The characters in Éric Rohmer’s films seem to be perpetually vacationing—an activity they elevate into an art form. A Rohmer holiday is languorous and leisurely, stretching on until it’s described in terms that barely make sense. The vacationers compute how much time is left not in days, but in entire months. They often run out of things to do. Sometimes they complain that their vacations are too long—which to an American sensibility can only register as a category mistake, like trying to claim the number 3 is red. This exquisitely dilated temporality seems like a dispatch from an alien planet—but if we were pressed to attach a name to it, a good one might be: social democracy. There’s a morbid anthropological interest in observing this vanished, inaccessible system, which in my more pessimistic moments strikes me as more fantastical than anything out of Buñuel.
The pandemic, however, gave the luckier among us a taste of what it’s like to have too much unstructured time. In the barren solitude of quarantine, I funneled a lot of that time towards revisiting Rohmer. When I first encountered the movies in college, they seemed to reflect back to me an image of my everyday immersion in idle, frivolous conversation: like the seminar participant, the characters seemed to both talk a lot and accomplish very little. So I initially conceived of rewatching them as a lightly masochistic exercise, thinking that Rohmer’s portraits of the cut and thrust of sociality, of his characters’ hesitant, lurching, and occasionally successful attempts at communication, would make for a nostalgic and ironic counterpoint to my own self-isolation at my parents’ house.
That house happened to be located in a bland suburb antiseptically purged of any personality, and it occurred to me that Rohmer’s films, with their elegant French settings and impossibly stylish characters, would transport me out of a place I desperately wanted to escape. I also had the sense that they would help put me in touch with a different model of socio-spatial organization. In recent months, the county where I grew up has enjoyed a certain degree of national notoriety thanks to its pivotal role in turning Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Senate runoff—but it’s more familiar to me as a sinister laboratory for the kind of merciless commodification of basic civic functions that’s now consuming the entire country. And although it’s a little hard to tell whether my enduring aversion to the place stems from its obliterating sterility or the lingering after-effects of ordinary, run-of-the-mill adolescent angst, I’m pretty sure the former is at least part of it.
But as I embarked on my quarantined viewing project, the films started to reveal themselves as pricklier and more ambiguous than I remembered. Their explorations of what it means to exist in a public space, enmeshed within a web of relations with other people, celebrate the possibilities that emerge from that position just as much as they brood over the dangers that lurk there. They shed light on some of the less salubrious aspects of communal existence that, as we start to stagger back into the world like dazed bears after a long hibernation, we may have overlooked or forgotten.
In her essay on the identity crisis that gripped Artforum in the ’80s, Janet Malcolm describes the ruthless aesthetic criteria that govern Rosalind Krauss’s “disdainfully interesting” living room: “even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss.” When it comes to their living arrangements, Rohmer’s characters exhibit the same sort of fanatical rigor. An exemplary instance is Full Moon in Paris, a film that’s about, among other things, scrupulously curated interior design. In a pivotal scene, the simmering tensions between the main character, Louise, and her boyfriend Rémi violently erupt as the Mondrian paintings that decorate their apartment loom impassively over them. While Louise takes seriously the connection between her physical habitat and her emotional flourishing, the relation in which the paintings stand to her disintegrating relationship is cryptic. Their imperious abstraction is implacable, as if the couple is being watched by something that’s holding its tongue. Artworks, the film suggests, have their own designs on us, indifferent to our efforts to corral them into specified functions and roles; in this way, they’re like people.
The film’s central irony is that the control Louise exerts over her physical habitat doesn’t extend to any other aspect of her life. A few months into quarantine, I too was seized by the very Louise-like notion that I could make myself feel better by ordering a Himalayan salt lamp, which was so heavy that I nearly dropped it as I took it out of the box. Surely, something with such impressive heft would help me get my life together. With the push of a button, the objects of my desire were frictionlessly ferried to my home. I hung up posters on my walls and cleared out the rapidly expanding pile of empty boxes on the floor. As a finishing touch, I installed some Japanese noren curtains in the doorway to the kitchen. I was shocked when my mood failed to pull itself out of the gutter.
