One of Rohmer’s series is Comédies et proverbes which consists of six films, all made during the 1980s. It is his first series with women at the centre of the storyline, and, as the writer C.G. Crisp notes in his book about Rohmer, the films are set in different regions of France (Crisp, 1988: 98). That is, all apart from the last film in the series – L’ami de mon amie (“My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”/”Boyfriends and Girlfriends”, 1987) – where he revisits the suburbs of Paris. In this film it is evident that the visuals – the setting, the colours – are as significant as anything else for Rohmer.
Already in his early days as a critic Rohmer had viewed a movie’s setting as an essential aspect of what makes film an artform. In 1948 he wrote an article for La Revue du cinéma, titled ‘Cinema, the Art of Space’, where he stated that, “space would seem to be the general form of sensibility most essential to film, given that film is a visual art” (Rohmer, 1989: 20). Setting becomes another character in his films as it tends to heavily influence the characters’ behaviour (Anderst, 2014: 191).
In Les nuits de la pleine lune (“Full Moon in Paris”, 1984), Rohmer’s fourth Comédies et proverbes film, we see a woman who is going between Paris and the suburbs and consequently two different lifestyles, having difficulties choosing either. In the sixth and final installment in the series, L’ami de mon amie, the story is principally set in a suburb to Paris, one of the New Towns.
Rohmer had been interested in the New Towns for many years before making this film. Already in 1975 Rohmer made a four-part miniseries called Villes nouvelles (“New Towns”), focusing on the creation of New Towns situated near major cities in France. In the first part of the documentary series Rohmer examines Cergy-Pontoise, the place that will be the setting for L’ami de mon amie twelve years later.
For Rohmer this sort of newly developed town was an area of infinite possibility: “you have to be conservative in the framework of tradition, for example, in Paris, but one has to be resolutely futurist in Utopian settings, such as in the New Towns, where everything can be allowed” (de Bacque and Jousse, 2013: 139). Cergy-Pontoise, therefore, becomes the perfect setting for the characters in L’ami de mon amie who are all in one way or another in transit.
Rohmer spent two years preparing for the film. He was waiting for buildings in Cergy-Pontoise to be completed, and took the opportunity to develop the script with his actors to make the dialogue as authentic as possible (Leigh, 2012: 144). Emmanuelle Chaulet who plays Blanche states that Rohmer’s idea was to “make a film about the birth of love, the first instances” (Hertay, 1998: 136, my translation).
The film’s focus is on two women and two men in their twenties living in this new suburb near Paris. Fabien (Éric Viellard) and Léa (Sophie Renoir) are in an ill-matched relationship and continually on the verge of breaking up. Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) is interested in Alexandre (François-Éric Gendron), who is seen as a womaniser and is anyway clearly more interested in Léa.
Blanche is the main character and works in cultural affairs at the local City Hall and is quite lonely. As Blanche’s name indicates she is like a white canvas who is waiting for something to happen to her. In the first scene of the movie she meets Léa, and they become fast friends.
Blanche is living at the Belvédère, a building which makes Léa think of barracks, whereas Blanche finds it to be more like a palace. Blanche goes on to say living there is like living at a luxury hotel. So, ultimately, for both Léa and Blanche this is a transient space rather than a permanent home.
What is striking when one first gets to see the inside of Blanche’s place is how colourless it is. In many ways it does seem like a hotel room, as it is very sparsely furnished and without much character. There are hardly any people in the building or outside, and the landscaping in front is not yet finished. The look and feel of the place is artificial. It is evident how this – along with the rest of the town – is constructed rather than natural.
In the city centre one does see people. It is evident that they are genuine inhabitants of the area rather than extras; often they will look at or towards the actors and the camera. This has two effects. One, it shows that this is certainly not shot on a movie set, but out in the real world. Two, since the actors do not seem to mind the camera, they become separate from the other inhabitants of Cergy-Pontoise, which is not Rohmer’s intention: Chaulet remembers that Rohmer shot maximum four takes because what he wanted was the spontaneity one saw in the first takes (Hertay, 1998: 137). Rohmer is trying to catch something genuine on film, and is succeeding to an extent, but this is clearly a work of fiction, not a documentary.
