I’m currently working my way through Potemkine’s extravagant Éric Rohmer box-set, and intend to occasionally type up my thoughts. Aware of the fact that Rohmer’s 1959 debut feature Le Signe du Lion is fairly poorly covered in the English-language, my notes on that particular film seem apt to get the ball rolling.
It’s doubly apt given that Le Signe du Lion was the director’s first completed feature, produced in 1959 at the dawn of the Nouvelle Vague. As with a number of other pictures produced during these early days of the New Wave, most notably Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient and Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte, Le Signe du Lion didn’t see release for a number of years following it’s completion, with this delay, and subsequent poor commercial response, leading to Rohmer postponing his leap in to film production for a further half a decade.
Le Signe du Lion follows Pierre, an American-born musician living in Paris. The film opens to the news that Pierre is set to inherit a great fortune, following the death of an aunt. Celebration takes hold and Pierre and company take to the streets of Paris, where merriment reigns, the premise of great fortune on the horizon (a neat analogy for the state of French cinema at the time). Alas, the money never arrives, with Pierre unknowingly disinherited by the deceased relative, with instead the fortune passed on to a cousin, which leads to a second act gear-shift which sees Pierre attempting to get his life back on track in the wake of the crippling financial ruining of the earlier celebrations (in turn a neat and prescient insight in to the eventual state of the post-New Wave French cinema). Great deal of it spent following a man doing very little.
Pierre, despite the name, is very much in the tradition of the cinematic American. Think Lee Marvin via Eddie Constantine. Jess Hahn fills out the role, an actor most ordinarily associated with goon-types. He’s certainly got the overbearing presence to fit that kind of role, his heavy-set, overwhelming presence symbolic of the place of American cinema within France itself. Style is everything, presentation being the difference between a night under the roof of a hotel and on the concrete of a boulevard. His degradation is thus symbolic, with the first infliction a minor oil stain over lunch that thus begins the infection of his physical being. His shoes are the last things to go: no matter the makeshift repair with a bit of string, with his downfall sealed by the passing by of a tourist-filled boat which marks Pierre out as neither here nor there; he’s a bona-fide social alien, not fit for purpose as citizen nor visitor.
Rohmer tells an ugly story in the world’s most beautiful city. As Pierre sleeps on a bridge the glow of le Tour Eiffel can still be seen in the distance, long in to the night, while abandoned market waste and leftovers are surrounded by a masterpiece of constructivism in the form of meticulously stacked pallets. Nicholas Hayer shot the film, he a cinematographer from the early days of sound and a bridge between the French cinema of old and new having worked with figures as diverse as Jean de Limur, Jean Cocteau, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Julien Duvivier. With Le Signe du Lion Rohmer and Hayer, in a film that aesthetically is very different from much of the director’s work, achieve some remarkable visual feats. A dramatic pull back from the city as ambitious as any shot seen in any feature debut of the era closes out the main section of the picture, allowing for the films epilogue to tie-things together neatly, which itself closes with a symbolic shot of space, incurring thoughts of destiny, luck and the astronomical phenomena.
“I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry“. So remarks Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, one of the finest films from the US’s own “new wave”. But, while one might approach a Rohmer film with certain expectations, be they of long, drawn out chunks of running time dedicated to a single conversation, or complex romantic relations spread across several hours, this early feature is ground in a cinematic naiveté that renders it largely alone within the wider Rohmer oeuvre. No better is this on display than in the film’s script, written not by Rohmer (as soon would become the habit) but by Paul Gégauff, Claude Chabrol’s notable collaborator. Unlike the later films, Le Signe du Lion is dialogue-light for major portions, with instead emotion and mood set via the aesthetics and by action. Unlike say, a Bresson or a Dreyer, the operatic is eschewed in favour of a very direct simplicity, that actually more closely resembles the tramp cabaret of Jean Renoir. As the scenario builds, and bad luck comes to the fore, there’s no greater creative anchor than the lone violin that provides the core of the film’s score. As the second act descent takes hold, the violin replaces actual formed dialogue.
The whole picture is something of a curiosity. As with the early Chabrol films, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins it’s not quite New Wave, with Rohmer instead fusing what had gone before with a hint at what was to come, encapsulating a cinema on the verge of revolution. This is nicely tied together with a cameo appearance from eventual Nouvelle Vague pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, who plays an unnamed guest at the party which Pierre hosts at the beginning of the movie. As with that filmmaker’s own À bout de souffle, the notion of an American in Paris whose presence ruffles the peace runs through Le Signe du Lion (a further connection is gleamed in the way that the dual fates of Rohmer’s Pierre and Godard’s Patricia hinge on the media, be they the glossy pages of Paris Match or the quickly pressed-pages of the New York Herald Tribune). This interconnectivity, if not on a literal narrative level, fuelled the turning of the page on to a new era for European cinema.
Of course, it is eventually Pierre, the American, who wins, albeit a reinvigorated and more powerful American courtesy of European crutches. As with the American cinema, via hook or by crook, fortune or good luck, the burly, cocky, ambitious man from the other side of the Atlantic ultimately takes victory.