The Tales of the Four Seasons as a discourse on meaning
Éric Rohmer never denied that he was a practicing Catholic. According to the Catholic theology ‘God is not just the Creator. God is also an immanent presence in our lives’ (Tester 2014, p.90). Some of the heroes of the four Rohmer’s films from the Tales of the Four Seasons cycle that I will examine in this essay, in particular the A Tale of Springtime (1990), the A Tale of Winter (1992), the A Summer’s Tale (1996) and the Autumn Tale (1998), are determined as Catholics, others as atheists and there are others who remain indifferent as regards religion and God. However, Rohmer through their dialogues and the various situations they have to face, reveals to us their opinions about these issues and their relative precautions, if they have any. In all of his realistic films no miracles do take place and the above four do not constitute an exception. So, if God and its grace exist in their narratives, it is a matter open to interpretation by the spectator. As Keith Tester (2014, p.92) supports, ‘Rohmer’s films can be approached as explorations of the immanence of God’s grace in the world’. My approach on this paper is quite relative with this thesis since I will examine some specific sequences of them as potential metaphorical discussions on the subject of meaning in general and on the meaning of life too, whether this meaning is internal or external and how the position of somebody upon this would affect his idiosyncrasy and the reverse.
Although I will focus on specific sequences of them, these four films offer useful texts for such an approach. As Jacob Leigh (2012, p.159) mentions ‘[t]he central issue of Conte de printemps [the original French title of the film] is thought, the mystery of what other people are thinking, and the difficult of representing thought. Both of these tally with Rohmer’s long-standing concerns, but in no other film does he make them so central to the story’. Thinking is the realm of meaning per excellence, since it is the only way that we are able to conceive and reflect on everything. As about the A Tale of Winter, Leigh (2012, p.174) supports that it is ‘the story of a woman remembering someone loved, an allegory about the power of faith’. It is indeed upon the meaning of faith that I am going to bring out in my examination of the second film and in my conclusions I will extend to its meaning as well. Also significant for my subject is that the A Tale of Winter is a film about reconciliation and more importantly that ‘Charles and Félicie’s [the couple who is reconciled in the end of the film] reconciliation is ordinary and miraculous, plausible and implausible’. I will try to discuss exactly this ambiguity between the plausibility and implausibility of something in relation to its meaning. Finally, concerning the third film, the A Summer’s Tale, in Leigh’s (2012, p.210) words again, ‘[t]he film shows how a young man’s fatalistic preference for vaporous daydream and his lack of effort in the face of difficulties and in a disturbing crisis’. It is indeed the passivity concerning the existence of meaning that will be my focusing point concerning this particular film.
In any case, my main concern is not to philosophise through the analyses of the films, but to examine a specific aspect of Rohmer’s auteristic idiosyncrasy. I will try to demonstrate that the way by which the under examination sequences are connected with each other is mutual, complementary and thus deliberate and intended by the French auteur. His work has been approached extensively by scholars under realistic perspectives and the texts of his films are considered to be quite approachable with plenty of clarity while almost nothing has been said about the possible metaphors in it. I will seek for metaphors in the dialogues of these four films. On the one hand, this is not surprising, considering the extended talkativeness of his films. On the other, it is indeed challenging to seek for metaphors in the dialogues of a film and not to its visuals as usual. Furthermore, in contrast with the other films that Éric Rohmer directed, the four films of the Tales of Four Seasons cycle were not intended to be variations on a single or similar subjects. Thus through my analyses I will suggest that his concern with the notion of meaning is certainly one of their main connecting points. More importantly, I will seek to demonstrate that there is consistency in his ideas about meaning, as they can be extracted from these four films, justifying thus his quality as an auteur who tries to express his ideas through his filmic work. At last, I have to mention that since I will only refer to specific sequences of each film a sufficient familiarity of the reader with the under examination films is premised.