Since the costumes are very important – the costumes take up a lot of space in film, in the foreground of the picture – you must take great care over them and that is what I do.
– Éric Rohmer (1992 interview, A Winter’s Tale, DVD)
The characters mainly wear two colours, blue and green. These colours match not only with the initial buildings one sees in Cergy-Pontoise, consequently linking them with this space, but more notably with the nature near the town. Rohmer states that blue and green are “the colours of Cergy-Pontoise’s emblem. This emblem represents the loop of the river Oise, a watery blue ribbon, encircling the green forest” (Leigh, 2012: 304). Then, the colours of the characters’ clothes are intended to show them as linked to the town through the symbols in the emblem.
However, by linking the colours of their clothes with the colours of the river Oise and the forest, the characters stand out from the strikingly natureless town rather than blend in. The film begins in the town at the point where they are in transit but ends by the river and forest when they have become couples. Even though they first meet in the town, it is in the countryside where they can actually get to know each other. For example Léa and Alexandre’s first date is at a restaurant sitting outside by the river. Consequently, nature is the setting that provides more permanence for the characters than a town.
Blanche and Fabien talk more openly when they are out by the water or surrounded by nature. Blanche is first overwhelmed by her feelings for Fabien and the whole situation when they are in a clearing in the forest. What is particularly striking about this scene is how it is visually similar to an early picnic scene in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (“Happiness”, 1965).
That is also a film set in a suburb to Paris with a couple who at that point in the film are in love and content. Thus, these two contemporary filmmakers both reflect on the dichotomy between town and nature and its influence on people inhabiting these spaces, favouring nature’s effect.
Notably, the female character in both Le Bonheur and L’ami de mon amie have a different amount of agency in relation to the men they are in love with, leading to a desolate end in the former film and a joyful one in the latter. This indicates that women have gained more power in their relationship with men in French society in the years between 1965 and 1987.
The last scene shows the love rectangle resolved. Léa and Blanche confess their new relationships when they accidentally meet at a restaurant by the river Oise. They are joined by Fabien and Alexandre and they all seem happy about how things have been resolved. Blue and green reappear in their clothes again: Blanche and Alexandre wearing green and Fabien and Léa wearing blue.
Considering how the colours green and blue have been paired together throughout the film, it is evident that Léa and Alexandre suit each other, as do Fabien and Blanche, and any other heterosexual structure would not work in the enclosed and constructed universe depicted in this film.
L’ami de mon amie offers an insight into Éric Rohmer’s fascination with setting in film. Rohmer relies on oppositional imagery to shape the story: nature in contrast to the New Town, green against blue. He then manages to demonstrate more forcefully the characters’ feelings about their situation and each other.
By using the New Town early on in its existence, while it is still an unfamiliar area, Rohmer makes us evaluate the setting more keenly in relation to the surrounding nature and the effect it has on its new inhabitants.
Anderst, Leah, ‘Rohmer’s Poetics of Placelessness’, in The Films of Eric Rohmer: French New Wave to Old Master, ed. by Leah Anderst (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp.191-201
Crisp, C. G., Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988)
de Baecque, Antoine and Thierry Jousse, ‘The Amature: An Interview with Eric Rohmer’, in Eric Rohmer: Interviews, ed. and trans. by Fiona Handyside (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), pp.124- 139
Handyside, Fiona, ‘Colour and Meaning in the Films of Eric Rohmer’, in Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive, ed. by Simon Brown, Sarah Street and Liz Watkins (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), pp.150-159
Handyside, Fiona, ‘The Margins Don’t Have to Be Marginal: The banlieue in the Films of Eric Rohmer’, in Alienation and Alterity: Otherness in Modern and Contemporary Francophone Contexts, ed. by Helen Vassallo and Paul Cooke (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), pp.201-222
Hertay, Alain, Éric Rohmer: Comédies et proverbes (Liège: Éditions du Céfal, 1998)
Leigh, Jacob, The Cinema of Eric Rohmer: Irony, Imagination, and the Social World (New York: Continuum, 2012)
Rohmer, Eric, The Taste of Beauty, trans. by Carol Volk. Compiled for Cahiers du cinéma by Jean Narboni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)