May impressions

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May is my favourite month and I’m always sorry when it’s over. The blossom was especially lovely this year and the scent lingers everywhere you go. Here are some photos from my walks.

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Summer film 10: Summer hours (2008)

I had intended to choose thirty summer films but somehow I like the idea of ten much more and so this is the final film in my selection. Like quite a few in my list, Olivier Assayas’ film is actually quite simple in terms of the story. The film opens with Hélène’s (played by Edith Scob) 75th birthday which she is celebrating at her house in the country with her three children and their families. They have not seen each other for some time and only one of them, Frédéric (Charles Berling) lives in France. During the afternoon, Hélène takes him aside to discuss what to do with the house and its contents after her death. The house belonged to her uncle, an artist, and is filled with paintings, furniture and other items of artistic value. She tells him what to keep and what to sell or bequeath. Frédéric is adamant that the collection will remain intact and that the house will not be sold and that she will be with them for a long time yet but Hélène is unconvinced.

In the next scene, we learn that Hélène has died and decisions over the estate are being made. To Frédéric’s surprise, his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rennier) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) want to sell everything and divide it. They no longer live in France and need the money. And so we see how the works of art are dispersed and how the house is emptied. It’s a theme familiar from Louis Malle’s Milou en mai about the loss of the matriarch and how monetary concerns come before personal attachments. This has the added interest of asking about the nature of art, about why we collect and what the role of a collector should be. Is it right to keep works of art just for private contemplation or should they be displayed in museums instead? What was the relationship between Hélène and her uncle? Hélène kept the house just as it was in his lifetime, almost as kind of shrine but at the end we see Frédéric’s daughter using the empty house as a party spot and saying farewell to a place where she will never return. One of the most touching aspects concerns Hélène’s long-term housekeeper Eloise. What will happen to her after the house is sold? Should she receive something for her loyalty? It’s very understated and poignant.

There’s no false sentimentality here. We see the happy times at the beginning and also the pain of losing everything we have known. People simply discuss and accept that decisions have to be made. We cannot hold onto the past, it slips through our fingers just like those summer hours. All we can hope for is to create some kind of meaning in the present and hope that others will find something to remember us by.

 

Summer film 9: Claire’s Knee (1970)

Eric Rohmer is the perfect director for summer films – removal from familiar surroundings, chance encounters, the heat of the sun and days at leisure can all make us act in unusual ways. He captures the ephemerality and beauty of summer as few directors can. There are several films of his I could have chosen which I love – Pauline at the beach, A summer’s tale, The green ray, The collector. In the end though, I went with Claire’s Knee, perhaps Rohmer’s most famous film along with My Night at Maud’s, for the simple reason that apart from being a wonderful film, I used to live in Annecy where it is set so it brings back happy memories of this beautiful place.

Claire’s Knee is the penultimate film in the Moral Tales series which all have a common theme of (Rohmer’s description) “a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else.” I think it’s important to clarify that by ‘moral tales’ Rohmer doesn’t imply anything judgemental. Rather, it’s an investigation from a philosophical point of view, probing deeper into human behaviour and feelings. The characters’ actions speak for themselves.

The story is quite simple; Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy, superb) is a diplomat engaged to be married who is staying for a few weeks at a friend’s house on Lake Annecy where he finds himself attracted to Laura (Béatrice Romand), a teenage girl also staying there. He is encouraged by old friend, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), a novelist who persuades him to flirt with her so that she will have some material for her next book.  At first it starts out like a game. Jérôme and Laura are attracted to one another and enjoy flirting but he soon becomes captivated by her step-sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and becomes particularly fixated on her perfect knee. Will Jérôme succeed in seducing Claire away from her boyfriend and will he go through with the marriage after all?

The way I’ve summarised the plot might make you roll your eyes at the thought of another ‘older man, much younger woman’ scenario but it’s all done very tastefully and with a lot of wry humour. There’s nothing perverted here, it’s just a witty and playful exploration of sensuality and the ways in which we delude ourselves. Plus, anyone who has seen a Rohmer film before will know there’s a lot of talking and that they have a kind of innocence about them which would be unimaginable in today’s cinema. It’s definitely not a film which will appeal to everyone – too verbose and boring for some but I find Rohmer’s films, particularly the Moral Tales, a breath of fresh air, and a chance to explore human emotions in beautiful settings. The photography by the great Néstor Almendros is also exquisite and there’s a hilarious early role for Fabrice Luchini.