A Tale of Springtime
In the film A Tale of Springtime, when Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) meets Natacha (Florence Darel) for the first time in a party she says to her that she does not know why she came, but then she changes her mind and says that she knows only to recall it once again and confess that she does not know anything. She confesses that the reason may be romantic since it is very absurd. She continues by saying that if anyone –being invisible– had secretly witnessed that day all she had said and done he would have no idea of the situation’s meaning, if we assume it had one. Natacha asks her if she is waiting for someone and her answer is that she is waiting for the sunrise and the time to pass. Actually, Natacha went to the party because she had lent her house to a friend. She does not want to stay to her boyfriend’s one which she shares with him and who is away for a few days because, considering his absence she finds it empty although she declares that she is not afraid of being alone. Natacha invites her to sleep in her home in which she lives alone since her father is never there. When she arrives to Natacha’s home, in which she will spend the night having accepted her new friend’s invitation, the first thing that draws her attention is some gizmos –as she calls them–, in the dining room, namely four wooden columns which mark out the space around the dining table making people to go around it, setting thus off the dining area. Natacha curses them, because they conduced to the separation of her parents. Her mother left them for the young architect who had the idea about them and thus nobody likes them now. Jeanne asks her why they do not remove them since they were always a cause for trouble. Natacha’s answer is that this would destroy the ceiling downstairs. She is used to them anyway. Jeanne is not totally against them even if she finds them a bit absurd and does not like being hemmed in. However, she supposes that they might have other uses.
From the beginning of the film Rohmer puts Jeanne to find it hard to know the reason of a decision of her. Either there is a reason for it or not she cannot be sure if she will be later able to clarify it. When we are unable to determine the reasons of our own decisions how optimistic can we be concerning the finding of reasons behind the decisions of others or even worse behind the decisions of God, if there are any, behind the meaning of everything that seems –and we perceive it as– random or not? The question of meaning as a matter of causes and its opposite, namely the question of causality as a matter of meaning, is one of the main concerns of Rohmer in this film. If God’s graceful existence has to appear as the cause behind certain situations, would it be recognizable by us? Maybe not and thus it could lie where we only see absurdity. Jeanne connects absurdity with romanticism too. Behind romanticism it is absurdity that lies for her, obviously because she is unable to find certain reasons behind everything romantic too. Like the idea of God, the one of love is one that somebody has to believe in its ideals in order to serve them. However, love –actually its performance– can be observable and thus provable when somebody chooses to serve God, serving thereby something that can be observed only by the eyes of faith. This should refer to Jeanne supposing that no one who would have secretly witnessed that day all she had said and done –being invisible like God– would have any idea of the situation’s meaning. Even if there was a meaning which would be its significance if no one were able to find it? Jeanne, a rather typical Rohmerian hero –and significantly a philosophy teacher– reflects on the meaning of things not by resorting to deep existential questions, but by just discussing simple everyday choices. Her answer to Natacha’s question if she is waiting for someone could carry a metaphorical meaning: for the sunrise and the time to pass. For Jeanne time flows –like Heraclitus would put it– and it flows in a repetitive way; every day has its own sunrise. The passing of time is being unavoidably perceived by us in small or big periods, like the ones that the days or the seasons of a year constitute. Either God is or not the conductor of time Jeanne, as an atheist, seems to feel his absence. As she feels the room that she shares with her boyfriend unbearably empty due to his absence maybe the world is being perceived in an analogous way by her. Even if she does not believe in God she would welcome his appearance: world, by obtaining a meaning, would be (ful)filled by His presence. For now we face the lack of reasons why the world is according to her absurd as the four columns in Natacha’s home. Despite their absurdity –or maybe exactly because of that– they made her feel hemmed in, but she is not totally against them, because she supposes that they might have other uses, namely that there might be reasons behind their existence or function, even if this remains to be discovered. Natacha though she still curses them, has gotten used to them because they cannot be removed anyway. For her they function as monuments from a bad event. However, somebody has to get used to everything that cannot be changed. In a world that everything is repeatedly changing monuments of what could not be changed come in as useful.
