Screened November 7 2009 on Artificial Eye DVD
Eric Rohmer’s debut feature suggests that there were many Eric Rohmers vying for the man’s artistic identity, informed by the cinephilic breadth of influences one would expect of a Cahiers du Cinema critic having his turn behind the camera. In this film, the approaches threaten to partition the movie like a post-war European city. The first part, where American expat Pierre throws a party celebrating his inheritance, dances around the room with dolly shots, snatching pieces of conversation in the tradition of Renoir/Ophuls. When Pierre’s inheritance proves bogus and he’s turned on the street, the film goes Neo-Realist, tracing his demise first in shades of DeSican social pathos before confronting a Rossellinian existential void. An 11th hour force majeure feels more like Preston Sturges than Robert Bresson, in terms of feeling less emotionally invested in the forces of transcendence and more like a self-reflexive act of writerly intervention that brings attention to mechanism of the plot. This is something Rohmer tries on more than once throughout the film, peppering it with seemingly incongruous digressive moments (a reporter’s trip to Africa, a car wreck in the French countryside), only to tie them back into the main storyline. It’s a film that, in more than one sense, is all over the map.
Perhaps it took the film’s unequivocal flop with critics and audiences for Rohmer to resolve this multivocal struggle over the years that followed, leading to his unmistakable way of looking and listening to people, so compositionally controlled, yet so light and in the moment, that’s been with us for for over four decades. There are traces of that Rohmer throughout The Sign of Leo, like his documentarian’s way of looking at things with an eye for lived-in detail. Or the moral preoccupations of the parable-like plot; in this case it verges on the predictable or the pathetic more than once, but is saved by the ever-shifting perspective (social realist? existentialist? metafictional farce?) Or how characters project their persona through their words; Pierre lives large so long as he talks large. When his assertion of impending wealth is proven false, he retreats into a increasingly wordless state, and the indomitable city, pulsing with life in an August swelter, looms so much over him it threatens to swallow him whole. This antagonism between people and their environments always seemed secondary to the interpersonal tensions that dominate Rohmer’s films, but here it’s so present that you want to rewatch all of his other films to see if it’s been there throughout his career, and more than just a background to human characters.
The city of Paris is the most fascinating character in The Sign of Leo; the metropolitan equivalent of Fred Astaire, it takes a slobbery lout of a main character and makes him tread with divine grace down its streets and canals. The end finds Pierre financially redeemed, though with the sense that he hasn’t learned a thing from his suffering. It’s as if Rohmer posed him as a negative example of what path he as an artist should take, learning from his failure and coming out with a more singular sense of self.
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Rohmer, the former Cahiers du Cinema critic and one of the principal intelligences of the old New Wave, is now to be recognized as one of the most interesting filmmaking talents to emerge from that long-ago period. Interesting and, in the context of that time, original. For Rohmer is a comparatively classical director who makes films about people of a certain worth and moral awareness, about people who talk well and respect each other’s privacy, and who have within them the vestiges of now almost forgotten, established social orders.
In much the same way, Rohmer reflects these things in the manner in which he tells stories, with a civilized wit and style that come close to seeming austere. Pierre is really a bit of a bore (a major fault of the film), but he’s basically decent, as are his friends, and Rohmer respects them by avoiding tricks, narnative or visual.
The last third of “The Sign of Leo” is one of the most effective, though unhysterical, depictions of emotional breakdown ever put on film. Pierre doesn’t cry, or get drunk, or have hunger visions. Instead, he loses the sole of one shoe, which he has to tie with a string, and the world around him simply becomes increasingly clear and distant, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 6 1970 (New York Film Festival)
Le signe du lion, with Pierre’s long slide into misery and final redemption, in many ways fits the structure of a parable more than the later films of his Six Moral Tales series. The sense of fate, which often influences Rohmer’s stories, is dominant and heavy-handed here. Moreover, while later Rohmer male characters spend much of their time thinking and debating, Pierre seems to have no real mind of his own. The first private screenings of Le signe du lion were very disappointing, and its distribution was further complicated by financial problems at Chabrol’s AYJM. Completed in October 1959, though later recut and rescored, it was not shown commercially until 1962 at the Pagoda in Paris, selling only five thousand tickets. Le signe du lion never earned any money, though it garnered a few sympathetic reviews. Magny points out that the biggest problems for the film were that it offered a thin story line, an unappealing protagonist, repetitive music, and insignificant details that were nonetheless granted excessive screen time. Magny does acknowledge that Rohmer’s first feature fits the New Wave spirit in many ways, however, especially in its documentation of a Paris that is very different from the commercial cinema’s stereotypical city of romance and monuments. Here, Paris in August is presented as a hostile place, and many images preserve Pierre’s heavy boredom and emptiness via the aimless duration of time and cavernous deep space in striking long takes. Jean Collet praises Rohmer’s city, arguing that Rohmer’s first feature proves right away that he is as much an architect as a director: “Le signe du lion is nothing if not a meditation on the city, the indifference its inhabitants show for one another and the distance established, as in Rear Window, between the characters and the spectator-tourists.”
