La collectionneuse: Marking Time

Aug 15, 2006

La collectionneuse is a strong, sensuously lush, deceptively slight film, a riviera fruit with a bitter, uncompromising aftertaste. In retrospect, it is both classically Rohmer-esque and atypical, as befits a film in which the director was still finding his way. The first full-length feature in the Moral Tales, the first one in color, the first collaboration between the director and his great cameraman Nestor Almendros, it is also more sexually explicit and linguistically gruff—less chivalric, if you will.

By the time Eric Rohmer began shooting La collectionneuse, in 1967, he had already made the first two of his Moral Tales, the featurettes The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962) and Suzanne’s Career (1963), and the thematic template of the series had been established: a man committed to one woman is tempted by a second but resists having sex with her, in the meantime turning himself inside out with analytical self-scrutiny.

He had actually planned to do La collectionneuse after My Night at Maud’s (1969), but the prospective star of that film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, was tied up with another shooting, and so the director decided to go ahead and direct this feature out of sequence, on a very low budget, with nonprofessionals and limited sets. As James Monaco tells it in his valuable book The New Wave, “The only expenses that summer were for film stock and rent for the house in Saint-Tropez, which was the set and which also housed cast and crew. There was also a small budget line for the salary of the cook, who, the stories go, cooked nothing but minestrone during the entire shooting schedule.” All this may help explain why La collectionneuse has a somewhat transitional, in-between air: its three main characters, mooching for the summer off their absentee friend Rudolph’s beneficence, and Rohmer himself, waiting to start shooting the bigger-­budget production that would come to be regarded as his masterpiece, are all marking time.

In this space of freedom, thanks to minimal expectations (Rohmer and his producer, Barbet Schroeder, were genuinely surprised when La collectionneuse went on to win the Silver Bear at Berlin and run nine months in a Paris cinema), the director was able to devise several working principles: improvisations with his cast that would be codified into a script; extensive rehearsals followed by very few takes (a miserly 1.5:1 shooting ratio was achieved); a discreetly spying, unostentatious mise-en-scène composed mostly of fluid long shots, capturing the vacationing characters awkwardly sharing the space of someone else’s villa, whiling away the summer days and nights in a mixture of lassitude and tension. The sense of contrast in an earthly paradise in which the loveliest landscapes serve as ironic background for the pettiest exchanges is heightened by Almendros’s extraordinary color photography, with its warm brown tones and deep, rich blues; its translation of the phenomenon of heat into light through the use of natural instead of artificial illumination and mirrors for softening; its pushing of film stocks to the limit in night scenes and shade shooting during the day to avoid the sun’s dramatic changes. All these techniques, which would become hallmarks of Almendros’s, and Rohmer’s, later styles, were worked out for the first time in La collectionneuse, which the cinematographer, not surprisingly, came to regard as his favorite film. Almendros, who was quick to credit Rohmer’s hands-on approach (“Nothing could be done without his knowing about it and agreeing with it”), characterized the director’s overall photographic philosophy thusly: “His criterion is that if the image portrays the characters simply, and as close to real life as possible, they will be interesting.” This went hand in hand with the director’s dramaturgic emphasis on the slow emergence of character over thespian grandstanding.

Rohmer’s use of nonprofessionals is complicated. He has never been as doctrinaire about it as Robert Bresson, but he likes nonprofessionals for the fact that they seem quieter and less apt to project Personality, with a capital P. They are more like empty vessels, ambiguous and harder to read, whom the audience must move halfway to meet. On the other hand, Rohmer often combined vivid professional actors with nonprofessionals, or gave nonprofessionals their first significant roles, which subsequently led to long acting careers. Patrick Bauchau, the star of La collectionneuse, was a fellow traveler of the new wave who went on to appear in more than a hundred movies; Haydée Politoff, the ingenue here, has had a less sparkling career, gracing many Italian horror movies. It is curious that two of the then nonprofessional leads (Politoff and Daniel Pommereulle) are called by their real first names, Haydée and Daniel, while Patrick Bauchau, the most charismatic, personality-filled, and polished of the trio, enacts a character whose name was changed to Adrien.

La collectionneuse offers a case study in rationalization. With its rich, unapologetically literary, first-person voice-over narration by Adrien, the film is essentially about the disparity between the main characters’ subjective interpretations of events and another, wider truth, which may be gleaned by the spectator eavesdropping on the proceedings. Faced with the enticing proximity of Haydée, a bronzed, bikini-clad student, the older man cannot make up his mind whether to make a move and bed this doe or leave her alone. Here we see one of Rohmer’s most original tropes: the tepid attraction. It flies in the face of all cinematic convention, which dictates that the encounter of a good-­looking man and a good-looking woman must lead to grand narrative passion. But Haydée is not, like Brigitte Bardot in . . . And God Created Woman, an irresistible temptation or force of nature; she is a somewhat scrawnier girl-woman, the cousin of Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (another Côte d’Azur movie, made in 1958, which likely influenced Rohmer), who is still trying to figure out the limits of her feminine magnetism. She is certainly not a “slut,” a term the two men keep throwing in her face. She is sexually active, not inappropriately for her age, but I choose to believe her when she scoffs at their accusations that she is promiscuous, a “collector” of male lovers. No, she says, she is “searching”; she has as yet had no “lovers” in the affectionate sense of the word.

