Why is that the French are so much better than the rest of the world at suggesting lazy spring days? No one can translate the easy idle of a warm day like a French filmmaker. I don’t know why this is but I think it has something to do with Balzac. In Eric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse we are given quite a bit of those warm days, days spent by the French Riviera that seem to last an eternity and for the blink of an eye. The people in the movie are obsessed with their own importance; what sorrow it will bring when they think back to those lost days and realize they wasted them.
The film gives us Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), an aspiring art dealer who reminds us of David Hemmings in Antoinioni’s Blow-up (1966), aloofly attractive and intense. Adrien lives with Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a shiftless layabout, and the two are joined by Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a number of years younger who has come around for the summer. Each character is given their own “prologue,” which doesn’t necessarily reveal anything about their personalities but in fact lets the audience know what roles they’ll be playing in the world of the film. During Adrien and Daniel’s prologues we hear them arrogantly philosophize on the nature of beauty and purpose of good looks, but during Haydée’s, the character who turns out to be the most interesting and smartest of the bunch, she doesn’t speak at all, but the camera evasively observes her as she walks in a swimsuit along the beach, lingering on her legs and stomach. This is Adrien’s story (he provides the narration), and to Adrien, Haydée is an object, something to look at. She leaves their villa every evening, escorted by a different man, and is returned the next morning. So threatened are the boys by this remorseless display of sexual independence that they dismiss her entirely and haughtily nickname her “The Collector” (of the title) while discussing what it would be like to sleep with her, loftily assuming that the option is ever on the table.
The movie, which is about immaturity, possesses that quality of childhood where it’s more fun to discuss and plan a great snow fort by the fireplace than it is to actually go outside and construct it. In this case that sensation is applied to the quarter-age, where young good-looking people spend all their time talking about making love to each other but rarely do, because with physical intimacy often comes its irritating cousin, emotional intimacy, and no one in La Collectionneuse is ready for that. Adrien says that his work is his life but later confesses that he has solid plans to do nothing for a month. In light of this he tries to manuever Haydée and Daniel toward each other as a kind of game to distract him from the crushing ennui that’s constantly threatening. I often find plot points to be secondary in Rohmer’s movies; his is a cinema of moods. I don’t know if he’s ever happier than when he’s transporting you to a place when you remember how it felt, but can’t quite remember all that happened.
La Collectionneuse has some of the same feeling of Antonioni’sL’Avventura (1960), though it’s nowhere near as profound and doesn’t try to be. It was the fourth in Rohmer’s Six Morale Tales, a cycle of films based on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which tells the story of adulterous lovers. Rohmer, who was older and more educated than his French New Wave contemporaries when he started making films, wrote his graduate thesis on Murnau, but what’s interesting is that where other New Wave directors would often directly imitate their idols (Truffaut copied Renoir, Godard copied Cocteau, and they all aped Hitchcock, Chabrol in particular), Rohmer’s camera, certainly in his feature-length movies, is decidedly free of Murnau’s visual influence. What they share is a caustic sense of humor about the arrogance of men. Murnau’s leading men, even when portrayed positively, remain hopelessly devoted to their own image. In Sunrise, we are meant to like the male lead, but he is easily seduced by the slightest appeal to his vanity. In Nosferatu (1922), Max Schreck’s vampire stands as a rebuke to the dopey romantic Hutter who believes he can have everything. And who is ultimately more arrogant than Faust (1926), who believed that he could outsmart the Devil? Only Emil Janning’s pathetic doorman in The Last Laugh (1924) gets Murnau’s full sympathy. In La Collectionneuse Adrien is comically self-absorbed, never taking the time to realize that both Haydée and Daniel are people in their own right and not just players in a play about him. The morality in Rohmer’s tales is difficult to process, nearly obtuse (Kieslowski, who would make his name as a complicated moralist, seems positively obvious compared to La Collectionneuse), and the actors perform in a Bressonian flat manner, a style that underlined the point in Bresson’s films, but in La Collectionneuseleaves us further away from the point Rohmer is trying to make, or worse, makes us wonder if Rohmer has one at all. I also question the choice of following Adrien as exclusively as Rohmer does. Yes, we understand that he is so blind he misses what could be an interesting relationship by not seeing Haydée for who she is, but we are saddened that we don’t get to discover her either.
The sheer loveliness of the images (the photography is by Néstor Almendros, making his feature debut) largely sinks these issues. Rohmer is a genius because he can cover his faults by making his movies ones that retain in the memory only the agreeable parts. With La Collectionneuse, I spent a gorgeous summer in Saint-Tropez; not much happened, but I wasn’t paying attention anyhow.