Rohmerathon: The Aviator’s Wife, by Scott Nye
Oh, what a difference a pen can make…
François (Phillipe Marlaud) has several problems before him – he’s working a dull job at night so he can attend a few classes by day, all of which prevents him from seeing his girlfriend, Anne (Marie Rivière), who’s five years his senior and is mostly using him as a rebound from her affair with a married pilot. He’s not nearly getting out what he’s putting in, but he’s too young and plain to feel anything but lucky that she’s even giving him the time of day. For now, he’s just trying to let her know that he’s arranged for a plumber to come look at her bathroom (another gesture she will barely acknowledge). He can’t call her at work and doesn’t think she’s home, so he tries to leave a note, but his pen’s dried. He storms off, and in comes a well-dressed older man, who successfully leaves a note with the it-turns-out-simply-asleep Anne, who hears him shuffle it under her door and bolts to greet him.
Now, she might not have been quite as eager to see François, and may have let him simply sulk off into the morning. She’s certainly a good deal more excited about this man – he’s the pilot. He’s returned only to say goodbye. She’s heartbroken. Who wouldn’t be? Yet this simple mix-up – the failed pen, quickly followed by the working one (no metaphor there, I’m sure) – provides the catalyst for a daylong trip through Paris filled with jealousy, suspicion, amateur detective work, naps, arguments, and resignation. Unlike prior Rohmer films, the timeframe (about twelve hours) is as intimate as the relations, yet the world he creates feels no less complete. Even without the voiceover, we understand his characters’ lives and circumstances, and more importantly the illusions about themselves they carry.
Unlike virtually all of the film he’d made to this point, in which pictorial beauty contrasts with the pettiness and bitter attitudes of their characters, The Aviator’s Wife is a comparatively shaggy affair about much sweeter people. François has his jealousies and a young man’s tendency to over-insert himself into the life of a woman he loves, but he’s never purposefully destructive, always looking to resolve conflict as soon as possible. Anne can be nasty to him, but since we see how attached she is to the man who does not love her, we sympathize, and recognize her natural desire for space and compassion. We barely even know the pilot, but his goal to break off his affair and return to his wife has its own nobility. The cinematography, which is mostly handheld and emphasizes earthy greens and blues, rarely finds a truly beautiful image (even during an extended scene at a park on a sunny day), but this dreariness only accentuates the earnest desire for honest connection. There’s a lot of muck to push through.
And what’s more, they get it…if only in passing. François finds it first when, haphazardly deciding to follow the pilot that afternoon with little reason to believe he might learn anything of value, he almost literally runs into Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury), a fifteen-year-old student taking the afternoon off to study. She quickly becomes interested in François and his odd case, flirting relentlessly, and becomes a perhaps too-convenient outlet for his pent-up frustrations and anxieties. This is hardly the first or last time Rohmer’s female characters would suggest a Manic Pixie Dream Girl type, but one can rest assured that François will be left as unfulfilled by her as the rest. The potential climax of their relationship is not undercut as a purely cynical maneuver; François is lonely, and to solve his loneliness in a day would be dishonest to an audience that knows loneliness intimately (why else would they be at the movies?). But this is still the most hopeful and optimistic Rohmer has yet been – sure things don’t work out, but for once it’s not because of someone’s self-centeredness or spiteful nature or almost-predatory instincts; the timing was just a little off. What counts is to put oneself out there, to be honest and sincere and open to the world around you.
François finds this bravery during a long bedroom conversation with Anne, which stands among the best scenes Rohmer has crafted to this point. The writer/director has such a fine feeling for the ins and outs of these conversations, when both parties are a little too tired and a little too angry and a little too uncertain about how they really feel. The natural comparison point is My Night at Maud’s, though that both took place over a longer time (Maud is a full night, evening to dawn; Aviator is in real time) and a longer running time (a solid 43 minutes; here, it’s only 27), but the comparison is nevertheless edifying. Whereas the unnamed narrator in Maud is too busy positioning himself to properly express anything of import to his host, François spends the entire time trying to use his vulnerability to fight past Anne’s emotional barriers.
She has created these boundaries in large part because she doesn’t like him half as much as he likes her. If they were able to see each other every night, she mentions, she’d have already dumped him. But they each make inroads to the other – François learns to back off a little, and she retracts her demands that he leave. By the end of the night, François learns that you can only ask so much of another person (who knew she never wanted to marry or cohabitate?), and she learns how fragile this seemingly-easy relationship could be. They leave nearer to friends than lovers, in an awkward physical exchange Marlaud and Rivière play beautifully, neither’s limbs or faces quite landing where they need to, passing and upsetting one another the way they have more purposefully for the 98 preceding minutes.
But they’re not fighting. They’ve reached a silent understanding that the relationship is near its end; she didn’t expect to be so affected by this fact. Much of the independence Anne has prided herself on is a wall; we know she lived with a man and things went poorly, and opened herself up to the pilot and things went poorly again. Of course she’s right that she doesn’t “owe” anybody anything, but François is also right that a healthy relationship is built on oweing other people quite a lot. He reminds me a lot of myself at twenty, eager to dive wholly into a deep, all-encompassing emotional bond. And while I was in a long-term committed relationship at Anne’s age, I also went overboard with measures to protect my independence and sense of space and identity. Both stages come in the guise of honesty, but make a lot of implicit demands on romantic partners. A lot of one’s young adulthood is spent learning that nobody will be entirely the perfect friend, the perfect lover, the perfect partner, and often no amount of compromise and conversation can change that. Only acceptance can.
When Rohmer depicted young men before this (in Bakery Girl and Suzanne’s Career), he left them unresolved, unyielding, unable to change or look outside themselves. They’ve mastered one element of social life but come no closer to understanding those around them. The Aviator’s Wife is in large part about the role acceptance plays in truly coming of age as an adult. Unlike the modern sad-sack men of indie cinema, Rohmer doesn’t reward François for this realization. The rewards come later in life.