I suspect that the party scene that occurs midway through the film, which was shot at a real-life Parisian bacchanal, will be a similar kind of letdown. In the lead-up to production, Rohmer asked around the Parisian socialite world for months trying to get an invitation to one of their bashes, only to be told that there simply were none happening right then—which seems like the appropriate response to getting badgered by a strange man asking if he can come to your party and film it for his movie. Eventually, though, he made it into one and brought his crew along with him. The first time I saw the scene, I was so swept away by the glamour of this refined, elegant milieu, a beautiful apartment filled with beautiful people without a care in the world, that I barely even registered the turbulent angst swirling right beneath the surface, with Rémi looking on helplessly as Louise starts to dance with somebody else.
But in quarantine, deprived of social interaction, my attention to those interpersonal dynamics was sharpened, and I found myself drinking them in like somebody lost in the desert desperate for water. I was troubled by what I found: Louise’s casual disregard, Rémi’s petulant lashing out. Even the candid shots of the real-life partygoers, which I had swooned over the first time around, seemed different now. Did their movements seem oddly mechanical and joyless? Had they always been so listless? If you didn’t know that these were real people enjoying a night out, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were overworked and tired extras barely going through the motions. But, then again, maybe that’s what social gatherings are actually like. Reflecting on the party in an interview, Rohmer pronounced with the distant remove of an ethnographer that “there was truth there.” Through pandemic-weary eyes, blurred by months of deprivation and confinement, it’s hard to discern what kind of truth he saw.
Rohmer’s characters put at least as much effort into curating their outfits as they do their apartments, which makes his films an inexhaustible well of inspiration for anybody who takes an interest in clothes. I’m convinced that when Susan Sontag wrote that “movies gave you tips about how to be attractive. Example: it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining,” she was thinking about Lucie’s mac jacket in The Aviator’s Wife, layered over a bold polo shirt and jeans. Of course, the clothes serve expressive purposes too: in A Tale of Summer, Gaspard’s grayscale ensembles are hilariously at odds with the sun-drenched Breton beachside, underscoring his petulant self-absorption. And in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, the clothes glitter with prismatic colors, ushering the characters who inhabit them into an ever-shifting constellation of chromatically-coordinated groupings, finally culminating in a kind of cosmic harmony—the physical manifestation of the universe’s intricate and mysterious parts clicking into perfect alignment.
All of which leads me to believe that Rohmer would be horrified by our fashion choices during the pandemic, which have been dominated above all by athleisure: a style of dressing that, in its emphasis on the private bodily process of perspiration—sweatpants, sweatshirts, sweatsuits—seems to explicitly repudiate the very concept of public life. While the pressure to capitulate is understandable—if there’s no such thing as society, we might as well start dressing like it—Rohmer inspired me to try to resist. There are few things in the world more ridiculous than buying new clothes in quarantine with nowhere to wear them; and yet, I found myself doing so, over and over again. The sales were just too good to pass up. The pandemic’s brutalization of the economy hit the fashion industry particularly hard, resulting in one of my favorite pandemic pastimes: Swarming the bankrupt carcasses of American style’s most venerable institutions. The discounts kept escalating precipitously, and I started to measure the days by the arrival of the UPS truck. I was making off with virtual cartfuls of fancy clothing I couldn’t have afforded otherwise. Still, there was something surreal about stocking my closet with clothes that wouldn’t see the light of day for months, if not years. My delusions were only fed further by my viewing project. Even if I didn’t have anywhere to wear it, I was on the hunt for a corduroy blazer like the one I saw in Rendezvous in Paris, clinging to the concept as if it were a talisman warding off an unlucky future.
In Love in the Afternoon, as in the modern regime of fast fashion and online shopping, the question of sartorial elegance is charged with something like an ethical quality. The main character Frédéric is drawn to his friend Chloé when she reappears in his life after a long absence, even though he seems to be happily married to his wife Hélène with no obvious signs of dissatisfaction in the relationship. Frédéric’s wayward tendencies, however, become clear early on in the film during an encounter with a salesgirl in a boutique. The magnetism between them is generated in no small part by her unerring eye for his body and what would work on it. And her taste is vindicated when she picks out a shirt for him that, he assents, suits him perfectly.1 So later on when we see Frédéric and Hélène trying to choose between scarves in a department store, only for her to mention offhand that this is an exception to the rule (“I never shop with my husband”), Rohmer has prepared us to recoil from her statement like a bad omen. In his world, a difference in sartorial judgment is dispositive evidence of a deeper incompatibility, which is why a couple that can’t match a scarf with a coat together won’t stay together.
