The scope of Eric Rohmer’s work is impressive, both in the size of his oeuvre and in the way it continually challenges and changes. Rohmer is by no means the only director working well into his eighties, nor is he the only octogenarian with a consistent and regular output (1). And yet it is hard not to be struck by the stubborn consistency of Rohmer’s refusal to bring his lines of inquiry to any kind of end. The master of the film series, (2) Rohmer not only seems to be embarking on a new set of films (3) but, with Triple Agent (2004), he focuses on one of the questions that his films consistently ask: do we, and can we, ever know another? In approaching this issue much more directly than in his earlier work, I believe it is possible that Rohmer, a man about whom very little is known, who guards his privacy and around whom all sorts of myths have arisen, is, at the age of 84, giving his viewers something close to a self portrait. As is natural in a film by Rohmer, this is not a simple self-portrait – not exactly the portrayal of a known face. Often we look in the mirror and see a face that shocks us – we find it hard to believe that the blank face returning our gaze can really contain the mass of thought and feeling, contradiction and mystery that we know we are made of. If Triple Agent is a self-portrait, then it is the portrait of the self as an essentially unknowable entity. The self that can function in many different roles and with many different people, but which ultimately can not be understood from the outside, even by those to whom it is closest. A self that, it seems possible, is unknowable even to itself.
Knowledge of the self is something the characters in Rohmer’s films continually search for, though frequently they do not know it. The most obvious example is found in the least “typical” of Rohmer’s films, Percival le Galloise (1978). The knight Percival (Fabrice Luchini) begins the film as a naive young man. Via the adventures he undergoes on his quest for the holy grail, he grows into something stronger, richer and more complex. The grail itself – a chalice of religious significance – is also a signifier, something that all people search for but whose actual presence is both impossible and indescribable. The grail becomes the symbol of each searcher’s own soul – the thing we quest to know but which, for almost all of us, is never quite within reach. At the end of Percival le Galloise, Percival is still riding on his quest. He has come into his manhood, he knows himself better than he did, but the Grail itself is still unfound (4).
While this quest to understand one’s own self is most clear in Percival le Galloise it is present in many other Rohmer films. In A Summer’s Tale (1996) Gaston (Melvil Poupard) struggles to choose between three girls. The fact that this makes him rather like Paris before the three Goddesses (5) only adds to the sense that his story needs to be seen as something more than just a teenager’s holiday quandary. Each of the girls can offer Gaston something (Margot equality, Solene the unfulfilled promise of sex and Lena romance) but as much as each of them represents what they offer, they also represent for Gaston the choice of what he wants, three possible Gastons with three possible futures. A young man, he doesn’t know who he is, and eventually he makes the only choice he can, which is to run away.
More often in a Rohmer film the unknown or unknowable person who one quests to understand is not the self but the other – usually the object of desire (6). These objects of desire embody in those who long for them the perpetual mystery of un-revealed selfhood. This is most clear in Delphine (Marie Rivière) in The Green Ray, where her longing is for a person so unknown they do not (until the very end of the film) even exist. Despite all the talk that goes on in many of Rohmer’s films, despite the protagonists’ endless analysis of themselves and their situations, they often seem profoundly isolated. The unknowable other then becomes at once a reflection of their own isolation, and a possibility, if only the mystery can be revealed, of ultimate (and possibly mythical) connection. Claire in Claire’s Knee and both Maud and Françoise in My Night at Maud’s are images of woman as inscrutable – desirable yet unknowable; while Charles in A Winter’s Tale (1992) is the essence of unknowable – met, loved, yet missing – untraceable and, in his absence, impassable.
In Triple Agent Rohmer takes this idea of the unknowable other, and places it directly in the centre of the film. Unlike many of his films, there is not one but two protagonists in Triple Agent – Fiodor (Serge Renko) and Arsinoe (Katarina Didaskalu). A marriage of 12 years standing is unusual in Rohmer’s films, especially in the centre of one. Now there is no unknown object of desire – the loved is with the lover, and has been for a while. Instead there is a shift to something else: the sense of the unknowable within the known. This is far more frightening because it no longer offers the possibility of breaching the wall of mystery that each separate other carries with them. If one’s loved and loving husband of 12 years can be so unknown, can anyone ever know anyone really? It is these questions that make Triple Agent a true tragedy as well as a mystery – a tragedy because the connection that the single seekers search for in earlier Rohmer films is finally revealed to be impossible.
