Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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(Metrograph Éric Rohmer x 3, part 1)


Finding the right guy

The English translator's revision of this French film's title loses the essential element of the French "L'ami de mon amie." It means "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend"; and that's the story. The focus is on the sweet, timid Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) who's thrown together with Fabien (Éric Veillard), initially the boyfriend of her new girlfriend Léa (Sophie Renoir). At first Blanche is hopelessly entranced by Alexandre (François-Eric Gendron). The truth is Léa isn't all that interested in Fabien: their relationship is iffy from when Blanche first meets them. Alexandre is never the least interested in or right for Blanche. Naturally it will take Blanche some time to realize these things.

As in Jane Austen's novels, Rohmer is telling the story of a young woman of good intentions but limited experience of the world who must discover which man is right for her.

Most of the film takes place in Cergy-Pontoise, a suburban "New Town" (Nouvelle Ville) about fifteen miles north of Paris. It's truly Nouvelle - recently opened, with "model apartments" and unfinished spaces all around. This is where Blanche and Alexandre work and where Blanche lives, in an apartment overlooking a vast, bright square that resembles, to my eye, the worst Italian Faascist architecture. The New Towns seem arid and exhibitionistic, lacking the cultural richness of Paris that leads Octave (played by the irrepressible Fabrice Luchini in anther Rohmer film) to declare it "le centre du monde," the center of the world. Rohmer plays with this notion, but also played with the idea of the Nouvelles Villes as intriguing places where one might escape tradition and be free; similarly perhaps "Blanche" is a name that may suggest she's a blank slate free to be written upon.

Cergy-Pontoise's emptiness may be why Blanche and Léa latch onto each other so quickly when they meet. They're like new girls at boarding school. Blanche invites Léa to that flat with its bare rooms and stark but impressive views. (A writer has done a short article in Montages Magazine about the Nouvelle Villes in this film and in Rohmer more generally).

Blanche works is an office of the town government (cultural affairs at the City Hall). Alexandre works in a similar one, higher up. He wears a nice blue suit. He has a debonair, ruling-class manner. It's hard not to see him as a bit of a shit, but in his way he is handsome, dashing, witty (to himself anyway) and "somebody" in the local world. All this dazzles Blanche (though later, pointedly, Rohmer has a friend warn her he's just a total bureaucrat). Blanche is tongue-tied when Alexandre sits with Blanche and Léa briefly at a café. And then Blanche is mad at herself. The bold and confident Léa reassures her, but it doesn't help.

Later Blanche meets Fabien and Léa dodges a date with him, leaving Blanche and Fabien together. Fabien obviously has class too, tan from wind-durfing (which we see), floppy-haired, casually well dressed (everyone here is color-coordinated, in blue or green). Unlike Alexandre, Fabien is sensitive and open. He reveals to Blanche his doubts about Léa, who he senses is looking elsewhere. He asks Blanche for a date, which she agrees to somewhat reluctantly. Later when Blanche runs into Alexandre and he offers her a ride, she's so uncomfortable, he says "I see I'm complicating your life," and bids her goodbye. Blanche admits to Fabien, with whom she can easily have heart-to-heart talks (and who likes to indulge in them because he's attracted to her, as he gradually reveals), that she's not shy or tongue-tied at all with everyone, just with someone, like Alexandre, who she thinks is special.

Blanche is one of those French girls who are too much in their heads. She and Fabien have a lovely date - I'd forgotten how much time Rohmer devotes to it, and how many different shots - and they make love, and it's wonderful; but she doesn't want to continue, because in her head it's wrong, each using the other as a "replacement" for another.

This is late summer, vacation time, so feelings are in the air, plans too. It puts things in a good position for a rearrangement of relationships. In any case the only relationship that needs rearranging is Fabien-Léa. For a bit, Fabien and Léa get together again. . . only to prepare for the right arrangements we, but not the protagonist, could see almost from the very beginning. Both times, with elegant regularity, moments when things are "off" occur at house parties, while times when emotional truths come happen by the river Oise.

I have overlooked the relationship of Léa and Alexandre, the other couple forming when Blanche isn't llooking. The way Alexandre propositions Léa seems frivolous, even callous. But they're just a tougher kind of people, and this approach is alright for Léa. This is the whole point: when a man and woman are the right match, their ways of behavior are right for each other.

It may seem like Blanche takes an awfully long time to figure out that with Alexandre she's been in love with an idea, not a person. In the end, Rohmer even stages a quiet farce scene with a complete "malentendu" on Blanche's part again - as if to shift relationships once more. It all takes place within a short season; the film's sense of time is elastic. Ultimately of course this isn't the slow, patient forward progress of a Jane Austen novel. The material here is slight, but in its classical, crystal clear simplicity, the film gets everything right. This is the breezy, mercurial world of 1980's French twenty-somethings, as Éric Rohmer molds them to his style.

It's a quartet, a game of pairs that hides a number of truths and paradoxes of love in its symmetries, which suit the arid perfection of the New Town. Compare the delightful but messier 1996 A Summer's Tale/Conte d'Été where one young man, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), spends a few weeks at the beach in Brittany and never quite makes up his mind between three women. He too is in love with an idea, not a person, but may have no right choice, since the sincere Margot (Amanda Langlet), the right one he can't yet quite see, has a boyfriend she's committed to. Gaspard can't choose, but in the end something comes up and he doesn't have to. The fun in that case is in the fumbling.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends/L'ami de mon amie, 103 mins., opened in France Aug. 1987 and showed at Toronto Sept. 1987 and New York Oct. of that year. Now it's part of a Sept. 4-17, 2020 Metrograph Éric Rohmer x 3 triple rerelease with The Aviator's Wife and 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. At the Metrograph live screening, starting Friday, September 4 - 8:00pm EST there will be a guest Introduction by Noah Baumbach. (Elsewhere, at another time, it's been introduced by Richard Linklater- two great living American directors who are fans of Rohmer, as is Quentin Tarantino.)

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