“The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque”

 
 
 

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

When you think of New Wave filmmakers who’ve delved into politics Eric Rohmer probably isn’t the first guy to spring to mind. And for good reason: he was always the group’s miniaturist-philosopher, a guy who was more interested in plumbing the potentialities of a young girl’s knee than in scrutinizing the big isms and schisms of his day. Maybe that’s why his 1993 “The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque” feels less like a political film than a conversation about politics — like the meandering sort of chitchat you might engage in on your Facebook wall. In fact — and this is typical for Rohmer — the movie is structured as a series of dialogs, each a low-key face-off between contrasting points of view: urban vs. rural, action vs. reaction, male vs. female, adult vs. child, and so on. Rohmer uses these oppositions to scrutinize the ways in which our viewpoints intersect, overlap, and butt up against each other, and he comes up with a pretty interesting movie in the process.

Pascal Gregory plays Julien, the mayor of a small village that’s remained stubbornly ensconced in the ways of old France. Rustic and a bit sleepy, it’s the kind of place where the community church still dominates the landscape, and where the locals look like modernized versions of the peasants painted by Courbet. A member of the socialist party, Julien has ambitions: he wants to revitalize the area by building a cultural center in the town square. He’s put a lot of work into this project: he’s convinced the French government to subsidize it, he’s sold it to the media, he’s even gotten an architect to design it. (He’s especially proud of the fact that it will utilize stones culled from dilapidated structures in the local area.) In one of the movie’s running jokes he insists on referring to the complex as a “mediatheque,” which I guess is meant to imply that it’s like a library, only better.

But obstacles remain. Most notably, Marc, a local schoolteacher played by Fabrice Luchini, objects to the scheme on grounds both aesthetic and moral: he fears it will quash the region’s individuality by making it just another suburb of Paris. What’s more, he retains an almost pagan attachment to the field that’s to be occupied by the center, especially to the old tree standing just across from the church. Gnarled and infected with rot, it’s the kind of arbre that’s more picturesque than beautiful, but to Marc it’s a symbol of the region and its culture. He’s prepared to fight in order to preserve it.[1]

In the movie’s terms Marc is the conservative counterpoint to the progressive Julien, but Rohmer takes pains to show how similar the two men actually are: they are both strident to the point of obstinacy, they both love the region, and they both operate within political echo chambers of their own fierce maintenance. The latter similarity is highlighted by a pair of scenes in which each man presents his ideas to the woman in his life, Marc at the site of the actual field and Julien over a model of his imagined mediatheque.[2] Preaching from soapboxes made of ego, they talk over the women, scoff at their objections, and generally act like boorish ideologues. It’s a measure of Rohmer’s good sense that he plays these scenes for comedy, with the men as the butts of the joke.[3]

It’s the women in “Mediatheque” with whom we identify: not only do they serve as foils to their inflexible male counterparts, they act as audience surrogates. Rohmer cues us to the latter function through his introduction of the town: he does it by having Julien provide a tour to his girlfriend Berenice, whose idiosyncratic perceptions inevitably come to influence our own. (“Ooooh,” she coos upon encountering some cows, “They’re like prehistoric creatures!”) As portrayed by Arielle Dombasle, Berenice is a woozy amalgam of girlish insouciance and Parisian self-absorption. She appreciates the country, but only as Marie Antoinette appreciated her Hameau de la Reine — that is, as a rustic playground, as a place that’s important only in the contrast it offers to the default state of city life. When she objects to Julien’s proposal for a parking lot on the very reasonable grounds that cars tend to crap up public spaces, she blithely proposes that a subway extension be built instead, so that Parisians can easily access the country, the way they might the opera or the Louvre. Of course the idea is absurd, but as Dombasle presents it — she giggles as the words escape her mouth — we understand it as an outgrowth of her aesthetic and cultural preferences rather than as a formulated pose. Unlike the rigid Julien, she is alive to the contradictions inherent in her predilections — and Rohmer seems to find this charming, even elementally feminine.