As the title character, Fiodor is the central mystery of the film. Who is he? Who does he work for? Where do his loyalties lie? Like his wife, we are not given answers to these questions. He is a cipher. And yet at the same time we know he is something – someone layered and complex. There are very human elements in him – his pride at being in the know, always so well informed, his pleasure in his own talking, the way he gets lost in himself as he examines his position from all possible angles. These traits give us a hint of understanding. Fiodor says at one point that sometimes it is better to tell the truth than to lie because people expect you to lie and therefore don’t believe you anyway. When a man is so consistently playing such games of twisting and double bluff, and when is he also engaged in such a constant examination of himself and his position, it is not surprising that he gets lost in the maze he is making. Despite feeling that we know him, like Arsinoe, we know nothing of him. We never know the extent of his complicity in the abduction of the General. We don’t know to where he disappeared. We don’t know if he lived or died and we don’t know for whom he actually worked. At times we don’t even know how much of his sense of himself as this magnificent political and intelligent being is just fabrication. We don’t even know if he has the answers that we don’t to the questions of his own identity.
Though we don’t understand him it is Fiodor, perhaps more than Arsinoe, whom the audience relates to. He is a mystery to us, but aren’t we all a mystery to everyone outside of our own head? It is in this element of Fiodor that one gets the first sense that Rohmer is presenting some kind of a self-portrait. One of the most enduring myths about Rohmer is that his mother never knew that he was a film director – that he led her to believe that he was still a teacher as it was a more acceptable bourgeois profession (7). The truth of this story is immaterial – it is impossible, true or not, that Rohmer is unaware of its circulation. In presenting as one of his main characters a man whose wife does not really know what he does each day when he leaves their home, there must be an element of the representation of the self as perceived by others. Perhaps, as well as being an image of the blank face in the mirror, this could be seen as a self-portrait of the self as seen by others.
Certainly, Fiodor is a good representation of the human condition as experienced by the characters in Rohmer’s film. He lives. Regardless of whether Arsinoe or the audience know what he does when he is out of sight, Fiodor does do something. For every minute he inhabits his body and mind, and there is not in this film any moment when we do not feel the reality, the totality, of his existence. He is grounded in the real by his charmingly unsexy cardigan – by his boyish enthusiasm for his mysteriousness. He is complete. But though we know his totality is there, we don’t know what it is. Only he can know it, and we can’t be sure he could articulate or express it. Perhaps all his describing of himself is an attempt to pin down what he knows himself to be but cannot completely grasp, an attempt to de-mystify that mirror blankness. Like Gaston or Delphine or so many of Rohmer’s people, his wholeness presses down on him, he seems compelled to talk about it, but he never quite manages to let it be experienced or shared by those around them. Rohmer’s characters are so often prisoners.
Arsinoe, of course, is a real prisoner at the end of the film, her dismal jail block presented to us as a voiceover tells of her decline and death. But in many ways she is a prisoner throughout the film. Both Fiodor and Arsinoe are described as exiles, but unlike Fiodor and his endless talk of Russia, Arsinoe does not mention Greece at all and we do not know why she is exiled from it. With tuberculosis, Arsinoe becomes a prisoner of her body and its disease. She is a prisoner of her house – she says she is uncomfortable painting on the streets because people look at her, but one senses that her limitation of her world to the room she inhabits has causes somewhat more complex than this. And in living with a man who is a cipher, about whom she really knows very little, she is a prisoner of her own marriage. During the most crucial hour of her life she sits unknowingly in a dressmaker’s lobby. She has remarkably little room, on any level, in which to move.
If Fiodor is a cipher then Arsinoe is a blank. There is a blankness to her paintings. The scenes she creates are strangely static and un-alive. But they aren’t bad, and her dedication to her painting is serious. The scenes of the market and the street seem frozen in time – the opposite of impressionism. While her more sophisticated and articulate neighbours upstairs (who also have, unlike her, a child) proudly show their Picasso print, she claims that she does not understand cubism. And yet this feels disingenuous – perhaps rather than not understanding cubism, Arsinoe’s creative urge is to paint what she sees in the way that she experiences it. The frozen, immobile scenes that she paints, moments in time not caught so much as suspended, may be our only clue to what her life feels like to her. With her fragile health and her childlessness, with Fiodor’s frequent absences, her life does seem, from the outside, to be somewhat suspended.
