Rohmerathon: The Sign of Leo, by Scott Nye
The Sign of Leo is best known for being Éric Rohmer’s least characteristic film, unpopular upon its release (in 1962, three years after its production) and not terribly beloved today for not aligning perfectly to that for which we would all came to adore Rohmer. Its failure discouraged him, and he wouldn’t make another theatrical feature until 1967, at which point, thanks to a couple short films, he was approaching the halfway point of his ambitious Six Moral Tales series.
I’m not far along enough in my Rohmer viewing (that’s the point of this series) to say to what extent The Sign of Leo is fully an “Éric Rohmer film” and not simply one “Directed by Éric Rohmer.” I can say that unlike the vast majority of his films, Rohmer didn’t write it himself; he’s credited with the scenario, while the dialogue is by Paul Gégauff. It makes sense, then, that while The Sign of Leo does not feature the typically-talkative Rohmer protagonist, it absolutely establishes his overarching sense of irony and ambivalence.
Jess Hahn stars as Pierre, an aging bohemian who’s only barely making ends meet when he is informed that he stands to receive a large inheritance. He celebrates extravagantly, borrowing large sums against what he expects to receive. When he is, in fact, disinherited, he’s left to ruin, and gradually drifts towards homelessness.
As we watch Pierre’s decline, we see, for one of the few times in cinema, how somebody transitions into complete destitution – a couple poor choices, but also an uncommon bout of poor fortune. With most of his friends out of town on holiday, Pierre has few people to turn to for immediate support or job leads. Those remaining don’t want to put him up for the night (one friend suggests he just find a girl to sleep with; Pierre seems to think the awful state of his clothes is his only barrier). A job lead turns up bust. He curses out the city, and with reason; the whole universe seems to be against him, dude, I swear to God.
But as suddenly as his fortunes swung before, they can just as easily reverse; the question is, will his experience change him in a meaningful way? Will our approach to the poor change as a result of watching the film? Is it reasonable to be expected to change our way of life with each such film? Rohmer’s oncoming “Moral Tales” aren’t precisely such; they deal with moral themes without moral instruction. The Sign of Leo is more rigidly, even Catholically, aligned, which is frankly a little more jarring than his more ambiguous dramas. The cleanness of its sense of righteousness is more condemning.
Even going purely by the handful I’ve seen, Rohmer is a master at guiding us toward an expected conclusion, but drawing from it unexpected questions. He aligns us so well with the protagonists concerns and desires that we, like them, lose sight of what’s really driving those concrete goals. Everything may go the way we wanted, but that doesn’t mean we’re any happier.