To Be Bourgeois and In Love

This week I discovered the “Screen Time” feature on my Apple devices, which not only tracks how long I use the devices themselves and the individual apps therein, but also allows me to set certain rules and limitations as to their usage.

Let me tell you, what a confirmation it was to see the number of hours I have been wasting scrolling through the noise on Facebook, Twitter, and most especially Tiktok. It appears that since I downloaded the thing – out of curiosity compounded with boredom – as it was really taking off at the height of lockdown restrictions in 2020, I have been scrolling my life away through the For You page, which to give credit where it’s due, is a really well-written piece of software if the goal is to entrap millions of users around the globe to mindlessly view dances, recipes, indignant reaction videos to inflammatory takes, and fake news interspersed with one other.

In any case, in the effort of limiting how much of my life and productive time I’m losing through this unchecked leakage, I used the “Screen Time” app to put daily time limits on social media usage. And in that time I gained I’ve resolved to double on my reading time and – on the weekends – going back through Mubi’s catalogue and immersing myself in some culture.

This week, I sat down for some French New Wave. In particular, Eric Rohmer’s Love In The Afternoon (1972) and the legendary Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980).

Love In The Afternoon, or in the French, L’Amour l’après midi, apparently comes last in a cycle of six romantic films by the director. None of these films in Six Moral Tales I’ve seen in my life, yet that did not appear to be a hindrance to my enjoyment of the film. It stars Zouzou as Chloé, former lover to an old friend of Bernard Verley as Frédéric, who appears to either be in business or in law (maybe both, as he seems to answer a lot of phone calls).

Chloé begins pestering a clearly uncomfortable Frédéric first by some seemingly innocuous favors like setting her up with a job, or helping her find an apartment, but eventually her ambiguous motives plays right into Frédéric’s growing disenchantment with his wife.

One thing I really love about French films is how they reward you for paying attention. This 97 minute film goes into a long character study, which ends in a quiet resolution that feels perfectly in keeping with the morals of the film. Eric Rohmer’s movie diatribe on polygamy and the politics of flirtation, with a subtle critic on bourgeois values, makes for an interesting discussion of what romance means in the modern world.

Truffaut’s The Last Metro (La dernier métro) is a lot less quiet, and certainly longer, than Rohmer’s affair. Yet again we find here some traces of the usual New Wave fascinations: a love triangle, bourgeois complacency, and a growing discontent toward the current of the time. Metro is set towards the end of the Nazi occupation of France during the second world war. We are introduced to the Mme Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), who is left behind to manage her Jewish husband’s theater when he escapes from Nazi clutches. In the meantime, they are in preparation for a play, and she begins to fall in love with the lead actor, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), secretly a member of the French Opposition.

Something in the Mme Steiner’s character reminds me so much of Shoshana from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), although of course Shoshana was Jewish in Tarantino’s film, and Marion has secrets of her own. Even without Googling it I can tell just from the red lipstick and the veil that Marion wears throughout the film that this is one of the films that inspired probably my favorite of all cinema. Truffaut’s choreography is amazing: people mill about scenes, and everything is kinetic from start to finish. The movie being set in Nazi-occupied Germany, Truffaut makes inventive use of musical cues and perfectly timed framing to create a pervading sense of surveillance and paranoia during a time of repression.

In spite of these glowing praises, I do have some reservations with the writing. For one, the love story between Mme Steiner and Granger felt forced, in that there’s very little build up that happens throughout the film’s two hour runtime that would suggest, even subtly, that there exists some form of romance between the two. Attraction is hinted through a subtle sharing of anxious glances early in their first meeting, and then again in another scene at a cafe where Mme Steiner appears to try very hard to get Bernard’s attention. But beside this, the film feels much more concerned with building up its atmosphere rather than its people, so that when Mme Steiner’s husband declares to Bernard himself, “She’s [Marion] in love with you, but are you in love with her?” I felt like I fell asleep and missed a significant cut of the movie.

And why this disconnect between Marion and her husband? There’s nothing like the missed remarks, and the chilly looks shared by Frédéric and his wife in Afternoon. In fact, Marion and her husband meet almost nightly, having a tête-à-tête about the play he is directing while in hiding, sleeping with each other, actively caring for one another. Was their marriage just one of convenience that went awry in the war? There’s a tad too many corners left unpolished in this film to call it perfect, and I feel that Truffaut would have done well to have set aside some of his atmospherics (brilliant, though they were) and got his hands dirtier with the narrative.

But that’s just me, and none of these concerns really take too much away from one’s enjoyment of the film, granted that one is okay with feeling a bit lost towards what is supposedly the deciding moment of the action.

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