Ozu’s modest stories about the seasonal rhythms of domestic life offer a perspective on human relationships that may strike many modern film-goers as quaint, distant dispatches from a polite but alien world. His famous sunken camera places us always at an intimate distance–not quite apart, yet not far removed from the action. Dramatic action itself is sometimes suspended or merely inferred in an Ozu story (such as the never-glimpsed Gary Cooper-lookalike in Late Spring) so that the impact of a thing often outweighs the thing itself. His extreme visual formalism at times approaches abstraction. Actors resemble figures on a plane. Line and space play leading roles. All so very strange…
Watching an Ozu film thus requires a different kind of mental attention than most people are used to giving. While most dramas require the suspension of disbelief, Ozu seems to aspire to nothing less than the suspension of expectation. The reward for this contemplative “relaxation” is no less than the divine promise of religion: to fill the fleeting human frame with the inspired essence of eternity.
1. The mundane is the message
In an Ozu film, people are forever exchanging pleasantries. He seems to focus on the very mundane chatter that most filmmakers would simply do away with. The plot of Good Morning (Ohayo!) even revolves around the social repercussions of just such a skipped-over greeting. For a fast-edit obsessed generation weaned on music videos, the amount of screen time devoted to the prosaic chit-chat of everyday social interaction may feel maddening. All those “Hello”s and “I’ve returned”s and “Thank you”s and “Forgive me”s, many of them delivered straight to the camera, as if the actors were directly addressing the audience–it’s like attending a mannered school of Ozu etiquette.
However, in an Ozu film, the simple act of two people greeting each other functions as pregnant punctuation to the narrative, never to be cut or glossed over. These moments prop up the action and give us easy entry and exit points, engendering the satisfaction of proper ends and proper beginnings, and allowing us to remark the scene’s true beats–the subtle nuances and emotional variations underlying such meetings, partings and idle chatter. Through repetition, Ozu draws us ever deeper into the everyday, allowing us to appreciate what is usually overlooked as commonplace and inconsequential until surface formality achieves the resonance of emotional revelation–like in this scene of two old friends reflecting about their children.
Over time, these ordinary exchanges build momentum, and through dozens of repeated bows and “thank you”s, the viewer sharpens her emotional discernment. Think of Setsuko Hara’s incessant smiling throughout Late Spring. At first, her expression has all the glimmering subtlety of a toothpaste model.
But soon we see subtle differences between her genuine jubilance with best friend Aya and her more perfunctory warmth with Hattori. Eventually, we can learn to decipher the subtle mix of wry emotions in this particular Mona Lisa smile:
Until finally we feel with full force the stinging poignancy and complex resonance in the expression before her wedding day, when she offers thanks and struggles to force a smile, though her heart is broken.
Through repetition, Ozu’s stories gently lead us to ask such simple but rarely explored questions as “How does a child properly thank one’s parents?” or “How can a friend or in-law be more filial and loving than your flesh-and-blood?” Can such profound and complex notions be expressed in words or a simple bow? In Ozu, the answer is “yes,” but this meaning arises, not through a single momentous gesture, but through a chorus of daily habits and a glimpse into the pathology of everyday consciousness.
In an Ozu film, the mundane IS the message and the message immerses us always deeper into the ordinariness of life, the present-ness of Now. Life is always right before us if we only have the hearts and minds to see.
(In the first of an ongoing series of dogmatic featurettes, Cinema Underground offers some unique strategies and suggestions to help you toss off the chains of your accursed learning, and start recognizing the true greatness of some REALLY great artists! Get appreciating!)
Eric Rohmer. People are not so crazy about him. What a shame. I rank him easily among the highest tier of directors, just a hair behind the Supreme Masters of Film (TM).
But I understand that people don’t get him.
Oh they LIKE him just fine. His tasteful, mannered films are just the sort of thing that smart people bring up at parties or on their blogs to flout their own sophistication or to vet others for their respective taste, or lack thereof. There’s always plenty of beautiful women and rustic scenery in his films. And plenty of talk.
