Rohmerathon: Full Moon in Paris, by Scott Nye
After the rigorously-structured Pauline at the Beach, Éric Rohmer could be forgiven for indulging in a breezy film about Parisian night life, which by all appearances seems to describe Full Moon in Paris. Whether one looks at modern, release, or Blu-ray poster art, the image of the film is that of a seductive jaunt filled with music, dancing, sex, and cloudy nights. That last element is not to be overlooked, however. Rohmer’s 1984 nightlife film takes place not in the heat of the summer, but the gloom of French winter, starting in November and concluding in February, which seems to cast a pall over any potential carefree excursion. In each month, Rohmer takes a couple of nights surrounding the full moon (the original French title more accurately translates to “Nights of a Full Moon”), which seems to unlock pent-up passions and confessions within a small group of yuppies.
The incomparable Pascale Ogier stars as Louise, a young designer working in Paris but living in the suburbs with her boyfriend Rémi (Tchéky Karyo). She’s a few years younger than him, and naturally less prone to routine. She likes to spend her Friday nights dancing with friends; he prefers a good night’s sleep and an early game of tennis the next morning. She doesn’t mind going out without him, but his jealousy and possessiveness causes a rift that encourages her to stop renting out her old apartment in the city and use it as something of an escape when she misses the last train home. All of which might be fine, but she insists he doesn’t need to know about this. That would only complicate things.
Since the last entry in this series, I’ve read about 2/3rds of Antoine de Baeçque and Noël Herpe’s wonderful Eric Rohmer: A Biography, and their section discussing Full Moon in Paris is one of its most moving. Rohmer hadn’t had a bonafide success since The Marquise of O…; Perceval, The Aviator’s Wife, and A Good Marriage had met with either confused critics, disinterested audiences, or both. Pauline at the Beach was a tremendous financial success, but wouldn’t be thought one of his better films for a few years. After a string of break-evens and uncertainty, he was conscious of the need to tackle the way young people lived, thought, and behaved now, just as he had at the start of the Moral Tales. Baeçque and Herpe don’t quite come out and say it, but one senses that his working relationships with so many young actors left him with a recurring desire to be a little more hip.
So he started going out, not to socialize, but to observe. He expanded his frequent working habit of recording conversations with his desired cast to jotting down remarks he caught over loud music. He folded this research into perhaps the most direct analogy of his long-running obsession – the double life.
I feel slightly ashamed for not mentioning earlier in the series that Rohmer was not born Rohmer, but Maurice Schérer. His mother died in the 1970s thinking her son was a provincial schoolteacher, not a famous filmmaker. He rarely discussed his work at home, and kept a fairly strict schedule to ensure the two worlds rarely intersected. Revisiting Love in the Afternoon at Cinefamily recently, I was reminded of a moment in which Frédéric (Bernard Varley) muses to Chloé (Zouzou) that he desired to marry her. He had no desire to divorce his own wife, but wished to live two lives. What else is the Moral Tales series – about men committed to one woman, but desiring another – addressing but this very impulse?
Transferring these emotions not to a man in his thirties – as Rohmer had recently been when making the Moral Tales – but to a woman in her mid-twenties is a shrewd commercial move, to be sure. Young, attractive, sexually adventurous women have been driving audiences to foreign-language films for as long as there has been such a distinction. But the greater benefit to the audience is to see a type of character we rarely get at the movies. Usually women in movies have secrets maliciously, building plans to undermine some man. Women don’t usually get to connive the way men do, casually feigning innocence. We see Louise’s thought process, her justifications, her cluelessness at what she’s attempting. We see how Rémi’s jealousy drives her to secrecy, but also how unsuited they are to one another because of that, something Louise can’t admit.
She instead spends much of her social time with Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a married writer who desperately wants to have an affair with her. He shares her social predicament, as his wife isn’t much for going out on Fridays, so they’re a bit of a pair at these parties and often mistaken for a couple. Rohmer, Ogier, and Luchini have a keen sense for this type of hetero-social relationship, where the lines of desire are clearly drawn but utterly beside the point. Louise enjoys his company too much to hold his feelings against him, and for awhile, he doesn’t insist upon them. That reaches a breaking point when it becomes clear Louise’s private apartment will not just be for the solitude she insisted it was. The right sort of man might be allowed in.
Ogier is the ideal Rohmerian woman, more emotionally volatile than his men, but just as self-possessive. She plays the decision to design one’s own life as something Louise has been long considering, but is now treating almost as a whim, a happy coincidence that popped up just as she needed it. She’s exceptionally fine at playing the surprise that sets in when her plans start to crumble, and the silent realization she has sitting up in bed one night that this destruction may very well be her fault. “You seem ethereal,” Octave tells her at one point, “But you’re really quite physical.” What he doesn’t acknowledge is her intellect, her continual self-reflection over what she’s done, is doing, and is about to do.
By this time, Rohmer had pretty well abandoned voiceover as a narrative device, but he still casts intelligent actors who convey an ongoing thought process. Ogier recites her lines through a filter, recognizing that Louise is constantly analyzing the effect of her words before she speaks. She wants to position herself delicately; avoiding lies, eluding truth, and casting a flattering self-portrait. This is in some ways true of all Rohmer protagonists, but Ogier sets herself apart by letting the gradual panic take over when her designs fail, and furthermore, by playing the recognition that she has been subconsciously designing herself so thoroughly.
Full Moon in Paris was a big hit when it came out, and sort of defined 80s yuppie culture along the way. Resistant though I am to use the “dated” label (all films are products of their time, one way or another), I understand why people leap to it. But when something like this is so fresh, so precise in its depiction of a time and place, it will always retain that sensation. To see Ogier dance to Elli & Jacno, undoubtedly the film’s most indelible moment (which has its own amusing production stories detail in A Biography, but I’ll leave those for you to discover), the film’s hardly aged a day.
The image proves bittersweet. Months after its release, a day before her twenty-sixth birthday, Ogier suffered a heart attack and died. She made only a handful of films – two with Rohmer (plus a play filmed for television), one with Rivette, one alongside Anna Karina, among others. She’ll always live a little through her work, and we’ll always mourn everything else she could have given.