the languor of the sixties films by Antonioni. It’s very chic, it’s a collection of carelessly worn feelings that we sometimes reveal, not fooled by fashion, the coarsely-sewn lining, to immediately drape oneself again, not unhappy with the finishing touches: the lining was sewn with silk. This pose that we find in all those intimate contemporary diaries, usually from male authors, with their elliptical and vaguely disgusted sentences, reminds me of the flaw pointed out by Marivaux to criticize the moralists of his time, that of a tasteful pessimism which flatters, above all, the satiated exercise of one’s lucidity. Didn’t Rohmer already declare: “I am extremely sensitive to this existential charm of the cinema, for example, as it manifests itself today in Antonioni, or in Wim Wenders (…) nevertheless I am always for an optimistic cinema.”3 Our existential films refuse to submit to the clear-eyed disillusionment of the diagnosis, and if I speak of diagnosis, it is because these films pose the question of a disease, but in a roman mode, even ciceronian: “We will be cured, if we want it.” The cure is more mysterious than the disease.
Fourth Lead: The Color of a Feeling
I don’t know if there’s a common feeling to all these films, but a color, certainly. The anise green of the walls, mauve of a skirt, ocher of a tie, dark yellow a shirt, a burgundy pink scarf, teal of a raincoat, orange brown of a sofa, the blush of an old pink… what hue does this Camaïeu present? It’s an in-between color, not a clear-cut one, made languid by uncertainty, that hesitates between desire and its fulfillment, the color of consenting to wait, of being available late, of that empty hour. It is also an aged color, faded by the anguish of this waiting, covered with a varnish, or rather a veil, like a fine dust deposited over the year, like threadbare velvet. It is the color of an era, that of a prodigious decade for French existential cinema, which opened in 1972 with Love in the Afternoon and closes in 1980, with Simone Barbès ou la vertu (Marie-Claude Treilhou).
Fourth False Lead: Philippe Garrel or the Existential Photogeny
A taste for languid poses, silent conversations, unkempt elegance, yes, it is indeed Philippe Garrel who, by his consistency, imposed the existential film as a cinematographic genre. And yet, where does this feeling come from that there are shots that I can like in his films, often astonishingly delicate, but rarely an entire film? Praised for rediscovering the so-called “magic” of silent cinema, the Garrelian frame often seems to be guided by an overly conscious sense of this epiphanic grace of a supposed cinema of origins – and I would gladly exchange Les enfants désaccordés (1964) for L’Imitation de l’ange (Adolfo Arrietta). Let’s say that I often have the impression that it’s the immediate photogenic quality of such and such frame, this or that posture of actors, which guides the mise en scène choices, obeying in advance a principle of iconization of pain – whereas the existential films of Rohmer, Truffaut, and the others are rarely accompanied by an immediate plastic beauty. We certainly find in Sternberg, another photo-filmmaker aiming for immediate ecstasy, this veneration for women’s lives at the height of their tragic aura, but it is inseparable from a cruelty, which Garrel lacks. This exacerbated sense of the photogenic condemns his cinema to a “fixation” on the sixties and seventies, as evidenced by this choice of black and white, in Wild Innocence (2001), for instance, hoping to rediscover the grainy white and the coal black of those years which granted, then, a force of irradiation to the emotions. And this fixation leads him in his last few films to a simplifying glorification of pain, exemplified, in The Birth of Love (1993), by this sequence where one of the characters, pointing to a window, says “That’s where Jean went out the window,” or even by the suicide of Daniel Duval in The Wind of the Night (1999)… The miraculous “lightness” of the Garrelian mise en scène, expert in making an existential lace where the delicacy of the stitch accommodates the lightness of the touch, quickly turns out to be overwhelmed by the “heavy” scenes, in any case powerless to stand up to their violence. To put it trivially, Garrel is strong when filming weak scenes (dramatically), and weak when filming strong scenes (dramatically). Perhaps he lacks this distance between himself (the experience) and himself (the filming), this “interval of repose” so dear to Proust.
