Friday, June 4, 2010

A Good Marriage (Eric Rohmer, 1982)

Cinema has never been kind to the figure of woman. Patriarchy interpellates and objectifies her, to paraphrase the words of a young Godard. Within the diegetic universe, if not the corporate ambit, of film production, she is asked to inhabit the margins to foreground the primacy of man. She is asked to assume a lower, inferior rank, tucked away in domestic and domesticated roles as mother, non-career woman, housewife. She must never threaten the male protagonist, and if she isn’t going to be his complement, neither can she assume the persona of an equally strong villain. This, more or less, defines the screen presence allotted to women in this most macho of arts.

Released in 1982 as part of his cycle of films called Comedies and Proverbs, Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage is a picture that can divide opinion as to its place within feminist canon in an era of growing identity awareness. It is bound to be applauded outright or perhaps elicit a few cringe-worthy moments in its depiction of women. Its main protagonist, Sabine, the movie’s premise quickly makes plain, is a young woman on a quest to find a husband. She declares one fateful night, after doing away with her married boyfriend, that she will pursue marriage as an ideal in life and revert to a figure of olden times when women were respected and desired for their virtue.

Enter Edmond, a lawyer bachelor who meets all of Sabine’s coveted attributes in a man. Handsome, rich, successful. Most of all, single. Here is Sabine’s cue to assume the womanly ideal that she espouses, but she gets bad advice from her best friend Clarisse, who goads her to take the initiative and pursue him. Much of the rest of A Good Marriage is a lot of self-absorbed second-guessing on the part of Sabine (and her friend Clarisse) on how to go about ensnaring her intended man and the resulting abortive efforts. They proceed, predictably, with teary-eyed repercussions.

As a woman exercising her subjectivity, the figure of Sabine may elicit groans from an audience that thinks her crude and less than cunning in her methods of entrapment. Good for her, they will say, A Good Marriage is nothing but a film that puts her back in her rightful place, the passive position. As a woman, she is not subject but object. She has to wait to be ridden like a frozen horse on the carousel of marriage.

But a more informed reading may see Sabine as the prototype of a woman as the aggressive other. We live in a culture that concedes too much to men, and this paradigm is turned on its head in this Rohmer film. Sabine may fail, but not unlike all first timers do. She hits and misses but she will take the attendant lumps and bruises. It is she who pursues; she is predator, not prey for once, that’s what counts.

After all, the film ends where an opportunity seems to present itself to Sabine once again. After all, something has been withheld here, some complicating fact: that Edmond belongs to the haute bourgeoisie, while Sabine is substantially rungs lower on the economic ladder. (Cue in the Marxists.) That Edmond blinks first in a letter he writes to Sabine: he can never sacrifice his freedom. Edmond is not just a snooty rich man, but a man who feels threatened by an aggressive woman. Sabine will get the hang of it. Nature, after all, will bear her out. Predators more often fail than succeed in their pursuit of prey.

Like the five other films in the cycle of Comedies and Proverbs, Rohmer conceived A Good Marriage in such a light but cautionary vein, as seriocomic parables that illustrate the pitfalls of relationships and their less-than-fairy-tale consequences. Rohmer’s direction here, as always, is light and unobtrusive, allowing Beatrice Romand free rein to shine as Sabine. Arielle Dombasle (as Clarisse) and Andre Dussollier (as Edmond) turn in worthy supporting roles. If you fancy a film with simple but lilting charms, with articulate and involving characters, you can do worse than a film by Rohmer. A Good Marriage is no exception.

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