One of the all-time great quotes comes from Gene Hackman in one of the all-time great films, Night Moves: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Not a ringing endorsement, and true, Rohmer can be slow. I have to admit, that there are some Rohmer films that I find too difficult to read, but Suzanne’s Career is not one of them.
Catherine See plays Suzanne, who is the object of desire of the innocent Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) and the arrogant Guillaume (Christian Charriere). The film follows Suzanne’s “relationship” with Guillaume as Bertrand watches, possibly jealous, alternating between fascination with the woman and envious hatred. Guillaume manipulates both Bertrand and Suzanne, intimidating the former and seducing the latter.
Rohmer is literary, but in a different way than the hero of the New Wave, Godard. Godard’s films are littered with references, often ambiguous and complex. Rohmer’s film, while certainly referential, are talky. His characters chat…a lot. Some have accused the form of being too novelistic, particularly as his camera is frequently static, the framing often in medium to medium-long shot.
However, Rohmer is a master at utilizing offscreen space and the facial expressions of his actors. In this way he is rather reminiscent of those other “transcendental masters” – Ozu, Bresson, even a Tarkovsky.
What’s interesting about Rohmer given his place in 1960s French filmmaking is that his films do have a sense of the revolutionary, though without the more obvious jump cut, freeze frame, and pop soundtrack. His characters stage internal rebellions. When they do act out, it’s usually an anomalous moment within the film, lending more power to the situation. It is this aforementioned offscreen space that really works in his films.
Offscreen can be a powerful tool. It’s that true imagination. It’s a great way of showing without showing. I’ve spoken with a friend about it, particularly someone like Haneke’s usage, where the filmmaker seems to show us just enough so that we may interpret future actions, but not enough to lay those future actions bare. In a Haneke film the violence or dramatic moment (or suspenseful moment for that matter), is often what takes place offscreen. Rohmer is again different. A small look can direct us offscreen. Is Bertrand looking at Suzanne or just in some wayward direction?
This is Rohmer’s Second Moral Tale, in a series of six. All of these films reach their inevitable conclusions – emotional and psychological satisfaction – without much of a climax. Things trickle into place. Rohmer’s cinema is like “watching paint dry” if paint were to dry with a wary eye and a keen observational sense of peoples’ hidden sexual tendencies and preferences
Bertrand (also the narrator, now only somewhat more aware of his faults) has a last line, about Suzanne “getting revenge whether she knows it or not.” This is rather telling of his character and sets him apart as petty; the antagonist. His is the life that has been least fulfilled – not even only sexually – but lived outside and in observation, without interaction. Maybe antagonist is too strong of a word. Certainly we sympathize with Bertrand far more than we do with Guillaume, but still, the final line eliminates much of this sympathy as we immediately realize that his cool narration may have been a front for harbored – and misdirected – jealousies and anger.