Another sequence of the film which is equally significant with the above is the one in which Jeanne and Igor (Hugues Quester) are alone in the country house. Sometime she begins to talk about her boyfriend. What she says about him could be perceived as a metaphorical reflection on her ideas concerning the nature of God. She says that she lives with a compulsively messy man, namely a man that does not care about any order around him. Or maybe he has a certain sense of order which is inconsonant. As she adds, she did not stay at his home this week not because of her feeling lonely without him, but because she could not stand his kind of order. What is however significant is her clarification that she can only stand it when he is there. Namely the order of a God who is present in the world he created, who is visible in it in some way, is an order that despite its remaining incomprehensible by us has to be accepted and we could certainly bear it. Even if we are unable to find reason in the world, if we could be sure about the existence of the one who created it, we would have to accept that there is maybe a reason understandable only by him. His redemptive presence in a way would be enough; redemptive because it would be a covetable presence. As Igor says then to Jeanne referring to her boyfriend she can only stand his home when he is there because she loves him, her answer is that she would have to love him a lot. However, he asks her is she is sure about her loving him, since, according to him, if she was madly in love with him she would have forgotten her own sense of order and accepted his. The metaphorical analogue of this mad love for her boyfriend would be her faith to God. Someone who is faithful does not need an unquestionable proof for God’s existence in order to accept his order. Jeanne confesses that she has never been madly in love, or, under our current interpretation, that she always were an atheist. She continues by supporting that she is not mad and that she does not have emotional problems. This could metaphorically mean that whether God’s grace exists or not she is a living example that someone can live fine without its recognition.
A Tale of Winter
Félicie (Charlotte Véry) and Loïc (Hervé Furic), while returning to his home by his car and having just watched in the theatre the William Shakespeare’s same titled play, begin a philosophical discussion on the matter of faith within and beyond religion. Loïc declares surprised that the play upset her so. She recalls that when the statue moved –namely when Hermione (Diane Lepvrier) in the play restored from being a statue to life– she almost screamed. Loïc’s comments that the play is not plausible and declares that she does not like whatever is plausible in general. In opposition with Jeanne she likes the unreasonableness of the world, she is charmed by everything without definite causality and thus predictable. For her God’s grace lies exactly in the cases in which the cause and effect are not clear since it is exactly there that God would be able to intervene, remaining nevertheless unobservable. However, since He will remain unobservable it does not matter –according to Félicie’s reflections– if He exists or not in the end. Then she seems to agree with Jeanne in that as you do not believe in love in order to be proved through its performance in the same way God exists only through and due to faith. So when Loïc says to her that the only ambiguity of the play that bothered him was whether it was magic which brought the statue to life or Hermione had not ever died, she is assertive that it was just faith that brought her to life, adding that she is more religious than him. Namely, for her faith functions as a provider of meaning or at least as an expectation of it. Even if she is, like Jeanne, an atheist she confesses to him that the previous day she prayed in a church. Actually she prefers the term reflection or meditation instead of prey to characterize what she did. She describes that a kind of excitement in her brain made her to think faster and that suddenly everything was clear. She refuses that it was a dazzling experience and she insists that on the contrary, she saw everything clearly. She does not believe that she was thinking exactly during her meditation, but that she saw her thoughts since all her reasoning on whether to leave or not Maxence (Michel Voletti) and return to Paris came in a flash. She saw what she had to do and she saw that she was right. Of course it could not be a proof of that. What excites her is that it was not a choice –based on certain reasons and which would be proved right or wrong according to its results–, but something like an inspiration she cannot explain. She just believes in the rightness of what she did knowing that for an external observer, like the one Jeanne imagined, would not seem plausible. Loïc continues by supporting that if he were God he would cherish her particularly for the reason that she was unjustly unhappy and that she could sacrifice her happiness, her life, to a love that was out of reach. So according to him, who is a Catholic, the fact that she still believes that she will meet again Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) and that they would be together again, more importantly, the fact that she sacrifices her current happiness due to her faith to it, that she chooses to wait for something not probable at all just because she believes in it makes her to deserve it. So for him faith has to be performed through sacrifices, this is the way in order to be observable.