Fifth Lead: Is the French existential feeling exportable?
Don’t the taciturn young people of Two Lane Blacktop (1971) resemble the heroes of Model Shop (Demy) whom those of Four Nights of a Dreamer (Bresson) evoke, to whom the characters of Les cinéphiles (Skorecki, 1988) are related, who find the poses of Permanent Vacation (Jarmusch, 1982) anew the better to blend into the embraces of Echoes of Silence (Peter Emmanuel Godman, 1966), that the apprentice vampire of Martin (George Romero, 1977) would not have rejected…? No doubt, but the most astonishing alliance seems to have taken place elsewhere, in 1979’s The Human Factor, Preminger’s last film. Faced with this terrifying miniaturization of the world, letting unfold a child’s game on a large scale, that the Rivette of Out 1 could have called his own, I find, a far cry from the gliding sophistication of those famous early Premingerian camera movements (replaced here by zooms), a form of casual nervousness specific to the films of Zucca or certain films of Chabrol (the epilogue of The Swindle), the same sense of theoretical senility straight from Klossowski. Thus, the scenes of hide-and-seek in the forest between spies could harbor the antics of a Michel Bouquet disguised as a donkey in Vincent mit l’âne dans un pré (et s’en vint dans l’autre) (Pierre Zucca, 1975): in “the woods where playful children are swarming” (Rimbaud), the anguish strangles the laughter. As for the gesture that ends the film, when the hero picks up the phone, listens, then breaks down and cries, how can we not think of the last scene, almost identical, of Model Shop? At this moment, when Preminger picks up for the last time, by means of a sumptuous lateral reframing, his filmmaker’s outfit, mocking in fine a plastic poverty now become his, imposing a terrifying encounter between the death of Hollywood and the very French sense of existence which we are tracking in these pages.
Fifth False Lead: Against the Close-Up
Lately when a film begins with a close-up, I sigh heavily. This annoyance refers to a question: where does the intimacy, as discreet as it is imperative, of our existential films established between the directors, the characters, and the audience, come from? In most current films, when a filmmaker wants to establish such intimacy, they immediately uses a close-up, often with a hand-held camera, as if the proximity of the face and the tremor of the frame produced this precious existential trembling at their discretion. The films of Rohmer, Eustache, Demy or Bresson feature very few close-ups, and almost never a handheld camera, preferring medium and fixed shots that some will consider dull. However, this intermediary distance allows, intervening between the false anonymity of the long shot, and the involvement of the close-up, to be able to delay the release of the emotions. But what exactly are we expecting?
First Key: The Existential Lapsus
The friction between the internal tension of the story against the external weight of an era is condensed in the invention of a gesture, recurrent in the films at play here, which we I will pompously call “the existential lapsus”. It is, for example, at the end of Simone Barbès ou la vertu, this moment when Michel Delahaye, our very own Burgess Meredith (the failing man of Preminger’s cinema), puts on the clothes of a croupier to seduce his driver, plays the game of a new encounter and then, suddenly, takes off his false mustache, and replaces it as if nothing had happened. I am also thinking of a scene, in Les cinéphiles, where a boy mimes three times a caress (on another boy’s chest) that will never take place. I’m thinking of the gag with the potted owl in The Human Factor. Or still to Philippe Leotard, in Rouge-Gorge (Pierre Zucca), untying his scarf and revealing an unscathed neck, without the mythical scar that gave him an adventurer’s aura. And then, of course, to Michel Piccoli slumping under the weight in “I’m Going Home“, closing Oliveira’s film.4
Each time, as in the unveiling of an imposture, the poverty of which is worthy of the sleight of hand tricks from Orson Welles’ Magic Show, fiction concedes the fight and thus reveals a pathetic and sumptuous reality, that of the loneliness of the characters. “For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor” (Carson McCullers). But the documentary weight is immediately picked back up by an ever valiant fiction, which will have furtively let a scar inscribe itself, testifying, before our incredulous eyes, as a testament to this wound.