Why, then, are these men so nasty to her? They are angry because she is a pretty morsel who, to their (sexist) minds, imposes on them an obligation to try to seduce her; they are angry that she has attracted them somewhat but not all the way (their own problem, but they interpret it as a kind of tease on her part); they are angry that she represents the utopian sexual liberation of a younger generation, and they are jealous of the cloddish, career-unburdened young men with whom she sleeps; and finally, they are angry simply because she is a woman, and all women, in their view, threaten to entrap them through the game of love. Haydée is not the most articulate young woman, though she says just enough to cast doubt on the men’s interpretations. There will be other Rohmer films that take us deep into the psyches of women; this one does not, but it gives us a very daring, precise portrait of the misogynistic, entitled, self-loathing psyches of men. And unlike, say, most Woody Allen movies, it does not let the rationalizing male character off the hook. Rohmer explicitly warned us, in an interview: “You should never think of me as an apologist for my male character, even (or especially) when he is being his own apologist. On the contrary, the men in my films are not meant to be particularly sympathetic characters.”

The handsome Adrien acts in a particularly caddish manner: he cynically manipulates his friend Daniel into sleeping with Haydée (and there is the homoerotic suggestion that perhaps he is using her as a substitute for himself); he neglects to defend her when Daniel calls her beastly names; he leaves her with the older American art dealer and goes off for two days, as though pimping her; and finally, after eliciting some definitive sign that she really likes him (her stroking his chest repeatedly in the bathroom is one of the sexiest moments in Rohmer’s oeuvre), he ditches her on the side of the road. He thinks he is acting out of a need to assert his freedom by abnegating his desires, like a Dostoyevskian “underground” man who can only experience freedom through spiting his best interests; but it is no accident that he drives off without her when he sees her talking to two guys her own age. In a sense, he is frightened of her youth, and he also recognizes, however subconsciously, that it would not be right to take advantage of this girl. He does the correct thing, if for the wrong reason.

In Adrien, Rohmer seems to have diagnosed presciently the emergence of a particular type on the world stage, which Christopher Lasch would pinpoint a decade later in The Culture of Narcissism (1979). According to Lasch, the narcissist could be very charming, with “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness,” and “the manipulation of interpersonal relations,” though he is haunted by anxiety. His sexual emancipation “brings him no sexual peace . . . Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future . . . but lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” In the movie, Adrien travels light, as a middleman for the sale of antiquities, and wants to start his own art gallery. The American collector accuses Adrien in one scene, which gets quite ugly and malicious, of being on “permanent vacation.” It is not an entirely inaccurate charge and makes us wonder if the American may be the film’s superego—that is, until he slaps Haydée for breaking his Chinese vase and forfeits all our sympathy. Then again, Haydée, in “accidentally” breaking the vase, shows that she is not entirely ready for adult life, either. These people are playing at life, at value and meaning. The tragedy of the narcissist is that nothing matters enough to become tragic. Adrien, alone at the end, tells himself: “I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exquisite freedom. Now I could do whatever I wanted. But once back in the emptiness and silence of the house, I was seized with anxiety and unable to sleep.” Hollowness might be an equally descriptive word.

La collectionneuse focuses on the colliding needs of two generations, but it is also generationally inflected in another sense: Rohmer was ten years older than his colleagues François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol, and this particular feature film, his second, appeared belatedly—eight years after the French new wave had taken international cinema by storm. If they reinvented film syntax with the brash energy of youth, Rohmer, who was forty-seven when he shot La collectionneuse, would demonstrate what could be done in another, classical vein, with unobtrusive camera movements, invisible editing, the suppression of music, and a more detached moral perspective toward his youngish characters. Godard clearly bonded with his criminal, immature gangster protagonist in Breathless; they are both on the same generational plane. Not so Rohmer: he interrogates here, in keeping with the overall project of a “moral tale,” the drawbacks of neglecting to grow up. He is still young enough to have put in a sex scene (a few seconds of Haydée thrashing in bed with a young man, the first time Adrien glimpses her), which would have been unheard-of later in his career; and he incorporates a good deal of the cast’s rough youth slang (much of which, he later confessed, he didn’t understand). But finally, Rohmer views the problems of indolent, potential-laden, prolonged youth in this film from the perspective of the middle-aged artist, who knows that the clock is ticking. The “wave” is no longer so “new.”

Phillip Lopate’s own film criticism was collected in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, and he also edited American Movie Criticism for the Library of America.