Eric Rohmer’s Career

In 1962, film journalist turned filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, completed his second film inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Suzanne’s Career.  Produced by Barbet Schroeder (already an established cinematic force in France), Suzanne’s Career adheres to the premise of all six of Rohmer’s “Moral Tale” films, charting the temptation of a married or “called-for” man by a female third party.  Rohmer’s position in executing the same concept six different ways comes from his scholarly background in film analysis and history, having been Andre Bazin’s successor as editor of the Cahiers Du Cinema.  Rohmer makes these films as much as an homage to Murnau as to analyze and dissect the contemporary social strata of France and its ramifications upon interpersonal relationships.  What Rohmer proves with the very act of making so many films that address the same moral dilemma is that there are a multitude of probabilities and variations, with each change being designated to a variant motivational factor such as the characters, the year the story takes place, the wealth and age of the characters, physical location, etc.  As scholarly as Rohmer’s approach to the cinema may appear in concept, in reality, each of his six “moral films” stands on its own, as a unique cinematic experience.

But what is uniquely significant about Suzanne’s Career is that it marks a departure for Eric Rohmer from the more rigid and meticulous style that defined his earlier films, particularly Le Signe Du Lion (1959).  Suzanne’s Career does away with the standard concepts of coverage and static shots, embracing the cinema verite style of D.A. Pennebaker and Morris Engel in much the same way as Godard had done earlier with his film Breathless (1960).  Part of Rohmer’s motivation for shooting Suzanne’s Career this way was to endow his film with a greater sense of realism and energy, but was also the by-product of a lack of sufficient funds.  Due to monetary problems, Rohmer was forced to shoot a majority of Suzanne’s Career on the go, utilizing real locations with “real” people in the background in place of professional extras.  But it is not the visual illusion to documentary filmmaking alone that makes this film an innovation in Rohmer’s filmography, but the manner in which he employs text and narration with an ear for literary voice and commentary.  It’s as if Rohmer had discovered how to fuse the kinetic energy and visual possibilities with his background in journalism and writing.  This fusion as I call it is the most important contribution Rohmer would make to the French New Wave, enabling Truffaut to pursue his film adaptations of novels and Godard to imbue his films with a more highly intellectualized reflexivity and self awareness.

To better elaborate upon the literary qualities of Suzanne’s Career, it may be helpful to adapt the subtitle of Norman Mailer’s Armies Of The Night (1968) from “history as the novel, the novel as history” to “film as the novel, the novel as film”.  That is to say that the narration of Suzanne’s Career is as descriptive as it is subjective to the narrator’s point of view, which in this case is Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen).  What’s out of the ordinary about the circumstances of Bertrand’s narration is how both components, its objectivity and subjectivity, overlap and inform one another.  For instance, the film’s opening consists of a number of location shots that are explained by Bertrand as his school and a café he frequents, giving both their names and exact locations.  Their addresses are of course objective fact, but their relation to Bertrand is unique to him and therefore entirely subjective.  In most cases when narration is used in film, the visuals do not coincide with the narration simultaneously.  For instance, it is unusual for a filmmaker to show the audience a location while the narrator explains that locations significantly.  Typically, one or the other will do, and it has become a sort of unspoken rule to avoid exactly what Rohmer is doing in Suzanne’s Career.  But it is Rohmer’s consistency in employing this type of narration that makes it acceptable to his audience.  Suzanne’s Career does not employ its narration only at the beginning and end of the film to establish and then conclude its narrative, but embraces its narration as an illuminating aside to the main narrative action that the actors are performing.

Bertrand’s narration grounds the entirety of Suzanne’s Career in his perspective, so that all of the information one gleans from the narrative is in precise relation to Bertrand, transforming the film into a kind of character study.  As Rohmer progressed as a filmmaker he retreated from his narration tactics, preferring to utilize the visual component of film completely, not just as a point and counter point that composes the greater narrative of his films.  Compare Suzanne’s Career to Love In The Afternoon (1972).  In Love In The Afternoon Rohmer focuses every scene and almost every shot onto the male protagonist.  This achieves the same strength of perspective as he achieved in Suzanne’s Career but without the use of narration.  Of course, this change in narrative devices makes for a different cinematic experience, though not a thematic one.  When viewing Love In The Afternoon, one journey’s with the protagonist through the film’s narrative, sharing experiences and perspectives.  Suzanne’s Career is past tense, existing as a recollection by Bertrand that the audience experiences as his memory of the film’s narrative.

This opens up the potential to argue that Rohmer has progressed as a filmmaker between Suzanne’s Career and Love In The Afternoon in regards to how he executes his narrative.  However, considering the films Rohmer made prior to Suzanne’s Career, it becomes evident that Suzanne’s Career was made as a stylistic experiment.  Suzanne’s Career is designed to utilize Bertrand’s narration and take full advantage of Rohmer’s literary background and the audience’s understanding of literary signifiers (the most obvious being the perspective of the film’s narration).  The fast pace of Suzanne’s Career indicates the uncertainty of the success of the devices Rohmer had chosen to implement, while at the same time recalling the very literary genre that most often employs first person narration, the novella.

All of Rohmer’s literary concerns that come to the forefront of the viewing experience of Suzanne’s Career were actually quite out of vogue at the time of the film’s production.  Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet had revolutionized both the novel and the medium of film with their work Last Year At Marienbad (1961) and For A New Novel (1963).  Drawing upon the philosophical writings of Henri Bergson, both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet intended to realign and deconstruct narrative construction and the cinematographic langue.  In exact contrast to the work of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet is Eric Rohmer’s Suzanne’s Career.  Rohmer advocates as well as embraces the literary traditions he employs in Suzanne’s Career.  That Rohmer would make four more films that follow the same basic narrative premise as Suzanne’s Career only reinforces Rohmer’s perspective that the novel as well as the narrative film has as much versatility and potential as ever.  This conflict between narrative and literary forms carries over into the more commercial films of the French New Wave.  Certainly Godard’s film Vivre Sa Vie (1962) seems undecided as to where its stylistic allegiances lie, just as Truffaut’s later films The Wild Child (1970) and The Green Room (1978)are cemented in the traditional literary form.

That said, Eric Rohmer’s film Suzanne’s Career is not known for its literary approach or its rebellion against the popular Bergson revivalism of the late fifties, but simply for being a strong and consistent narrative.  The same could be said for the majority of Rohmer’s films.  Often the subtlety and nuance of his cinematic expression is overshadowed by his skill as a filmic storyteller.

-Robert Curry

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