Revisiting La collectionneuse

Revisiting La collectionneuse

“What I would like most to do is to make films with a completely invisible camera.”

“We have to show what lies beyond behavior, while knowing we can’t show anything but behavior.”

“You should never think of me as an apologist for my male character, even (or especially) when he is being his own apologist. On the contrary, the men in my films are not meant to be particularly sympathetic characters.”

–Eric Rohmer

La collectionneuse (1967), directed by Eric Rohmer, has been gaining some recent notoriety from filmmakers and critics in the last ten years. Journalist Philip Norman listed it in his top 100 movies of the 20th century, and Jørgen Leth named La collectionneuse his favorite Rohmer film in The Five Obstructions (2003). Contemporary directors like Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo have been making films that take a page out of Rohmer’s book and there are certainly more filmmakers that have been influenced by Rohmer’s slow, reflective, personal films. As audiences watched the finale to Richard Linklater’s Celine and Jesse trilogy, Before Midnight (2013), critics favorably (and a few unfavorably) compared Linklater’s work to Rohmer’s cinema. His Six Moral Tales series of films appear to be both relevant and influential in contemporary cinephilia.

La collectionneuse is the fourth movie (third in release) in the Six Moral Tales which came after La Carrière de Suzanne (1963) and preceded Ma nuit chez Maud (1969). Each moral tale is inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) which told the story of a married man that is tempted by another woman, struggles to make the right decision, and ultimately returns his wife in the end. In the Six Moral Tales, Rohmer takes the Sunrise narrative framework and retells the story in a new way in each film. In French, the word moral translates to moraliste which connotes the way a person thinks or feels rather than an ethical imperative. Each film in the series is an exploration of how a committed man deals with the temptation of another woman.

The first two entries in the series were short films called La Boulangère de Monceau (1963) which ran 26 minutes and La Carrière de Suzanne which ran 60 minutes. Neither film was released theatrically and Rohmer has said in interviews that he is disappointed with the technical quality of the films. However, he was able to sell the rights of these shorts to television which gave him enough money to shoot his third film in the series. All of the money was spent on film stock and the location house rental in St. Tropez. Rohmer was notoriously effective at getting a lot from small budgets. During his time as the editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinema, after Andre Bazin stepped down, Rohmer cut costs immensely while still maintaining the quality of the prestigious magazine and increasing its circulation in France. His ability to effectively manage resources and still produce great content carried over into his career as a director.

La collectionneuse follows Adrien, Haydee, and Daniel as they lounge around a large villa in St. Tropez. The film begins with three prologues named after each of the main characters. The first one,”Haydee”, simply shows her walking alone on a beach. When she stops walking, Rohmer’s camera frames Haydee in close-up, photographing her feet, face, stomach, and back. The camera looks her up and down as if it was a first-person point of view of a man leering at her. The second prologue,”Daniel”,  features Daniel speaking with a man about human beings realizing their full potential and a mug that has razor blades glued to the outside. The third prologue, “Adrien”, involves him talking about the difference between style and beauty with two women, one of whom is his girlfriend. We discover that she is going to London to model for five weeks and Adrien is going to the villa in St. Tropez for a summer vacation. Adrien wants her to come with him and she wants him to come to London but neither of them budge so they go their separate ways, intending to spend their summer apart.

Comparing the three prologues shows that Rohmer’s film is going to be about the thoughts of men and the images of women. As mentioned above, Haydee’s prologue is an extended leering session. She says nothing and simply postures for the camera. Daniel, who is nothing more than a supporting character in the film, has an intellectual discussion with a friend which is all he does throughout the film. Adrien’s prologue sets up the moraliste focus of the narrative, showing us the woman he is committed to before he meets Haydee.

Only Adrien’s prologue gives the audience background character information. After Adrien parts with his girlfriend he walks into the house where he was visiting with friends earlier. He wanders around inside, looking at small statues of bare breasted women which are framed in the same way that Rohmer framed Haydee’s body in the first prologue. Again, Rohmer is setting up what the film will be about by inserting visual cues with a few insert shots. The naked statues signal the future tempting presence of the beautiful Haydee at the villa and Adrien’s infatuation with her. Near the end of this scene, Adrien walks into room and sees two people making love in a bed. They continue, uninterrupted, Adrien leaves, the prologue ends and the vacation begins.

Adrian wants to use the summer vacation as a time for reflection on his career as an art gallery owner and looks forward to having no female distractions. When he arrives at the villa in St. Tropez he discovers that a woman is staying there as well. The first line in Adrien’s voice-over is “no sooner had I arrived than Daniel told me the bad news: A girl was staying here at Rodolphe’s invitation. She would surely disturb us.” Adrien’s plan to have a peaceful vacation away from distraction has been thrown out the window, initiating Rohmer’s moraliste narrative.