And yet she is possessed of a powerful passion. Not her love for Fiodor, though that is certainly powerful, but a political passion, a sense of right and wrong that surprises us. While Fiodor talks of politics all the time, with her and with others, she is scrupulous about not getting involved. Her opinions are kept so close that when she explodes with them, when she cries with relief on discovering that Fiodor is not, as she suspected, a Nazi, or her passionate reaction to the thought that he betrayed General Dobrinsky, it is hard not to be surprised that she thought so deeply and cared so much. She is the anti-Rohmer character because she so rarely talks of herself, but like Fiodor, she has an interior life that we sense. Unlike him though, it comes out, forceful and passionate and alive, when she is provoked.
It is of course the union of these two characters that gives Triple Agent its soul. To really examine the problem of knowing another, there need to be two people who are, as Fiodor and Arsinoe are, deeply linked. Their relationship is the vehicle by which we can try and examine the problem. And yet, the more one examines the film, the more this relationship begins to feel like the black hole at its centre. Like many of Rohmer’s films, Triple Agent isn’t particularly easy to watch. We know what it is but we don’t really know what it is about. Is it a spy thriller, a love story, a historical film? It doesn’t fall easily into categories, and sometimes it seems to be about nothing. Rohmer has always invited his audience to participate in the interpretation of his work, and Triple Agent is no different. Here we have to listen and look carefully, and think about what we have seen and heard, not just during the film but afterwards as well. Trying to grasp hold of the film, the only thing we can really clutch onto is the relationship between Fiodor and Arsinoe. No doubt, one feels, it is here, in the grasping of this, that the film can be grasped. But the relationship is not graspable.
Arsinoe says to her neighbour that she and Fiodor don’t talk of politics. They neither of them talk to each other about their work, but this is not unusual in a Rohmer film. In Love in the Afternoon (1972) Frederic (Bernard Verley) tells us that he knows nothing about his wife’s thesis, and she in turn knows nothing about his life as a lawyer, and yet their love is clearly evident as the film closes. The same can be said for Fiodor and Arsinoe. Though their work lives are neither connected not discussed, their bond is strong. His concern for her health is genuine and touching. He even moves from town to country to help her. But as the mystery of the film deepens even this vision of marital concord becomes muddy. One can no longer believe the evidence in front of one’s eyes and ears. Evidence of marital happiness that seemed obvious becomes questionable. If one may be not only a double but even a triple agent, then there is nothing in one’s life that can be free of doubt. By the film’s end we can no longer know the reality of any of Fiodor’s motives. Rohmer insists on holding onto the mystery. This is a film full of contradictions and dualities. We are presented with male and female, agent and double or even triple agent, talk and silence, inside and outside, truth and lies, white and red, left and right, figurative and abstract, town and country, truth and lies. It is no easy matter to try and navigate such a disjointed landscape.
When faced with such a slippery film, where real meaning seems elusive, it is often useful to focus in on what is concrete. Triple Agent helps us by rooting these seemingly unknowable characters in the physicality of space and time and in the realities of political situations. Space, and the body in space, is a theme that reoccurs throughout Rohmer’s oeuvre and this film is no different. We are given sequences showing us how someone (Fiodor, in this case) moves through the geography of space. We see how and where he keeps his car. We cross streets with him and, perhaps most importantly, we climb the stairs with him.
It is early in the film that we first see Fiodor climb the spiral staircase to his office. He climbs, looks up, and then climbs some more. At this point in the film we have no idea what this staircase may mean, or even what it leads to. But we are made to climb it with Fiodor, and the length of the shot, as well as his glance up, becomes filled with meaning. The space that he traverses is space we too have to cross, to see and to try and understand. This film is called Triple Agent, it may be a mystery, this man may be a spy, great drama may be about to unfold, but at this point all we have is the passage from below to above, the space that the body has to pass through in order to be somewhere else. Rohmer frequently uses images of substantial duration that show his characters in transit, walking, driving, on trains and buses. It is powerfully used towards the end of A Winter’s Tale where Felicie (Charlotte Véry) goes on a series of trips and we see the view of the road as she is driven from place to place. Road after road lead to nothing more exciting than a small playground, but this repetitious movement creates a powerful sense of movement towards something. All the time the viewer thinks – she is going somewhere, she is going somewhere, but where is she going? Of course, when Felicie “arrives” at the place to which we sense she is going, she in no longer in a car, but the shots from the car are, in effect, what had taken her and the viewer there.
When Fiodor climbs the stairs to his office we are at the beginning and not the end of the film, but the shot evokes a similar sense of going towards. What he goes towards is both a revelation, from below to above, traversing a spiral, but also banal, to his office, where he hangs up his coat. But Fiodor is also going towards his future, to the other times when he will climb these stairs, and to the time when they will be his means of escape – a chute that takes him into the unknown. At the same time the quotidian, necessary action of climbing stairs is what makes Fiodor, with all his mystery and bravado, a real person. The audience has to traverse dead space with him, and so we become linked. We see that this is one of the moments of life that even a spy has to live, the real ongoing, unavoidable movement forward.