Frédéric, though, has his own motives for being interested in clothes. He explains them in a first-person monologue layered over what seem like candid shots of unsuspecting Parisian pedestrians: “People pass by and vanish. You don’t see them grow old. What in my eyes gives so much value to the streets of Paris is the constant yet fleeting presence of these women, whom I’m almost certain never to see again. It’s enough that they’re there, conscious of their charm, happy to test its effect on me, as I test mine on them, in silent agreement, without even the subtlest smile or look.” What these musings conjure up is a conception of urban existence as a crucible for the unceasing push and pull of optical exchange. To live in a city is to accept a constant state of visual exposure; but for Frédéric this is less an imposition than an opportunity for adventure.2 The excitement of that adventure, of visually registering others and being registered in turn, flows from a sense of collectivity—it relies, in other words, on the kind of churning mixture of strangers that suburbs, with their atomizing and individualizing imperative (favoring cars instead of trains, roads instead of sidewalks, houses instead of apartments), seem expressly designed to thwart.
The inherent opticality of urban life gets its fullest treatment in The Aviator’s Wife. The film centers on the flailing machinations of a distraught law student named François after he spots his girlfriend Anne with a mysterious stranger, spinning these narrative materials into a delicate web of chance encounters and fragmented, partial perspectives. Perhaps the most blinkered perspective in a movie riddled with them belongs to François himself, whose clingy possessiveness drives a wedge between him and Anne. After he chases her around Paris to ask about the man, she literally runs into open traffic to get away from him; but he’s so wrapped up in his own head that he can only see her coldness in relation to himself, instead of as the cry of anguish that it really is. His subsequent confusion pushes him to start tailing the man, an aviator named Christian, through Paris. This literal detective story stands in for one that’s more abstract (and more intractable): François’s quest to root out what Anne really feels. Both flounder.
In the course of following Christian, François attracts an unexpected companion. He follows Christian onto a bus, where he takes a seat across from a blonde girl. She notices his inquisitive looks, tossed carelessly in her direction, and seems to draw the conclusion that they’re aimed at her—when, in reality, François only has eyes for his quarry, who just happens to be seated behind her. Rohmer slyly undermines the trope of the public transit meet-cute at the same time as he takes it deadly seriously. And when coincidence intervenes by making the blonde girl and Christian get off at the same stop, it seems like a felicitous encounter is about to be set into motion.
The accidental entanglement between François and the girl, who we learn is named Lucie, is solidified when, in a bid to avoid attracting Christian’s attention, he asks her for fake directions. Pivoting and parrying in a joint ballet, they enact Frédéric’s dictum to test their charm on each other—even though they’re both totally oblivious to the other’s actual agenda for doing so. Just as François is trying to learn more about the aviator, Lucie is trying to learn more about François—and they pursue their objectives by looking. And of course, they’re not the only ones. As they walk together in the park—with François always keeping an eye on the aviator—Rohmer starts to pull back and expand his scope, zooming out from Lucie and François to take in the contours of the park’s larger situation. The condition of entering any public space, the film suggests, is to become imbricated in a shifting, fluid, interlocking network of sight lines that encircle and enclose us like laser trip wires in a cut-rate spy movie; as Lucie puts it when she catches François shiftily casting his gaze around: “I’m looking at you looking.” But in a Parisian park, as in a spy movie, hitting a trip wire at the wrong time can have explosive consequences. Lucie eventually picks up on François’ mission and enlists herself as his partner in crime, leading to an attempt to capture a photo of their target that skates perilously close to making her conspicuous, in a bad way (which is to say, conspicuous to a gaze that she doesn’t want instead of the one that she does). It’s a hilarious set piece, worthy of Buster Keaton. It also invests an import into the act of looking at another person that’s both mundane and profound: transforming the mere act of existing in public into a high-stakes adventure is, in the end, not that much of a leap, because they’re not that dissimilar to begin with.