Certainly Le signe du lion should be seen today as an interesting but failed experiment; some of its traits, such as the connection between appearances, setting, and character, will be worked out more elegantly in Rohmer’s later Moral Tales. Here, the obsessive documentary-like observance of the decline of Pierre and the hard, cruel space of the unforgiving Paris around him become a bit too obvious and even preachy. Frodon, however, praises Rohmer’s fascination with the concrete: “The mise-en-scene belongs firmly to the material side, granting a striking physical presence to the building walls, pavement, and cobblestones that surround this character, who could not have been named anything other than Pierre [stone].” But Crisp effectively sums up the problems: “The New Wave had accustomed the public to all sorts of frenzied and unpredictable outbursts, but not to the austerity and understatement of this film… [much less to] being told that men were drab, slack and uninteresting.”
– Richard John Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2007. Pages 253-254.
The Sign of Leo is a fascinating film that both anticipates Rohmer’s later work and in other respects is quite unlike it. Made at the height of the New Wave, it shares with the films made by Rohmer’s comrades its intense naturalism: lightweight cameras enabled filming on real streets. The film gives a palpable sense of Paris in a heatwave, crowded with tourists: it’s not hard to imagine Pierre getting filthier and sweatier and more unshaven and unkempt as the hour-long central section depicting his decline and fall progresses. Then, in a very un-Rohmerian camera flourish (a combination of a crane shot and a model shot seeming to send the camera soaring into space), fate takes a hand. The somewhat ironic workings of fate feature in later Rohmer works such as The Green Ray and A Winter’s Tale, but here Rohmer leaves it open-ended as to whether Pierre has learned from his experience – the final line of dialogue pointedly leaves us to decide that. The film is a moral tale before Rohmer embarked on the series of that name, and differs from those films by not framing its story as a love story between men and women.
The film is rather less dependent on its characters’ talk than many of Rohmer’s later films, partly explained by the presence of a co-writer, Paul Gégauff, who is specifically credited with the film’s dialogue. It also depends on a superb performance from Jess Hahn. Hahn was a genuine American (born in Terre Haute, Indiana) who never made a film in the country of his birth but had a lengthy career in Europe. Sadly, many of the ninety-odd films he made were undistinguished, because his work here shows that there was much more to him. He makes Pierre’s desperation quite tangible, and hard to shake off. In a small role is Stéphane Audran, later to be Claude Chabrol’s regular leading lady and also his wife. Jean-Luc Godard appears in a brief role, uncredited. Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white camerawork and Louis Saguer’s score, dominated by a solo violin, are also very effective.
– Gary Couzens, DVD Times
Eric Rohmer’s first full length film is this tragicomic tale of one man’s spiral descent into poverty and isolation. Whilst the film shows Rohmer’s inexperience as a filmmaker too clearly and also suffers from some quite obvious flaws – most notably the awkward references to astrology and preordained fate – it is a compelling and, on balance, poignant work which makes some valid statements about human nature.
Any film which broaches the issue of homeliness is unlikely to do justice to the subject and to capture fully the tragedy of this predicament, but this film goes some way towards achieving this aim. Pierre’s increasingly desperate attempts to find food and to hold his shoes together are simultaneously funny and agonisingly moving – as in many of Rohmer’s later films, it is these small details which can have a big effect on the audience.
The film certainly lacks the playful spontaneity and realism of Rohmer’s more recent film – the contrived happy ending being a particular disappointment. Despite the jarring artificiality of the narrative, the cinematography is quite impressive, almost as mesmerising as in Rohmer’s better known films. The eloquent location filming in Paris manages to match very well the mood of the central character – vibrant and fun when Pierre is celebrating his assumed inheritance, melancholic when he realises he has inherited nothing after all, and cruel when he finds himself alone and penniless. The photography is distinctively Nouvelle Vague, and, appropriately, one of Rohmer’s contemporaries, Jean-Luc Godard, makes a silent cameo appearance near the start of the film.
– James Travers, Films de France
With its depiction of one man’s long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors – always devoting particular attention to his characters’ complex emotions and inner thoughts. Later films, though usually lighter in tone, would adopt a similar approach.
– Chris Wiegand, kamera.co.uk
ABOUT THE ARTIFICIAL EYE EARLY WORKS OF ERIC ROHMER DVD
Eric Rohmer’s Le Signe du Lion sees the light of DVD for the first time (English friendly). The transfer is much better than I anticipated. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this DVD is far from what it could be, but still a decent one! The most problematic thing is that overall it’s a little bit soft, and the non anamorphic picture makes some low level noise visible. Some minor moire effects can be seen on the window shutter’s and on the front of cars, but there is no reason why Eric Rohmer fans shouldn’t pickup this title.
