To complement its offer of ‘Four Seasonal Tales’, MUBI has also been carrying three short documentaries directed by Eric Rohmer and made by the company he founded with Barbet Schroeder, Les films du Losange in the 1960s. I’ve only just found them and they are about to disappear from the streamer. Here are just a few thoughts about what they might add to an understanding of Rohmer’s work. I think they are also available on one of the DVD packages from Criterion.
Nadja à Paris (France 1964) is a 13 minute film shot by Néstor Almendros which follows a student, Nadja Tesich as she moves around Paris. Nadja provides the voiceover commentary. Born in Belgrade, but brought up in the US, she is a student at a university in parkland in the 1960s but is able to study at the Sorbonne for her research on Proust. This sounds like the kinds of arrangements that I remember from the 1960s when American post-grad students could spend time in Europe for research unencumbered by a defined syllabus. The Cité University where she is based reminds her of American campus universities and everything she might need is close at hand with a whole range of cultural events, including theatre and cinema. But the Latin Quarter is not far away and she prefers to wander in the city. She admits her visits to the Sorbonne are infrequent. Instead she visits the old bookshops and sits alone in pavement cafés. Ultimately she finds herself visiting the working-class area of Belleville. She enjoys drinking with a group of older men who are writers.
Nadja is a familiar subject for Rohmer – a young woman finding her way. There is no romance here but she seems absolutely one of the young women celebrated in la nouvelle vague and indeed in the British New Wave (in 1964 heading towards ‘Swinging London’). She even wears a matelot-type top reminiscent of Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle in 1959 and as she lopes across the park she has the same sense of freedom as Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963). In many ways this short could be an extract from one of Rohmer’s early fiction films set on the streets of Central Paris.
Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1966) is a more conventional documentary study of the the changes in French higher education that saw a big increase in the number of young female students in the 1960s and especially in the sciences. Again this is a black & white 13 minute short film, shot by Néstor Almendros and edited by Jackie Raynal. It demonstrates Rohmer’s interest in the sociological changes in French society along with the economic growth of the period. There is some distressing animal research using cats which certainly dates the science but there is also a presentation of a new phenomenon, the married couple, both involved in higher education. This extraordinary little sequence shows a middle-class couple in an apartment with fashionable furniture and decoration. This seems at odds with the shots of crowds of students juxtaposed with the building of new universities.
What is most striking visually is that the students are mainly dressed in conservative, traditional outfits more associated with the office. For women it means dresses or skirts, handbags and court shoes until some don a lab coat. There is a ‘voice of God’ commentary apart from a brief exchange between a researcher and her supervisor. In some ways there are too many lines of enquiry for a short. I would have liked to know more about the building of universities outside Paris. France must have been experiencing the same kind of growth of the HE sector as the UK during the 1960s. At least Rohmer does include this statement, an early indication that he was interested in getting ‘out and about’ outside Paris.
The American title of the film is ‘A modern coed’. I guess the literal translation would be ‘A female student of today’. We wouldn’t use ‘coed’ in British English, but then I think the UK was probably behind both France and the US in the numbers of young women entering HE in 1964-5.
Fermière à Montfaucon (France 1968) offers a different type of documentary again, although in a way it is similar to Nadja à Paris. Again this is 13 minutes but this time in colour and made, I think, for French television. The subject is a farmer’s wife in Montfaucon (in Aisne, a rural départment in Northern France). We seem more in the territory of an Agnès Varda narrative. The farmer’s wife tells her story of working on a small family farm. The same problems existed then that also plague small farms now. There is just the couple with a small boy of school age who cycles to school. She says (on the voiceover) that she was happy to come to the countryside and become a farmer’s wife but many women don’t and many farmers stay single. She adds that women who do take up the opportunity must be organised.
She works hard in the house and on the farm. At harvest time, they can’t afford to hire extra workers so she has to help even more. In some shots she seems quite smartly dressed to be milking but those bright white boots are actually wellies. She does seem to prefer dresses and skirts to trousers and I was relieved when I saw she had found some trousers for her role of stacking hay bales. She also recognises that it is important to get involved in the village community and she has become a town councillor. This woman has not ‘fallen into’ her role. She knows what she is doing and organises herself accordingly. It does smack a little of the ‘model citizen farmer’, but as in his fictional tales, Rohmer simply focuses on daily routines as well as the special roles she fulfils at harvest time and for the community. You feel that Rohmer must have learned a great deal in preparation for some of his later films.
It’s interesting that Rohmer’s subject is nearly always a woman younger than himself but he always takes care to allow them to speak for themselves – except in the case of the ‘modern student film’ which perhaps might have worked better with more comments from the students. I enjoyed these short docs, mainly I think because they offer an interesting comparison to my memories of the UK in the 1960s. Rohmer’s later skills are developing at this stage but his ability to find interest in the mundane is already there.