The other major female role, that of Blandine the reporter, is played by Clementine Amouroux, who infuses her character’s professional demeanor with a tincture of amorous suggestion. When she and Berenice first meet, the two women engage in an environmental debate that’s less an argument than an extended flirtation (they smile irrepressibly and shoot each other playful looks), all to the exclusion of Julien and Blandine’s male boss.[4] Later, when Blandine travels to the town in order to write a propaganda piece on Julien, Rohmer gives her a scene that’s a complement to Berenice’s earlier tour. She walks through the streets, taking in the rustic atmosphere and interviewing the locals on the topic of Julien, and she quickly comes to understand how different the townsfolk are from the political animals she’s accustomed to encountering in Paris. Played by non-professionals, they’re more interested in talking about their personal lives than they are in discussing the mediatheque. It’s an odd but quietly exuberant sequence, one which frees the political issues from their ideological moorings and allows them to waft and dissipate among the general populace. (When a farmer starts talking about the grazing habits of his livestock, you realize just how far removed these people are from the rhetoric of a Marc or a Julien.) But the sequence is important from a formal standpoint as well, for it allows Rohmer to add yet another pair of oppositions to the movie’s set of arguments, this one positing the directness of cinema verite against the artifice of movie stylization.

If all of this sounds a bit schematic . . . well, this is Eric Rohmer we’re talking about; he’s gotten more out of organizing formulae than any filmmaker aside from Sacha Guitry. Here, in addition to the arguments and debates I’ve mentioned, he employs an overarching structure based on “obstacles” — that is, on chance occurrences which end up subverting the characters’ intentions. Through these he partitions the movie into several components, each introduced via a title card which lays out in words what we’re about to see on film. It’s a disjunctively self-conscious gesture, and it borders on being a little too twee for my taste, but you can see where Rohmer is going with it: he wants to frame each of the film’s movements in terms of chance and forced compromise.[5] For Rohmer, the political acts which end up affecting us at the personal level are as much the results of existential fuzziness as they are the products of individual vision. He’s looking at politics through the prism of casualism.

The most charming of these obstacles is a chance encounter between Zoe and Vega, the young daughters of Marc and Julien. Played, respectively, by Galaxie Barbouth and Jessica Schwing, the two girls meet when Zoe’s ball gets away and ends up outside the gates of Julien’s estate. Resolving to play together on Julien’s expansive grounds,[6] the pair quickly encounter the mayor himself, and Zoe — she’s a budding activist — commences to engage him in a debate on the topic of the mediatheque. Having no conception of the political realities of Julien’s world, Zoe fails to understand why the planned functions of the mediatheque cannot be housed within existing structures. She also wants more parks, so that children can have easy access to nature. In reply, Julien patiently explains that it’s hard to raise money for restoration projects, and besides — who needs parks in the country? The debate pits Julien’s political canniness and foresight against the impulsivity and immediacy of youth, and though the scene can be taken as a refutation of Julien’s positions, it finally allows us to see him as a human being. He listens intently to the girl, all the while playing with his cap like an anxious schoolboy.

The next time we see Julien we learn that a bureaucrat has nixed the mediatheque project, and for reasons more petty than practical (that’s the final “obstacle”). Yet the mayor seems ebullient. Running into Blandine during a visit to Paris (is Berenice out of the picture?), he tells her that politics should be realistic, not quixotic, and he makes light of the lack of support his project garnered among the public. He seems to have let go of the entire episode, and emerged a more confident and genial man.

Marc, of course, is overjoyed at the news. Upon receiving it he immediately halts the class he’s teaching and does a figurative victory lap, in the process crediting his daughter’s intervention as a key component of his success. He then does something very unusual: he breaks into song. In fact, Rohmer uses the film’s denouement as an opportunity to stage an impromptu musical: he pulls Julien, Marc, and Berenice out of the fabric of the film, then has them haltingly intone some lyrics.

As a device this is as inelegant as the introductory title cards, but it suits the knotty, off-center spirit of the movie, and it reinforces our understanding of each character’s autonomy.[7] Julien and Berenice address the camera directly, like characters in an Ozu film, and each singer remains fixed within his natural environment — Marc in the classroom, Julien in the countryside, and Berenice in Paris. What’s Rohmer up to here? The best I can come up with is that he’s using the musical — the movie genre most amenable to presenting choreographed group action — in a manner designed to highlight its thematic converse: stubborn (but gracious) devotion to individualism.[8] Notably, Julien’s performance takes place on his grounds, where he’s busy hosting a town picnic. Rohmer intercuts his singing with that of a community chorus. The editing is rough, a little disjunctive — evidence, perhaps, that the mayor and his constituents have achieved a tentative sort of equilibrium.