Of course, one passes through time as well as space when climbing the stairs. Time is an important element in the understanding of any film because film itself is a time-based medium, constantly working at a number of different levels. But Triple Agent is particularly interesting in respect to ideas about time in cinema – not least because it is not set in the time in which it was made. In his long career Rohmer has made only three films before Triple Agent that were set in the past – Percival le Galloise, The Marquise of O (1976) and The Lady and the Duke (2000). In each one he has used highly specific (and very unusual) tools in order to give truth back to the artifice of recreated time – either by using his source material and nothing else, or by the use of digitised backgrounds or ostensibly false scenery (8). In Triple Agent Rohmer can’t rely on documentation or source material because his source itself is an unresolved mystery. However, unlike Percival le Galloise, The Marquis of O or The Lady and the Duke, Triple Agent is set in a past that is within Rohmer’s living memory. Born in 1920, Rohmer would have been 16 in 1936 when the Popular Front won their election victory in France and the film begins. Rohmer is therefore, for the first time, setting a film not in a time he inhabits, but in a time he remembers. Despite his legendary attention to detail and his rigorousness, I doubt that the film is completely free of the subjectivity of personal memory, especially when depicting such a loaded time.
Rohmer deals with the disjunction inherent in all period films by the masterful use of newsreels. The film begins with a newsreel documenting the victory of the Popular Front, and then cuts to Fiodor listening to the Radio, which gives further election statistics. The newsreels are black and white, clearly “old” to modern eyes yet undoubtedly real – documentary. Fiodor is in colour, in an apartment furnished with period objects, an actor whose name has appeared before the title – clearly a re-creation. And yet the link between the two shots brings a certain reality to the recreation. The reality of 1936 was that while the newsreels were black and white, reality itself was in colour. With the link of the “documentary” voice of the radio, Rohmer masterfully slides us from documentary to fiction, creating an element of reality into what we know is unreal. He links the real with the un-real just as he links the past with the present, and newsreels become, by the juxtaposition of the two shots, newsreals.
But perhaps the most important and the most extraordinary use of (and meditation on) time, happens towards the end of the film, when Fiodor leaves Arsinoe at the dressmaker’s for an hour. After he leaves, and she begins to leaf through a dressmaking magazine, there is an iris in – a gradual closing of the iris on the camera lens causing blackness to push an ever-decreasing circle of image into the centre of the screen, after which all is black. The reversal of the process, an iris out, takes us to Fiodor’s return. This process was fairly common in the early days of cinema but is almost never used today. It is also untypical for Rohmer, whose films are almost obsessively simple in the way they are framed and shot, to use such a “trick”. It is startling to watch, and it demands thought. One has to wonder why this old man whose films are always so deeply modern is referencing the birth of cinema in a film set in the cataclysmic middle of the last century. The effect is also a representation of time itself, the time that was (an hour – or rather, a good hour, as it is described in the film) as well as the time represented on screen – a few seconds. But this time, this hour and the seconds that represent it are crucial time, the time that contains the act of ultimate betrayal by Fiodor; to his wife, to the colonel, maybe even to himself. Time that is rich, complex and full for one person (the husband) is empty and long, filled with a silly magazine for the other. The contradictions and impossibilities inherent in any consideration of the nature of time are clear here. We do not know at the time we see the iris in and out why they are important, but later on (in time) we find out. The small circle of image at the centre of the black screen is suddenly a spotlight – it tells us that here, in this small nothing, is what is most important, what will influence everything. It tells us that this hour is the moment of no return. It is the hour that leads to Arsinoe’s death. Time of course will take us all to our graves eventually, but via the optical effect one sees time, this time, as a death sentence, and the iris in and out become like a black spot, the mark of an impending death.