This is something that I had forgotten in quarantine, where I found myself trapped day in and day out inside Zoom’s nightmarish hall of mirrors. Its unnaturally laser-focused visual intensity always makes me feel like a lab specimen in a tank. My confined conditions did, however, attune me to something I hadn’t noticed before: the way that Rohmer’s dramas of seeing are bound up with a certain kind of social arrangement that prizes public space as a good in itself. This was the unexpected upside to my months-long entrapment in both the hermetically sealed bubble of my house as well as a suburban environment that is, by design, hostile to the very concept of collectivity. My hometown is the kind of place where it’s totally possible—encouraged, even—to spend an entire working day trapped in a closed circuit of corporate infrastructure, traveling from home to work to leisure and back home again without ever once exiting the privatized slipstream of revenue extraction. In other words, it’s the dystopian endpoint that Mike Davis was envisioning in City of Quartz when he warned of “the final extinction of these last real public spaces, with their democratic intoxicants, risks, and unscented odors,” to be supplanted by a “commercial symphony of swarming, consuming monads moving from one cashpoint to another.” Even my local parks, perhaps the last vestige of anything resembling public works, are being displaced as recreational sites by sprawling and ungainly mega-malls that continue to proliferate across the landscape like noxious bacterial blooms.
My first pandemic-era outing took place at one of those malls. My parents and I decided that its outdoor, open-air layout was safe enough for a stroll, as long as we stayed out of the stores themselves. Maybe so, but I was unprepared for just how many people were there; if it weren’t for the fact that everyone was wearing masks, it would have been impossible to tell that anything was out of the ordinary. The throngs of people alarmed me partly for the obvious pandemic-related reasons, but also because this was the first time in many months that I had been subjected to a condition of visual exposure. I could feel the gazes of passersby strafing the air from all directions. In a fit of self-consciousness, I suddenly became aware of my appearance, and realized I had forgotten to put on a single piece of new clothing that I had bought during the pandemic.
But after the initial wave of anxiety ebbed away, I could see the transformations that it left in its wake. The last time we see François, he deftly slips out of our view into the midst of a crowded train station. After the film’s careening roundelay of fleeting glances, each one dangling the tantalizing possibility of intrigue, excitement, and romance, Rohmer has taught us to see the teeming crowd into which François dissolves in a new way: as nothing less than a kaleidoscopic, endlessly proliferating fractal of possible worlds. And when I looked at the crowds of people in the outdoor mall through that lens, the entire scene trembled with a beauty that it never had before. This seemed like a premonition of the world into which we’re about to emerge: riven by divisions and inequalities, scarred by the privatization and commodification of democratic space—but still contingent, mutable, and able to be reclaimed. My (somewhat trippy) episode at the mall gives me faith that the seeds of collective experience can flower in even the most sterile conditions.
These days, I’m whiling away the tail end of the pandemic in New York City, where the abundance of public spaces feels like a blessing. As spring starts to bloom, there’s something quietly utopic about eating lunch on the benches at Astor Place, unbothered by the nagging fear that I was supposed to buy something in exchange for the right to sit down. And the fact that the pandemic is starting to wane just as Janus Films is releasing new restorations of the Tales of the Four Seasons holds out a possibility that’s almost too good to name. Seeing those films in a movie theater, and completing my viewing project’s journey from private isolation to communal experience, would be an ending to the story so serendipitously perfect it could have been orchestrated by Rohmer himself, like the saving grace that closes out The Green Ray. For now, though, the films are only available to stream, and the unfurnished state of my apartment means that I’d have to watch them on a laptop. Rohmer’s miraculous endings aren’t so easy to come by.
It’s unclear to me whether the shockingly intimate fitting session that follows is her way of putting the moves on him or if that’s just the way they do things in France: a perpetual difficulty with Rohmer. After months of self-isolation, I also found the very idea of a fitting room (much less a fitting session involving another person) scandalizing in its degree of physical intimacy. The concept of putting clothes on my body that unknown strangers have already put on theirs now looked to me like one of those highly specific cultural practices that, from a removed distance, seem incomprehensible and horrific, like whaling. ↩
In keeping with the film’s skewering of male narcissism, Frédéric doesn’t give so much as a second thought to how the recipients of his gaze might feel about getting ogled. Elsewhere, though, Rohmer is sensitive to the ways in which the pleasures of visibility are stratified along gendered lines. In A Tale of Summer, for instance, Lena voices the degrading humiliation of being on the other end of a gaze like Frédéric’s: “I only meet guys who want to paw me, never anyone I can just talk to.” ↩