When he arrives at the villa he says in the voice-over that he will completely restructure his daily routine: getting up in the morning instead of partying all night, going to bed early so he will not feel tempted to go out, and do his work during normal work hours. His whole life he has lived according to no schedule and because he has completed all of the necessary preparation for his art gallery all that was left to do for him is wait. Adrien distinctly lays out his plan in the voice-over:

“And what did I intend to do? Precisely nothing. For once I’ve taken a real vacation, because my real work begun when others’ stopped: at parties, on weekends, at the beach, in the mountains. But this year only one thing interested me: my art gallery. Nothing else mattered. And since all preparations had been completed, all I could do was wait. Having nothing to do for the first time in 10 years, I undertook to really do nothing. That is, to take inactivity to a level I’d never before reached.”

Adrien knows that his proposed vacation of solitude will only work if he just saw Daniel and no other woman. The only woman he wanted to see was in London and he resigned himself to being alone all summer.

Like Rohmer’s other films from this period, La collectionneuse has very little plot or action. The film is simply a reflective character study of Adrien’s interiority. In general, Rohmer’s cinema focuses on his characters’ thoughts rather than their actions. However, depicting a character’s thought process, their personal philosophy, private emotions, and opinions on anything is very difficult to do in film/video without voice-over or breaking the fourth wall. Of course a writer/director can show a character’s motivation through their actions and interactions with other characters but to make a film that is almost entirely about a character’s stream-of-consciousness leaves requires a voice-over track.

In La collectionneuse, Rohmer uses an excessive amount of voice-over to convey Adrien’s internal monologue about everything he is experiencing.  At times, Adrien’s words compliment the images, reinforcing what we are seeing and at other points, his words contradict the images, creating a distance between what Adrien wants and what he does, between desire and reality. Compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s use of voice-over which breaks down the unity between images and sound in his films/videos, Rohmer’s voice-over emphasizes Adrien’s stream-of-consciousness, making his cinema closer to the storytelling medium of literature rather than film. Because of this, La collectionneuse achieves an intimacy with the main character that few films are able to accomplish. The voice-over, which is usually considered to be a storytelling crutch, becomes equally as important as the images in the film.

Adrien spends nearly the entire film reflecting on Haydee. He thinks about what she is doing, why does what she does with men, what she is doing to him, how she is destroying his solitude and resolve to stay committed to his girlfriend. What we see on screen is simply a woman existing, doing what she wants to do, answering to no one, just being herself, and she is definitely not provoking Adrien’s infatuation, in fact, she is quite indifferent to him. It is simply the fact that she is in close proximity to Adrien, and that she is beautiful, that Adrien’s commitment to his girlfriend is now being challenged. Compared to the woman from the city in Sunrise who actively seduces the Man, Haydee does nothing. She simply lives her life the way she wants to, completely independent, doing nothing to actively tempt Adrien.

Not only is Adrien’s commitment challenged but so is his ability to exercise his freedom. Adrien wanted to be alone for the summer but being in close quarters with a beautiful woman sidelined his plans. His mind cannot be at peace when there is an object of desire so close to him that he cannot help but focus all of his attention on. In fact, Rohmer’s moraliste narrative is not really about challenging Adrien’s commitment to his girlfriend but challenging his desire for peace, solitude, and freedom. Witness the last lines of the voice-over that Adrien speaks as he drives away from Haydee in the town:

“But I quickly realized I wasn’t going to stop and that I was making the right decision for the first time. This is the story of my twists and turns. The way was finally cleared for the decision of my first days here. Now I could actually live my vacation dream. Peace and solitude were at last mine for the taking. They weren’t just handed to me. I’d gained the right to them by at last asserting my freedom. I reveled in my victory and ascribed it to my actions alone, not chance. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exquisite freedom. Now I could do whatever I wanted.”

Haydee’s presence took over Adrien’s time for solitude, his time to think and reflect on anything he wanted. With her around, her beautiful legs, sparkling eyes, and seductive smile, he could do nothing but wonder about whether she wanted to sleep with him, use him like she used the other men that make up her collection. The title of the film refers to both Adrien, an aspiring art collector, and Haydee who collects men. Haydee’s casual attitude towards sex and men is an affront to Adrien. There are several scenes where Adrien and Daniel coldly scold her for treating men like playthings for her amusement. Haydee ignores their insults and her indifference makes them even more irritated.

Haydee’s independence repulses and attracts Adrien, seducing him into an affair with her that merely exists in his mind and in the actual film language itself, exists only in the voice-over and not in the images on screen. Rohmer’s film perfectly captures the way we can create these elaborate webs of guessing games that begin once someone new that sparks our interest comes on the scene. These mind games we play with ourselves sometimes only exist as an internal monologue to ourselves and nothing else. In these moments, we construe every glance, word, movement, and decision by our new object of desire in this game but sometimes this game only exists in our minds. We lose our ability to think about anything else but the one we are infatuated with until the game runs its course and we are back to peace and solitude or boredom.

When Adrien finally asserts his freedom, leaving Haydee in town he returns to the villa and tries to sleep. His new found freedom becomes filled with anxiety and away goes his solitude. La collectionneuse shows us that this brief moment of tranquility can only last so long until we must fill the void with someone else to obsess over.