It is the eventual death of Arsinoe – and its presentation – that takes Triple Agent, a film that is shown mostly in domestic interiors, into the realms of politics and tragedy. This film is not just set within living memory, it is set in one of the crucial and defining periods of recent French history, the lead up to the Second World War and the defeat and occupation by Nazi Germany. It is not possible for a French filmmaker, especially one who has lived through this, to be neutral about what happened. A spy may be a romantic and dashing figure, and Fiodor is certainly charming and intelligent, but if he was a Nazi, if he was working against France, then his crime is more than significant. The newsreel footage plays an important role here. It is the solemn newsreel montage after Fiodor’s disappearance and the interrogation of Arsinoe in her hotel room that gives us a sense of the real devastation the Occupation caused France, the terrible rupture in history and national pride. Something happens before the newsreels though that is critical, and which is connected to the link from newsreel reality to recreated fiction that I discussed earlier. After the scene in the hotel room, one of domestic intimacy equal to the first re-created scene, with Arsinoe’s robe replacing Fiodor’s cardigan, a male voiceover recounts the end of the story. It tells us, with its all-seeing eye and impassive intonation, of the disappearance of Fiodor, the interrogation of the dressmaker, and Arsinoe’s trial, imprisonment and eventual death. This voiceover becomes, in effect, the voice over of the newsreel, once again bridging the fiction of colour film with historical events. After we hear Arsinoe’s story there comes the solemn newsreel montage. Now the weight of Fiodor’s possible actions become truly understandable, in both the private and the public arenas.
The newsreel montage is not, though, the end of the film. Afterwards there is a coda where the two White Russians who originally took Fiodor to face his accusations discover evidence of spying in the White Russian headquarters after the end of the war. Seeing this as proof of Fiodor’s guilt (9) they discuss the case, ending with a description of Arsinoe’s fate, one the viewer already knows, but which the man to whom they speak does not. “What happened to her?” he asks, and the two men, in unison, reply “She died” – after which the film abruptly ends. This abruptness echoes the way many of the scenes in the film cut off at strange and sometimes disconcerting moments, as though we are not allowed to see or hear the one thing that might make sense of the seemingly non existent plot. But it does more than that. The odd way both men speak at once, the finality and harshness of their summing up can not but remind one of the choruses of Greek Tragedies, who describe and lament the deaths of heroes.
The Greek Tragedies reflected to their watchers an image of the world, of fate, of each person’s fated and complex passage through life. If the end of Triple Agent is the final comment of the chorus on the tragedy, this seemingly strange film falls into place. Arsinoe’s Greek nature, which, unlike Fiodor’s Russianness, had seemed somewhat arbitrary, becomes necessary. The paradoxical feeling that we are being shown a self-portrait by a private man starts to make sense – because the self-portrait is the portrait of the condition of being human. The actors who performed in Greek theatre wore masks; an act that made them at once above the crowd that watched them and unified with it because all of us will find elements of tragedy in our lives and in all of us are elements of the tragic hero. Rohmer himself frequently masks himself with pseudonyms. The mask is recognisable, but it is not us. Thus the blank face in the mirror is merged with the masked face of the tragic character. One senses that with the difficult times in which they operate, in the difficulties of living life at all, for the people in this film the actor’s mask has been left on too long, and has become welded to the human face beneath. There is a sense now of Triple Agent as a self-portrait of face that is masked – that we will never really know or understand. It is not surprising that Rohmer is constantly surprising us, nor that this film is so different to the rest of his work, and yet so perfectly in line. This film is a mystery, just as, despite attempts to explain it furnished by both religion and science, life itself seems so often a mystery. Rohmer makes no attempt to reveal the mystery because the film’s nature is mystery. The Greek chorus give their verdict: she died. The end. We won’t ever know what the truth is. Probably, we will never know the truths about Rohmer either – or even ourselves. But isn’t that the point?
- Chris Marker comes to mind, not to mention the 96 year-old Manoel de Oliveira, another later starter like Rohmer.
- Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs and the Tales of the Four Seasons.
- As yet Rohmer has not declared a new sequence of films to be in progress. But it is hard not to see a link between The Lady and The Duke and Triple Agent, two films that, almost uniquely in Rohmer’s oeuvre, deal with affairs of historical and political significance. Both films are also set in the past.
- Percival le Galloise was taken almost directly from the poem by Chretien de Troyes. That poem is also one of the major sources used by Mallary for his Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he tells how it was Percival, of all the knights, who finally finds the holy grail.
- Paris, brother of Hector, was given the difficult task of judging which of the three Goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – was the most beautiful. He eventually chose Aphrodite, an action that led to the Trojan wars.
- Though this is not always the case. In Claire’s Knee, while Claire is the unknown object of desire, Aurora, the friend and confidante is equally inscrutable. Her engagement at the end of the film is a complete surprise to Jerome.
- I have been told this “myth” in two versions, one where it is Rohmer’s mother who does not know his real professions, and the other where it is Rohmer’s wife. Neither version comes from any credible source.
- I have gone into this aspect of Rohmer’s work in more detail in my overview of his career in the Great Directors section of Senses of Cinema.
- It doesn’t seem like conclusive proof to me.