The DD 2.0 sound in mono is flawless and fairly clean. I appreciate the small subtitle font AE has used on these box-set.
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
The Sign of Leo has an inbuilt qualitative advantage over everything else in this set by having been originated in 35mm. It’s transferred in 1.66:1 – a ratio that Rohmer would abandon in favour of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until the early 1980s – and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a generally good transfer, given the film’s age: there is a general softness and some artefacting which may well have been avoided with anamorphic enhancement.
– Gary Couzens, DVD Times
ABOUT ERIC ROHMER
The following quotes are included in the TSPDT Director page for Eric Rohmer:
“All the literary content is peripheral to Rohmer’s eye. It is in the quality of his imagery that we feel the intellectual appeal of experience. The camera style is classically simple, but Rohmer adores the effects of natural light, whether the reflections from snow in Maud, the rainy day in Claire, or the Côte d’Azur interiors in La Collectionneuse.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“Emerging from the crucible of the French New Wave, Rohmer has forged a style that combines the best qualities of Bresson and Renoir with distinctive traits of the Hollywood masters. And though he was never as flamboyant as Godard or Truffaut, Rohmer’s appeal has proved much hardier.” – Dennis Nastav (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“In their own world, Rohmer’s films are guaranteed to run and run. This may be because, although they are more or less conversation pieces, they are also cleverly constructed (he always writes his own screenplays) in such a way as to keep an audience’s interest alive until matters dovetail at the end, by which time most of Rohmer’s characters know more about themselves than when the film began.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)
“An important figure in the French new wave, Rohmer is known primarily for his “moral tales,” which leisurely speak of men and women, and the things they do to each other.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Biography on NewWaveFilm.com
By virtue of a tenure shared at Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s and early 1960s, Eric Rohmer is usually classified with Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette as a member of the French New Wave. Yet, except for three early shorts made with Godard, Rohmer’s films seem to share more with the traditional values of such directors as Renoir and Bresson than with the youthful flamboyance of his contemporaries. Much of this divergence is owed to an accident of birth. Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in 1920, Rohmer was at least ten years older than any of the other critic/filmmakers in the Cahiers group. By the time he arrived in Paris in 1948, he was an established teacher of literature at the lycée in Nancy and had published a novel, Elizabeth (1946), under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier. When he joined the Cahiers staff in 1951 Rohmer had already spent three years as a film critic with such prestigious journals as La Revue du Cinéma and Sartre’s Les Temps modernes. Thus Rohmer’s aesthetic preferences were more or less determined before he began writing for Cahiers. Still, the move proved decisive. At Cahiers he encountered an environment in which film critics and filmmaking were thought of as merely two aspects of the same activity. Consequently, the critics who wrote for Cahiers never doubted that they would become film directors. As it turned out, Rohmer was one of the first to realize this ambition. In 1951 he wrote and directed a short 16mm film called Charlotte and Her Steak in which Godard, the sole performer, plays a young man who tries to seduce a pair of offscreen women. Two of his next three films were experiments in literary adaptation. These inaugurated his long association with Barbet Schroeder, who produced or co-produced all of Rohmer’s subsequent film projects.
– Dennis Nastav, Film Reference.com
In 1948, two years before making his first film, in a piece for Les Temps modernes, arguing “For a Talking Cinema” Rohmer writes:
If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element, which, though privileged as compared with others, is but of secondary importance as compared with the visual element.
In this early article, Rohmer set out the manifesto he followed throughout his career. He sees speech as an integral part of both life and cinema. In his work the word is not used to impart information, but rather as a revelation of world and character—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the image is used. The dialogue that fills Rohmer’s films—its banalities, intricacies and lies, reveal the interior of his characters as much as their silent glances and physical hesitations. Words are never forced—he writes for the specific voice of each actor—they are used cinematically rather than literally.
It is through writing that Rohmer’s films consistently question the nature of the cinematic. It is shocking sometimes to see these long conversations and not be bored by their simple, often static representation. How can so much talk be cinematic? But these conversations are more than just talk. This isn’t radio. Neither is it an interview or televised debate. This is talk visually represented. Word and image work together to create a third thing, cinema. But cinema is a vague term (silent films are, of course, cinema) bringing up the idea of moving images rather than this sound/image combination. Defending his Contes moreaux Rohmer writes:
…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior and gesture….I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak.
The concept of total cinema is often seen as one of pure image, the meaning so completely contained within that image that words are unnecessary. In his quiet way—within what he describes as “self imposed limitations” —Rohmer is one of the few directors who has managed to arrive at a cinema that is doubly total. His is a cinema where the word is more than a signal post in the plot or a neat catchphrase, but something integrated into the cinematic world. He writes, “a means must be found to integrate words not into the filmed world but into the film…” His work is a concerted and successful attempt to do this.