Second Key: The Risk of Ingratitude
Earlier I talked about the choice of the “medium shot” in existential films, and of the suspension of the outpouring of emotion. I could also talk about the impression of “plastic ugliness” that Love in the Afternoon and The Human Factor have left many early viewers, with their morose sets, characters or atmosphere, which weighs down the first minutes of these existential films, this immersion in the silted and dormant waters of fiction, the lobby of a porn theater (Simone Barbès ou la vertu), office in a verdigris Pompidolian tone (Love in the Afternoon), the room where a half-senile spy lives (The Human Factor). This feeling of the narrative being available is therefore inseparable from the refusal of immediate seduction. How can triviality thus serve the progressive stripping away of the film? This goes back to, I believe, another question already posed: why did the great minimalist storytellers make the most beautiful existential films? The answer is the same in both cases. Having a sense of the story, that is the say of the economy of the story, makes it possible to not give in to the impatient sirens of the immediate fervor, which even Godard after Keep Your Right Up can no longer resist. “That’s what’s so great about Stromboli. It was my road to Damascus: In the middle of the film, I converted, and I changed my perspective,” confessed Éric Rohmer.5 Basically, French existential films all have something of the asceticism of the Rosellinian stations of the cross: endurance, biding, eruption. The miracle is simply replaced by the collapse. One of the qualities of storytellers, patience, the art of postponing, not of waiting, makes it possible to push back the deadline, to better meet, in the final scene, all expectations – splendor will have the last word (and only the last).6 A filmmaker must know how to wait for their (empty) hour.
Third and Final Key: The Final Scene
But what outcome are we talking about? All these films are secretly oriented towards the same type of final scene, namely a total collapse of the heroes’ façade (Love in the Afternoon, The Mother and the Whore, Model Shop, Simone Barbès, The Human Factor…) I wondered if a feeling could have a color. The persistence of the colors of existential films in my memory comes from the fact that the sentiments appear there little by little in their cracked, scaled materiality. This could be a definition of the French existential film: a film about a character becomes a documentary about his feelings, where the truth of a feeling is none other than its final unveiling.
I talked about this certain existential anonymity, of this muted dazzle where Rohmer, Bresson, Demy, Treilhou and others hide. It is a form of distance, voluntary by refusal of the directly autobiographical narrative, involuntary because it stems from a real reluctance to expose oneself, and tactical since only the detour – via a character, a journey, a fiction – allows the brutal emergence of a powerful truth (powerful because it was converted), which dazzles the spectator who, thanks to this mirroring shimmer, glimpses the face of the author, caught in the act. Yes, I believe at that the end of Love in the Afternoon, in the inexhaustible tears of Bernard Verley, we catch in the reflection the surprised face of Éric Rohmer.
“The Empty Hour” was originally published in the magazine La Lettre du Cinéma, n°20, October/November/December of 2002.
Translation by Jhon Hernandez. Thanks to Diego and Nicolas for their help on the translation, and Roberta Pedrosa for providing the original French text.
- Correspondence 1945-1984, letter to Paula Delsol, April 12th, 1977
- cf. “La Passerelle”, La Lettre du Cinéma n°6
- “Le temps de la critique” (The Critical Years) in The Taste for Beauty
- How not to think of A King in New York, to the overwhelming political bitterness of the last scene, when the hero (played by Charles Chaplin) understands that the little boy has betrayed his parents? In both films, the minimalist buffoonishness which, very quickly, brazenly took over the drama is interrupted in fine when two outrageously grimaced old men, Joycean heroes or faded kings, suddenly find themselves alone with an orphaned grandson, or an impossible child traitor. They are two ways of admitting defeat, two forms of surrender, one private, the other political, both wildly abstract.
- “Le temps de la critique” (The Critical Years) in The Taste for Beauty
- As always, there is an exception to this rule: in Visconti’s L’Innocente , it is precisely the opulence of the pageantry that, patiently wrecked by untimely zooms and the excess of feelings, that serves the final desolation.