If you read the newspaper articles that appeared following the death of Eric Rohmer early this year, you will have come across the cliché that his work is ‘talky’: the implicit criticism is that Rohmer’s films feature too much dialogue and not enough action. Personally, I see nothing wrong with characters engaging in thought-provoking debate. Dialogue can do a lot to advance the film’s narrative, so a film with a lot of talking is not necessarily a film in which nothing happens. It seems to me that those who criticize a film for being ‘talky’ believe that cinema’s natural vocation is to convey movement per se, and this seems an awfully restrictive vision of the medium.
I recently watched one of Rohmer’s earliest films, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959). This film is certainly not considered one of his best, but it’s worth seeing if only because it proves how correct Rohmer was to focus more and more, in his later films, on intriguing conversations taking place between ordinary people. Le Signe du lion is about Pierre, a middle-aged man who is notified that he is to receive a vast inheritance from his aunt. He borrows money from his friends to throw a party, then learns that a cousin has inherited everything. The rest of the film traces Pierre’s life as it spirals downward over the ensuing weeks, until he is forced to become a tramp. Pierre is rescued from his penury when the cousin dies in a car crash. The most boring sequences in the film are those where the camera simply follows Pierre as he tries and fails to borrow money from his friends, is kicked out of his accommodation, reduced to a worn set of clothing and cannot get enough to eat. Although there is a noteworthy pathos to these images, they could benefit from some more rigorous editing: these scenes make the viewer long for the ‘talky’ ones from the film’s opening, which are much more like the Rohmer audiences later came to love (or hate).
At the party where Pierre prematurely celebrates his good fortune, the verbal exchanges promise a much more stimulating film than the one that actually follows. One of his friends causes offense by wondering aloud whether Pierre’s girlfriend is a gold-digger; another remarks that a man like Pierre, who has lived modestly for the first 40 years of his life, will not benefit from sudden wealth. The viewer might expect the director to continue to follow the group of friends and their interpersonal dynamics, as Rohmer later would in films like Les Nuits de la pleine lune (1984) and L’Ami de mon amie (1987), but the rest of the film mainly shows Pierre suffering alone. During this early scene Pierre discourses on star signs. He says that fortune-tellers all told him that after the age of 40, he would be either rich or penniless: as his fortieth birthday is coming up in a month and a half, he assumes that his good fortune has arrived early. However, the fact that the date is noted periodically throughout the film implies that precision in these matters is important. Although the ensuing events do explore the notion of fate, and how closely the two possible sides to Pierre’s fate, wealth and penury, coexist, it does so more visually than verbally, and this is to the film’s detriment.
Even if Le Signe du lion tends to drag, it does have the merit of utterly inversing the viewer’s expectations in a manner typical of the French New Wave: it moves back and forth between the Hollywood film and a form of contemporary realism. The Hollywood elements are, obviously, the unexpected inheritance, the absolute reversals of fortune, and the unlikely happy ending. These are counterbalanced by a realistic portrayal of the Paris of the time: the location shots of famous cafés, streets and landmarks (most notably Notre Dame, the Pantheon and rue Mouffetard), young and middle-aged characters from a variety of backgrounds, from the bohemian to the wealthy, the likelihood that grandiose expectations will be disappointed, and perhaps most of all a sensitivity to the tenuous line that separates a life of pleasure in Paris from one of misery. The viewer is left, in the final minutes of the film, feeling torn between two equally likely possible endings: Pierre could remain a clochard or he could once again become a milliardaire.