Rohmerathon: Charlotte and Veronique, by Scott Nye
Of all of the oddities in Eric Rohmer’s early films – his adapting Tolstoy and Poe, his frantic handheld camerawork, the focus on poverty and silence in The Sign of Leo – the oddest, retrospectively, may be his close association with Jean-Luc Godard. He and Rohmer co-founded (along with Jacques Rivette) Gazette du cinema, and when that went belly-up, then transferred collectively to Cahiers. Godard would make a brief appearance in The Sign of Leo, produce The Kreutzer Sonata, and, in the bitter cold of 1951, star in what is arguably Rohmer’s first short film.
Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak is difficult to wrestle with, historically. The film was shot in 1951 with Godard in the lead role as Walter, who’s trying to prevent Charlotte (Anne Couderet) from hurrying off somewhere so that he might sleep with her. He has a girlfriend, Clara (Andrée Bertrand), and Charlotte’s a little too wise (or precisely flirtatious). She makes him stand by the door while she fixes dinner, allowing him a bite of her steak. In his book The Cinema of Eric Rohmer: Irony, Imagination, and the Social World, Jacob Leigh writes that “Rohmer has referred to its story of a man hesitating between two women as ‘the germ of the [Moral Tales],’” which makes this slight entry of special note to Rohmer enthusiasts.
So why did it take him nearly ten years to finish it? Sound was finally dubbed in in 1960, with Godard providing his own voice, but two other actress entirely – Stéphane Audran and Anna Karina – providing the voices for Charlotte and Clara, respectively. The film became part of a Charlotte and Veronique compilation of shorts (Godard made two others, All the Boys Are Called Patrick and Charlotte and Her Jules), with the other name provided by Rohmer’s 1958 Veronique and Her Dunce (more on that in a second). But this serialized approach could hardly have been the intent in 1951.
In fact, the film’s difficulty getting much of anywhere establishes an unfortunate pattern that would plague Rohmer up until the beginning of the Moral Tales series (and to some extent, throughout the first three chapters in it). I’ve already discussed the terrible reception that greeted The Sign of Leo, but long before that, right after Presentation, Rohmer set about making his first feature. This was 1952, before there was any sign of a “French New Wave” that could overthrow the entire structure of French film production, and represented Rohmer’s first time working with a professional crew (industry regulations prevented him from simply gathering Godard, Rivette, and others together). Tensions rose almost immediately, as no one on the crew thought Rohmer was capable of handling the production, or that the footage would even cut together. The financier pulled out in post-production, the film was left incomplete, and its negative has since vanished entirely.
As for Presentation, or at least the version with which we ended up, Rohmer packs a lot into under ten minutes, giving us a clear sense of who these people are, who they might have been, and what they might become. Rohmer would more deeply explore the central dilemma later on, but never quite with the level of mischievousness Godard brings to the role. Godard, long (rightfully, to my mind) considered something of a misogynist, does seem to enjoy toying with Charlotte here, and Rohmer’s somewhat misanthropic sense of humor really gets off on seeing him squirm in the corner he’s been designated (Couderet displays excellent dominance and control in her body language). Unlike Rohmer’s Tolstoy or Poe adaptations, the camera is fairly still, cutting between the two players, and though it was mostly shot on a stage, the opening and closing scenes in the dead of winter nicely establish this small apartment as a safe haven from the natural forces that trap them there. Like Rohmer’s later works, this is as much about a place as a people, and he has an excellent sense of how people adjust their behavior based on their surroundings. Even though we don’t see these two outside of these confines, it’s easy to imagine Walter as a more boisterous, domineering fellow when he’s not under the propriety of being in someone else’s home.
Veronique and Her Dunce is perhaps even slighter than Presentation, though a good deal more formally accomplished. Nearly twice the length of that earlier film, it shows a tutor, Veronique (Nicole Berger) attempt to wrangle the attention and discipline of her pupil (Alain Delrieu). The boy has no head for math, but a thousand decent theories for why he’s being made to learn such useless topics. I’m sure anyone with an arts degree can relate. Finding herself engaged in the lowest-stakes battle of wills she’ll ever fight, Veronique can only be amused at the lengths to which the boy goes to simply not attempt to complete his work. But this is also, in some ways, the foundation of the countercultural movement. In ten years, it will be 1968, and he’ll be precisely the right age to be engaged in the revolutionary struggles of his peers. The questions he puts to Veronique are the beginnings of questioning every authority that comes his way. It’s a movement Rohmer will notably not engage with directly, but one wonders how he might do so accidentally.