A Summer’s Tale
Near to the middle of the film Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is for a walk on the mountains with his new friend Margot (Amanda Langlet). He says to her that his only problem with a group is not how to communicate, but how to be. Gaspard thus claims that he is able to communicate with others but he does not know the way to be among others. If the universe has any meaning we experience it through our thoughts and we communicate our thoughts through words and dialogue. Individuals, in contrast with philosophers, care mainly about the meaning of their own lives. For some it is easy to find it and for some others it is not. As Gaspard says to Margot later, some people fit in easily and blossom. He is from the ones who cannot easily discover the meaning of their everyday lives or at least he is in such a phase of his life. This is the reason why, as he says, he feels everyone is alive around him but not him. He adds that he believes that he does not exist, that he is transparent and invisible and so he can observe the others, but they cannot see him. He namely feels fallen out from the meaning of the world, from the meaning that the others constantly give to the world. He believes that he would be happy if he were not invisible. Rohmer connects once again the meaning with its visibility and of course joy. However, Margot considers him lucky and confesses that sometimes she would like that. More particularly, that she would like not to be tangled in the meaning of others. His response is that he is not like her, that he is not curious. This means that for him it is easy to be detached from the others, from their experience of the world. Meaning nevertheless is the result or maybe both the cause and effect of curiosity. Jeanne was seeking for meaning, Félicie struggled to find meaning in faith, but in opposition with them Igor is uncurious for it. By adding that he is not an observer he becomes a Rohmerian hero whose stasis concerning life is somehow passive. What he immediately says after that is that he is not something. He is thus a hero who without trying, without wanting it, feels his existence as pure, not by lacking significant qualities, but by lacking strong convictions, in full contrast with Félicie.
Around the beginning of the film Rosine (Alexia Portal) has a discussion with her ex-boyfriend, Grégoire (Matthieu Davette), who is now just her friend. When Grégoire attempts to kiss her she refuses to succumb to his caresses. Irritated, he objects to her by claiming that this was nothing. Her response is that it was too much, since they have made a pact. A pact to be friends, as Grégoire adds. And nothing more, is the immediate clarification of Rosine. His reaction is to support that what he just did meant nothing more. Rosin insists that it was, leading him to justify his action, its meaning, by supporting that it is hard for him to be just a friend of her but, more significantly, that it is not easy to discern the boundary. Rohmer reminds us here that if we tried to seek for meaning in an action we would possibly in almost any case have to face the problem of ambiguity. An ambiguity like the one that has stuck in Loïc’s mind concerning the restoration of Hermione’s to life in the play of Shakespeare. The meaning is maybe defined by its boundaries, boundaries which are not easy to see, which are absurd like the columns in Natacha’s dining room. We exist within boundaries and we experience life through boundaries. We are even able to conceive time –as I have already mentioned before– only in periods of time, which are nevertheless a kind of indispensable boundary. Maybe meaning exceeds the limits of our perception and we will remain unable to change this as we are unable to solve ambiguities. Ambiguities usually force us to decide. As it came out from the analyses of the previous films the ambiguity of meaning invites decisions. A theoretical truth’s insistence in its indefiniteness means an invitation for decisions, for actions. Afterwards, Rosine claims that she knows where the boundary between them as lovers and friends is. Grégoire’s responding argument is that their situations differ. He namely supports that meaning cannot but be objective, to be a matter of each one’s situation, of each one’s position. Ambiguity itself is maybe the effect of the different positions and situations of every subject at the various phases of their lives. The ambiguity of meaning is caused by the limits that differentiate the other and what allows the consideration of miscellaneous aspects of the world.
Dialogue is undoubtedly the raw material of Éric Rohmer’s cinema. Through the metaphorical interpretation of the dialogues of specific sequences from the Tales of Four Seasons cycle Rohmer’s concern with the notion of meaning was rather demonstrated. He put his heroes to discuss endlessly their actions eliminating accordingly the plot to the minimum. Through the expression of their thoughts they were reflecting on the meaning of their actions. The ones who believe in something, who have some –religious or not– faith seem to care less about the actuality of meaning. The meaning of their faith was exactly the meaning it was giving in their lives, lives which like any life were implausible par excellence since ambiguity lies everywhere. Rohmer seems to support scepticism, but not indifference, at least not much. For him God’s grace lies anyway in any absurdity in the world. Meaning has meaning because humans do always attempt to find one in anything. We consider as useful anything that has a meaning and the reverse. God’s existence maybe has not meaning because there may be no reason to have one while the boundaries of meaning can be useful just like the ambiguity of meaning is useful. Actions are the effect of the uncertainty of truth.
List of references:
- Leigh, Jacob (2012) The Cinema of Éric Rohmer: Irony, Imagination, and the Social World. London: Continuum.
- Tester, Keith (2014) ‘Imagination and Grace: Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons’ in Leah Anderst (ed) The Films of Éric Rohmer: French New Wave to Old Master. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 89-99.