– Tamara Tracz, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
In terms of consistency of both the content and form of his films, Eric Rohmer is without a doubt one of the most distinctive auteurs in the history of cinema. As with Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, within min utes—seconds, even—of starting to watch one of his movies, it’s clear who made it. Not that his visual style is even remotely flashy; like Howard Hawks—one of the Hollywood directors Rohmer greatly admired when he was critic and editor, in the 1950s and early ’60s, for Cahiers du cinéma—Rohmer prefers to keep technology and technique invisible. Indeed, so decep tively simple and straightforward is his work that some dismiss it as “talking heads.” Such an assessment is right (but not particularly bright) to point to his love of conversation, and accurate insofar as it alludes— accidentally—to his fascination and skill in terms of exploring feelings, opinions, and thoughts, rather than depicting the kinds of actions (catching crooks, killing enemies, saving the world, seeing the light) favored by most directors. But it fatally ignores the remarkable emotional, intellectual, and dramaturgic subtlety of his work. A Rohmer movie is not simply a drama or a comedy, a love story or an exercise in suspense, a psychological study or a philosophical disquisition; it’s all these and considerably more. Whether an original piece or an adaptation, be it set in the present or the past, the city or the country, it’s always first and foremost a Rohmer film. In essence, he invented his own genre.
– Geoff Andrew, The Criterion Collection
Even more than Truffaut or Chabrol, Rohmer has always believed in the power of stories and storytelling. In his early “Moral Tales,” the carefully calibrated narratives pushed his gallery of intellectuals toward a melancholy self-realization. As the director became more interested in young people at the beginning of the ’80s, his focus shifted to the spiritual. Like Rossellini, one of his role models, the devoutly Catholic Rohmer tends to leave his heroes and heroines in a state of grace, framed within the most ordinary circumstances and settings (it’s hard to imagine a more subtly enacted miracle than the climax of Tale of Winter). And, of course, they talk their way right up the spiritual ladder. Many people are driven around the bend by Rohmer’s “dialogue-heavy” movies, which supposedly approach cinematic danger level. But in his case, talk always equals action: a form of therapeutic inquiry for the heroes of My Night at Maud’s or Claire’s Knee, a restless search for clarity in Pauline at the Beach or Le Beau Mariage, a wayward path toward enlightenment in the latest films. Moreover, Rohmer’s talking cures are always firmly rooted in their settings: It’s the pre-Christmas snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand that keeps the skittish Jean-Louis Trintignant holed up with Françoise Fabian‘s game divorcée in Maud‘s, and it’s the golden, sunlit southern countryside that fillsMarie Rivière with the knowledge of her own mature beauty in Autumn Tale.
With his three long series spanning six decades, broken up by excursions into documentaries, literary adaptations, and omnibus films, has Rohmer realized his ambition to be the Balzac of cinema? Maybe. It has to be said that his conservatism borders on nationalism: Unlike Pialat or Téchiné or even Rivette, he’s never risen to the challenge of portraying the racial diversity of modern France. But for all its neatness and moral self-containment, his is a remarkable (and often remarkably funny) body of work, rich in natural wonders, bewitching interactions, and emotional passages. Maud’s is still his meatiest film: Trintignant’s wary self-exposure is perfectly matched by Fabian’s seductive frankness, and Nestor Almendros never got a crisper black-and-white image. Depending on your tolerance for Jean-Claude Brialy, even at his least preening, Claire’s Knee remains an intricately suspenseful movie: The buildup to that nonlecherous caress is one of the neatest inventions of the ’70s. The “Comedies and Proverbs” of the ’80s are more diaphanous, with the soulful exceptions of The Aviator’s Wifeand the largely improvised Summer. But even the insubstantial Full Moon in Paris vibrates with the delicate beauty of the late Pascale Ogier. Autumn and Winter (his most purely Christian film) are the most vaunted of the later movies. My personal favorite is the undervalued Tale of Springtime, which works up a lively romantic intrigue against a background of suburban greenery under overcast skies. Also not to be missed: the painterly adaptation of Kleist’s Marquise of O, with a devastating lead performance by the great Edith Clever; the early short The Baker of Monceau, the first of the moral tales, filled with new wave exuberance and featuring a young, handsome Barbet Schroeder; and the largely unknown feature debut, The Sign of Leo. A favorite of Fassbinder’s, this beautifully elaborated tall tale offers a wonderful portrait of Paris in the late ’50s. And, during a nicely detailed bohemian party scene, it features an unforgettable cameo. The young man in dark glasses sitting at a table, endlessly lifting the needle off a record to play and replay his favorite piece of music, is none other than Rohmer’s opposite number, Jean-Luc Godard.
– Kent Jones, The Village Voice, February 6 2001