Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE SIGN OF LEO (Eric Rohmer, 1959, France)

Pierre lives his life day by day, one handout away from poverty and homelessness. He is awoken one morning by a telegram (he doesn’t even have change to tip the delivery boy) stating that he has inherited his aunt’s fortune. His luck soon changes from good to bad and he finds himself alone and disenfranchised with no one to turn to for support, walking the filthy streets of Paris on a road to nowhere.
Eric Rohmer’s first film introduced the world to the French New Wave, a cinema verite style of seemingly unscripted natural dialogue of bohemian artists living on the edge of a static society, a self-expression that at once condemns the status quo while appealing to the hearts and minds of a new generation. While Chabrol, Godard, and Truffaut conquered the box office, Rohmer’s feature was critically acclaimed but a financial failure. Devoid of sentimentality, Rohmer’s film depicts the end results of a middle aged artist whose life of self-acknowledged laziness leads to an empty existence, a life one twist of fate away from becoming a drunken bum, a laughing stock whose dignity is discarded like ragged clothing.
Rohmer’s style owes more to Neo Realism than any of the other early Nouvelle Vague, his camera roaming the streets, alleys, and busy sidewalks of an unscripted Paris. He utilizes long tracking shots that focus upon Pierre, isolating him even in the large crowds that haunt the nightlife, while often cutting to a reaction shot or POV as the camera pans the pedestrian and faceless mob. Rohmer reveals the ugly and gritty streets of the iconic city eschewing maudlin cinematic tropes. To put it simply: THE SIGN OF LEO is depressing. But it’s not without its rewards.
Pierre is an American musician and generally a hanger-on who lives by his whims and immediate desires. He is heavy and middle-aged (another fact differentiating the story from others in the burgeoning genre) as his years of sloth have added to his girth. Jess Hahn who  plays Pierre isn't an unattractive man but not typical of a feature protagonist, unlike Jean-Paul Belmondo or the uncanny Jean-Pierre Leaud. His casting gives the film a realism and immediacy that hot-wires the narrative; it’s slightly off-putting but totally believable from the first rumpled scene. As we invade Pierre’s life and celebrate his luck, we soon digest the empty calories that are his friends, people who seem to share little in common except wine and cigarettes. Godard shows up in the apartment as a nameless cohort who plays the same chorus over and over again on a record which becomes a metaphor for Pierre’s life. The talk is mundane and at one point Pierre picks up a violin and attempts to play a sonata he dreamed the night before. His friends are surprised at his talent which shows that they only understand each other superficially: these are party people.
Rohmer uses Pierre as a cipher to forge his message that luck and justice are both blind, that anything can happen in anyone’s life at any moment. Pierre doesn’t deserve what happens to him as the punishment and reward fail to meet the crime of his laziness and exploited friendships. At one point Pierre collapses after walking all night and on the wall is a map of Paris. Rohmer zooms in on the map to show Pierre’s location and then slowly zooms back, as if a ghost rising from his corpse to see the entire city from a godlike perspective. We suddenly understand just how insignificant one person is in this great big world.
Pierre’s pride and dignity are slowly torn away as he finally concedes defeat and becomes that which he always feared: homeless. He is saved from a slow death by a friendly but quick talking bum who performs drunken soliloquies for handouts, a man who has forsaken his own dignity for survival, a man whose soul now nestles safely at the bottom of a whiskey bottle like a drunken genie. Even Pierre looks down upon this man but soon becomes his cohort, grudgingly joining in his intoxicated performances for sustenance. Pierre’s pride is his downfall, his road to madness as he struggles futilely against the rock of the city, against the immovable fate that has brought him low in this middle age. But fate is soon to raise him up once again.
Pierre said that he never made a cent from his music but it is his music that brings him his fortune. As two acquaintances search for Pierre after discovering a registered letter that exclaims his newly acquired inheritance (at the death of his cousin), they overhear his violin sonata outside a restaurant where two drunks perform for handouts. Pierre is at his wits end and runs away, despising himself and what he’s become, angry at the world and ready to kill himself. He is rescued and whisked away to an unknown fate of wealth where happiness isn't guaranteed. His drunken friend is left standing alone, asking Pierre to not forget him and become his salvation, to lift him from poverty as he lifted Pierre from death. Rohmer never gives him (or us) an answer as he pans upwards to the indifferent stars, to the constellation of Leo. 

Final Grade: (B+)