Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Comedies and Proverbs: The Aviator's Wife (1981)

Two very amateur detectives

After the international success of his Six Moral Tales series,  French director Éric Rohmer took an unexpected left turn in the 1970's.  Whereas the moral tales had focused on the lives and loves of contemporary youth in France with a naturalistic veracity that bordered on neo-realism, the three features he released between 1973 and 1980 were each lushly appointed period pieces.  He would return to the style on which he made his name, however, in 1981 when he launched his second series, Comedies and Proberbs, with the film The Aviator's Wife.

Like the Moral Tales, the Comedies and Proverbs films are a series connected thematically rather than narratively;  there are no recurring characters or plot threads (although this time around Rohmer develops something of a repertory of actors, re-using many of the same performers in multiple movies within the series.)  Rather, the subjects of the six movies in the series are linked in two important ways.  The first is that each film begins with a proverb, the lesson of which will inform the emotional challenges faced by the protagonists.  The second is that each features a female lead who, either lonely in love or pursued by multiple suitors, brings social difficulties on herself through her particular idealized view of romantic and sexual entanglements.

The Aviator's Wife's proverb is "on ne saurait penser à rein," which roughly translates as "one can't think about nothing."  It's François (Philipe Marlaud) doing the thinking in this case, because the moment he catches a glimpse of Anne and Christian (Marie Rivière and Mathieu Carrière) together at the beginning of the film his mind is tormented by pessimistic interpretations of the sight.  You see, Anne is François's girlfriend and he's devoted to her.  Indeed, when we first meet François he's going to great lengths to arrange for a plumber for Anne to fix a problematic tap.  Christian, however, is Anne's ex -- a married man (the titular aviator) that François suspects (quite reasonably, as it seems) that Anne still has strong feelings for.  What does it mean, then, that the two of them are leaving Anne's apartment first thing in the morning?  When confronting Anne about the encounter (and confronting, and confronting) proves unproductive, Christian spends the rest of the movie playing detective.  The ever increasing distance between François' conclusions and the reality as witnessed by the viewers provides much of the film's comedy.

Anne-Laure Meury as Lucie

The real star of the show, however, is François' accidental partner in detection.  When he hops a bus to follow Christian and a mysterious woman he finds himself sitting across from adorable student Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury.)  Over the course of the afternoon François lets Lucie in on his dilemma and she joins him in his amateur investigations.  Whereas François is sour and brooding, ever convinced of the worst, Lucie sees their quest as a fun lark, an exciting distraction from her studies.

By their very nature, Rohmer's films depend on superlative acting from their leads;  the nuances of the stories are all in the subtleties of the performances.  Luckily, Rohmer has always had an incredible eye for acting talent.  Even in that context, however, Anne-Laure Meury stands out.  She has a tremendous natural charisma and energy that quite simply sets fire to every scene she's in.  It's honestly something of a mystery to me why she didn't have a more successful career in France.  Other than a handful of things for TV, she only appeared in seven features, three of which were Rohmer's. 

Marie Rivière as Anne

Anne, for her part, gradually reveals a view of romance that, if not self-destructive, is at least a great source of her own difficulties.  Although she clearly longs for romantic involvement, she refuses to marry or even live with a man.  She tries to keep François at a distance, insisting that he has no right to know who she sees or how she spends her nights, yet carelessly exerts control over him.  She demands, for example, that he continue his education, stating that she'll leave him if he quits school.  Yet her fascinated gaze at a snow-globe containing a romantic castle suggests that her true desires are under just such a bubble as well.  When she offers a vague account of a terrible prior experience to justify her claim that she'll never live with another man we understand that her need to control may derive from the failure of her past to live up to her true romantic ideal.

The Aviator's Wife is a rich and rewarding start to a series that, over the course of the 1980's would come to represent a monumental achievement in story-telling and character development, and in the end even surpass Rohmer's more famous moral tales.

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