I asked myself, Why does this tall but dead Frenchman fascinate me so? Maybe it’s the women in his films, maybe the men. Maybe it’s the women’s names put forth in the English titles of his first series of films, the Moral Tales — My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, and Chloe in the Afternoon (possibly the best title, though the French original was L’Amore L’Apres-midi, a nod to Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon from 1957) — and later, in one of the films from his Comedies and Proverbs series, Pauline at the Beach. When one christens a piece of art with a woman’s name, the art, if beautiful enough, can take on certain characteristics of a woman herself, quite unlike a boat or car christened in the same way. For instance, improbably, to my nasal passages, the films smell like women because of their characters and settings. Maud and Chloe — both the characters and the films — have a somewhat more indoorsy fragrance, where the crescent of odor in the small of a woman’s back betters the tang the underwear veils, where what dominates is the slight perfume of their choice lightly rubbed into the linen of their bed. This is an enormous draw, but this strange reality of being so close to what is desired, though it is only a film, parallels the male protagonist’s issues in each scenario, outlined in Rohmer’s own words: “A man in love with one woman meets another. For a brief interlude, he flirts with the idea of a liaison. In the end, he decides against it and returns to the first.” The men embrace the tempting women placed before them. They kiss them and share their deepest ideas, but there is no consummation and, instead, the men all take an ascetic turn, seeing a greater beauty in not yielding and thereby gaining greater power.
It is not just Rohmer’s actors who warp my mind and bring me in touch with something beyond his films. Rohmer said his films were meteorological and in La Collectioneuse, Claire’s Knee, Pauline at the Beach, and A Summer’s Tale (from his final series, Tales of the Four Seasons) the sun touches the bare skin that is desired, bare skin so lapped with rays and lotion that it smells like the beach. As I watch women and men frolic or lay on the strand, the sounds of the sea and the sights of the water bring to mind something primal. If some people live vicariously through others, through their children or through friends and lovers, other people live through art. Yet, apart from the sun on skin, even when the bodies are covered in Rohmer’s cold weather films like My Night at Maud’s, Full Moon in Paris, and A Winter’s Tale, I am turned on; I am in instant eros because of the faces and the renowned Rohmer-speak, philosophical dialogues often between men and women flirting — a way of relating more charged than most skin shots in Hollywood. But I can also be instantly chagrined even within the same film because those representational heavens will lead to hells I wouldn’t ever want to be reminded of again. Thanks to Rohmer’s dialogue and his camera, I can smell those fetching French women, women who give off scents I have sometimes experienced before — scents that tie into past relationships, distant pain.