Before getting into Eric Rohmer’s 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Amazon), a 1987 film from the director recently released on DVD by KimStim, I should confess that I’d only previously seen a couple of Rohmer’s other movies. Admittedly, I’ve found myself admiring Rohmer’s films more than I’ve enjoyed them. Rohmer was the last prominent auteur of the French New Wave to break through to international acclaim with 1969’s My Night at Maud’s; there’s none of the overt emotional content of Truffaut or the politics and formal experimentation of Godard in Rohmer’s films. The director preferred using dramatic scenarios as a way of exploring moral and ethical questions, usually shot and edited in the simplest style possible. I admire Rohmer’s disciplined, cerebral approach to film, even as I’m sympathetic to a famous line from the 1975 film Night Moves, where Gene Hackman referred to My Night at Maud’s as “kind of like watching paint dry.”
Still, it seems premature for me to declare a fully formed opinion on a director when I’ve seen three of his more than 50 features and shorts, so I tried to approach Reinette and Mirabelle with an open mind. It didn’t radically change my mind about Rohmer, but I enjoyed it a bit more than I expected. Made in between more ambitious productions, it feels like a trifle, but a very likable one. It’s essentially a collection of four shots centering on the friendship between the title characters; Reinette is a painter who lives in rural France, while Mirabelle is an urbane, sophisticated young Parisian student who meets her new friend while on holiday.
Mirabelle invites Reinette to share her apartment, and the rest of the movie is devoted to vignettes that illustrate different ethical quandaries. In one, the two young women have to deal with a comically officious waiter; in another, they’re prompted to discuss the possible consequences, positive and negative, of giving money to beggars and street vendors. Reinette steadfastly (sometimes stubbornly) adheres to her principles, while Mirabelle is more pragmatic. The essay by Leah Anderst included with the DVD refers to Reinette and Mirabelle as a “thesis film,” and it’s both as intelligent and, sometimes, as dry as that suggests.
That the movie stays engaging for its 90-minute runtime is largely thanks to its two charming leads. The idea for the movie came from a meeting Rohmer had with Joëlle Miquel; the director was delighted by the actress, and the character of Reinette isn’t far from her real personality. Miquel and Jessica Forde make excellent onscreen best friends and intellectual sparring partners, and they go a long way towards keeping an almost purely cerebral cinematic exercise lively.
It also helps that Rohmer was in a phase where he took a particularly free-spirited approach to the technical aspects of filmmaking. Working in real locations, natural light and a cast largely made up of non-professionals, Rohmer approached the making of Reinette and Mirabelle with a loose, carefree approach that works well for this material. A combination of such heady content and a more rigid, formalist approach probably would have smothered any life out of the movie; instead, it’s a celebration of its actresses, their characters and the world they live in. Even if Rohmer isn’t my favorite, I can’t help admiring his commitment to making movies his own way and using the medium to investigate the questions that interest him. And, best of all, Reinette and Mirabelle never once reminded me of that Gene Hackman line.