To my mind, “The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque” is not one of the great Rohmer films: it has none of the charged, revelatory quality of a “My Night at Maud’s” or a “Le Rayon Vert.” But what it lacks in elegance and intensity it makes up for in generosity, and it has a way of expanding as you reflect back on it, almost as though its discursiveness had taken up residence inside your brain. With it I think Rohmer has achieved something quite interesting: a political film that feels resolutely apolitical.

[1] Marc has a very funny line predicting that his tree will be uprooted and replaced by the miniature trees so favored by architects and urban planners — the kind that look prefabricated, with “cadaverous” red leaves.

[2] This is a clever means of highlighting the differences in the characters’ worldviews. Marc is attached to the here and the now — to the solidity of the established order. Julien, on other hand, is a man of abstractions — of intentions, plans, models.

[3] The scene concerning Julien’s model is very funny. His mediatheque includes a Roman-style amphitheater, plenty of concrete, and several of the little architect’s trees so despised by Marc. As architectural schemes go it’s as weirdly incongruous as Max Fischer’s aquarium in “Rushmore.”

[4] Although Rohmer brings Blandine and Berenice together in this scene, Julien and Marc have no corresponding shared moment. As the movie is filled with doubling, this is probably significant.

[5] The subtitle of the movie is “The Seven Chances” (“Les sept hasards“), and Rohmer opens with a scene showing Marc explaining the conditional sense to his students, thereby cuing us to the fact that the movie will deal with hypotheticals.

[6] Julien may be a socialist by declaration, but in spirit he’s an aristocrat. In this scene Rohmer has him wearing a tweed jacket and cap. He looks like a country squire — which is more or less what he is.

[7] The musical sequence on the copy I viewed was not subtitled. My limited understanding of French leads me to believe that, while singing, the characters mostly restate the positions they’ve held throughout the film.

[8] Of course, French musicals rarely simply emulate American ones. The French tend to intellectualize the musical, and they often drain it of its virtuosity. Further, where the American musical is often about fantasy and wish fulfillment, the French musical (as espoused by, say, Jacques Demy) tends to concern itself with the interplay of the real and the not-real, with the seams between the two remaining readily apparent.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Movies, Performers, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to “The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque”

  1. Fenster says:

    I will try to track down, though neither Netflix nor my excellent library system seems to have it.

    I am a sucker for his movies. I only recently made my way through the moral tales and the comedies and proverbs and I must say they are just my style. Or maybe
    just too much like me: all talk no action . . . . but good talk!

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  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Sadly, I don’t think it’s readily available. Hopefully some company will bring out a DVD. It’s an interesting movie.

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  3. Epic essay, and it sounds like a super-intriguing movie. Did you ever catch that one set-in-medieval-times pic of Rohmer’s, shot on DV with some computer effects? It was a snooze — or at least I did some snoozing — but as snoozes go definitely an intriguing one.

    That one actress’ name is really “Clementine Amouroux”? I don’t know how some French people wear their names without cracking up. Some other recent examples: Isild le Besco. Cécile de France. (Oops, she’s Belgian. But still.)

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  4. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    That is indeed her name. She’s pretty sexy. Rohmer always found such offbeat-but-sexy actresses.

    Rohmer made a movie with computer effects? I had no idea. Sounds intriguing.

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  5. The Lady and the Duke” — as I recall, shot on DV against green screens (which to me is a computer effect). Very dull but pretty interesting too.

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  6. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Cool. Haven’t seen that one. His version of “Perceval” has a lot of fake backgrounds. Obviously no green screen, though.

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  7. Christine says:

    Marie Binet made a documentary on Rohmer and his actors called ” Les Contes Secretes et les Rohmeriens” that was favorably reviewed when it was shown at the Montreal Film Festival in 2005. I keep hoping for some kind of American release but it hasn’t been shown at any of the Rohmer retrospectives to the best of my knowledge and all I can find are these beguiling three minutes.

    I saw Eric Rohmer’s last film, “The Romance of Astree and Celadon” at the New York Film Festival in 2008. It was very poetic, like a Poussin painting come to life.

    The library at the Alliance Francais in New York has a DVD or VHS copy of “Tree,” but without subtitles.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Thanks for the tip on the doc. Sounds interesting.

      The copy of “Tree” I viewed was obtained from the internet via, um, less-than-official means. I think some enterprising Rohmer nut ripped an old VHS copy and made his own subtitles. Movie fanatics. Bless ’em.

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