Those who dismiss Rohmer do so on the grounds of this talk, asserting that his films are little more than pretty lectures. He even named his most famous film cycles “Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs.” How pedantic! Indeed, all that dialogue about meanings, morals and feeling in a Rohmer film could make for a miserably cerebral experience… if you let it.
Instead, I’d like to offer three tips that should help provide insight into his particular genius:
1. Don’t get caught up in the dialogue!
Rohmer’s characters recite some of the smartest, wittiest dialogue in cinema. Whether debating the merits of vegetarianism or meekly blurting forth a confession of love, his characters revel in the joust of words and the interplay of ideas.
But as in Shakespeare and Chekov, Rohmer’s characters so often use words to dress, disguise and dissemble. They are works in process, working their selves out through words. Most, like Delphine from Rayon Vert, only ever partially know themselves and Rohmer generously reveals his profound truths through a lavish attention to appearance, idiosyncrasies and non-verbal behaviors.
We learn something about what his characters think by what they say; but we inevitably learn more by what they DON’T say and instead must live. What else is My Night at Maud’s but a weak man’s attempt to rationalize himself out of one relationship with a woman who’s all wrong…
…into another one with the woman of his prayers? (The fool!!)
2. Take a French approach to beauty!
To truly enjoy a Rohmer film, just channel your inner Gaul! Unleash your “joie de vivre.” Affect a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But most of all, cultivate a refined aesthetic and intellectual appreciation for the subjects, themes and rituals of French life, such as…
…the capricious aristocracy of beautiful young men and women
…the holy communion of public discourse and intellectual debate
…the sophisticated cathedral of Parisian culture, but also the rustic parish of provincial life
…and the consecration of certain elegant, timeless, aesthetic forms.
Like his compatriots, Rohmer is no mere hedonist in his deep reverence for the myriad facades of beauty. His lush landscapes and cultured modern interiors are more than just pretty backgrounds; his actors are not attractive so as to be merely admired. Rohmer is both keenly aware of and yet seemingly indifferent to beauty–so rarely does he stoop to embellish. The use of natural light is perhaps his only signature flourish; yet each frame, each word and each moment is virtually suffused with the brilliance of his pleasing artifice.
It is almost as if, through this constant exposure, Rohmer wishes to both awaken and inure us to the power of beauty in the everyday. If his characters are sometimes compelled, perplexed or restored by this beauty, perhaps Rohmer still dreams that the viewer can yet attain a kind of elevated connoisseurship–both sensual and intellectual–capable of raising the experience of the mundane into the realm of the spiritual.
3. Embrace the comic resolution!
For all their urbane attractions, sometimes the endings of Rohmer films can feel inexplicably glib (My Night with Maud, Love in the Afternoon), artificial (The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque) or even absurd (Claire’s Knee); his plots often hinge on chance (A Tale of Winter), coincidence (Rendez-Vous in Paris) or a kind of light-handed manipulation (A Summer’s Tale); and certainly there is a farcical element to the ever-revolving mixups and misunderstandings of his lovestruck protagonists (Full Moon in Paris, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) that makes the films themselves seem… almost frivolous.
But look closely and you will see that Rohmer is simply operating in the rarefied register of Classical comedy, heir to the rich tradition of Aristophanes, Shakespeare and Moliere. His narratives serve the profound comic function of social tonic and spiritual restorative. The song that ends The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, for example, and the device of the two daughters conspiring to create harmony out of political discord does not negate or absolve the measured scrutiny that Rohmer gives all sides of his provincial fable; rather, it simply elevates the viewer to a position where she may transcend the didactic illusion of a fragmented world.
The heavy hand of Fate is thus, not merely a writer’s convenient loophole, but the suggestion, the hope and the possibility of the existence of magic in our everyday lives. Like Hermione animating to life at the end of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Rohmer’s unlikely endings can be seen as the apotheosis of the same generous, witty, humane holy spirit that animates all of his lovely creatures.
Truly, Rohmer’s wind bloweth where it listeth…