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Eric Rohmer: The Four Seasons

June 4-25 at the

National Gallery of Art

June 8 & 9 at the Hirshhorn

When Eric Rohmer finished 1998’s Autumn Tale, released in the U.S. last year, he completed his latest series of thematically linked films, “The Four Seasons.” For American viewers, however, the seasonal cycle remained unconsummated. That’s because 1996’s A Summer’s Tale, the third in the quartet, was never distributed in the U.S. The National Gallery has now rectified that omission with a retrospective of all four films, allowing a first look at A Summer’s Tale (June 24 and 25) and a second at its companions. The program is a cinematic tonic, especially refreshing for arriving in the midst of Hollywood’s big-and-stupid summer season.

Rohmer has been making films about the erotic conundrums of well-educated young French people for roughly four decades. His first series, “Six Moral Tales,” focused on men, with the women they desired (or thought they might perhaps desire) depicted as somewhat mysterious forces. But in his second series, “Comedies and Proverbs,” women moved to the fore, where they have remained. This sounds like a formula, and indeed it is. With the rare exception—the most recent of which is 1993’s disappointing The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque—the writer-director’s films all present a similar lineup of perplexed lovers, romantic rivals, and well-meaning matchmakers. Yet there is more diversity in this limited design than in all the films ever produced by, say, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.

It’s easy to chart the similarities among the seasonal tales. All four involve a protagonist who must choose between two or three romantic possibilities. All four are effervescently sexy (although only one contains an actual sex scene). Three involve matchmaking schemes, two of them with rather Oedipal implications. Two are set mostly in Paris, the other two in provincial regions whose local culture is emphasized. Two begin at the beach, long established in Rohmer films (and French culture) as a place for serious frivolity.

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What counts, however, is the tales’ endings, which are always unpredictable yet satisfyingly apt. Rohmer’s films start casually, as if he had simply assembled a small group of attractive actors with exceptional improvisational abilities and allowed them to banter at an everyday site—a Paris party, a Breton beach, a Rhone Valley vineyard. Gradually, though, the films’ structures become clear, and the romantic intrigues succeed or fail. By their final scenes, then, these four films are very different: A Tale of Springtime is the most ambiguous and least conclusive—its central character is a philosophy teacher, after all—whereas A Summer’s Tale is gently rueful, Autumn Tale offers the strong possibility of true romance, and A Winter’s Tale is an unalloyed fairy tale, complete with happy ending.

In a playful acknowledgment of his reputation for talkiness, Rohmer opens A Summer’s Tale with a wordless prologue. Recent math graduate and aspiring musician Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) arrives at Dinard, a resort on the Brittany coast, where he wanders alone for a few days. The conversation begins when he’s befriended by Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress who has a Ph.D. in ethnology. Margot explains that, after studying cultures far from home, she’s become fascinated by Breton folkways. Gaspard has a less academic concern: He’s waiting for his not-quite girlfriend, Lena (Aurelia Nolin), who has vaguely promised to meet him in Dinard. Although Gaspard and Margot’s relationship is more than a little flirtatious, they both proclaim their faithfulness to absent paramours.

When Lena doesn’t arrive, however, Margot manages to interest Gaspard in a fling with Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), who lives in a nearby town and visits Dinard on weekends. Gaspard even plays Solene the faux-Breton sea shanty he’s been composing for Lena. Then Lena finally appears, and Gaspard finds himself in the awkward position of having promised all three women that he would take them to the isle of Ouessant. (“You’re like a bum who wakes up a millionaire,” Margot teases him.) He must choose between love (Lena), lust (Solene), and friendship (Margot), although he finds that those categories don’t divide as neatly in life as in theory.

That’s one of the marvels of Rohmer’s films: The characters chatter in an analytical mode that the director’s detractors reject as dryly overintellectual and hopelessly French, but the analysis is always trumped by unpredictable emotions. Although Rohmer forgoes gun battles and car crashes, his work is never static or stagey. His films are often compared to plays and novels, yet they often turn on things—a moment of light, a person’s smile—that those forms can never invoke with the same simple, natural power. Indeed, what the “The Four Seasons” delightfully demonstrate is that Rohmer’s work is pure cinema.

Equally pure and equally cinematic, yet far different, is Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, a film that virtually does away with dialogue. Set at a French Foreign Legion garrison in the small East African nation of Djibouti, Beau Travail is a triumphant break with the style of such acclaimed (if rarely seen in the U.S.) Denis movies as I Can’t Sleep and Nenette and Boni. A tone poem that aspires to the quality of dance, it’s both a remarkable piece of storytelling and a film that goes beyond storytelling.

The basic outline is derived from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, although Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau have done more than merely transfer the tale from a British ship to an African desert. The tale of charismatic young recruit Sentain (Gregoire Colin), viciously jealous warrant officer Galoup (Denis Lavant, the ravaged-face star of The Lovers on the Bridge ), and the commanding officer who must keep order is told in flashback from Galoup’s point of view. Dismissed from the legion for forcing a potentially deadly confrontation with the popular Sentain, Galoup muses on his loss from his apartment in Marseilles. Galoup admits that he’s “unfit for civilian life,” as he continues the military-style housekeeping rituals that helped fill his time in arid, uneventful Djibouti.

Ritual is at the center of Beau Travail, which depicts the bare-chested, shaved-head legionnaires’ training exercises—scored to Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd oratorio and choreographed by Bernardo Montet—as a form of dance. These martial drills are contrasted with the less formal action at the local disco, where the soldiers dance to ethno-techno with local beauties, and the film’s final moment of release, which should be seen rather than described (and will be missed by anyone who heads for the door when the credits begin). The men’s unified movements—which include a shimmying maneuver that recalls Catherine Zeta-Jones’ star-making undulations in Entrapment—can be seen as homoerotic or simply balletic, but they are strikingly unlike the basic-training montages we’ve seen in Hollywood films.

Oddly enough, one of the models for this austerely sumptuous film is a work by Jean-Luc Godard, who’s known for his overloaded, self-reflexive style. Denis decided to pattern Galoup’s narration after that of Le Petit Soldat, the 1960 Godard film whose principal character was played by Michel Subor; then she cast Subor as the much-loved base commandant and even gave him the same name as the Godard character, Bruno Forestier, supposing that he could be the same man 40 years later. The inside reference, however, is not typical of Beau Travail, which is most notable for its poetically elliptical style and sensuous images, the latter shot by longtime Denis collaborator Agnes Godard (who also photographed Colin in Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels). This is a film that can startle with a panorama of the harshly beautiful Gulf of Aden or a close-up of a vein pulsing in a man’s arm.

Although Beau Travail is an audacious attempt to enter the company of men, its theme is not unlike those of Denis’ previous films, many of which involve the establishment of surrogate families. The catastrophe here is not Sentain’s fate but Galoup’s banishment from the group, an intolerable exile from the only home possible for men who—as one exchange between Sentain and Forestier makes clear—truly belong nowhere else. The film was commissioned for a European TV film series on foreigners, a familiar subject for Denis; the irony is that it’s Galoup in Marseilles who feels like a foreigner—as Denis did upon returning to France from Africa, where she spent much of her childhood. His quest for community is not strange at all. What is mysterious is Beau Travail’s style, a combination of the spontaneous and the iconic that renders the film both convulsive and stately. CP