Rohmer gets characterized as a genteel filmmaker because his characters often engage in long, civil conversations. But the worldview expressed by his films was hardly a rosy one. His work, like Jane Austen’s, regularly reveals pleasant conversation to be a mask for messier, distinctly ungenteel feelings. Even in his sunniest films (such as Summer, which Block will screen on Friday at 7 PM), characters undermine each other constantly, and their spiky behavior produces a fascinating tension with the director’s offhand style.
The Sign of Leo is said to be more overtly gloomy than Rohmer’s better-known work. (Tellingly, the great pessimist Rainer Werner Fassbinder named it one of the most important influences on his own films.) It tells the story of Pierre, a poor American expat living in France who drives himself deeper into poverty after he suspects he’ll inherit a small fortune. The British online critic Chris Wiegand wrote of it:
The film is littered with painful moments, of which perhaps the most excruciating to sit through is one where the tired and hungry Pierre rests on a bench next to three girls who cheerfully discuss their fortunes and enjoy the refreshments he is so clearly in need of.
With its depiction of one man’s long physical and spiritual decline, The Sign of Leo recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as the most literary of New Wave directors—always devoting particular attention to his characters’ complex emotions and inner thoughts.
Wiegand is apt to mention Rohmer’s literary bent. Not only did Rohmer originally aspire to become a novelist, he spent years teaching high school literature before he established himself as a critic and filmmaker. His highly regarded film cycle, the Six Moral Tales, stemmed from a series of novellas he wrote in the early 1950s (the Criterion Collection reprinted them as a supplement to go with the Rohmer box set they released a few years ago). He was already 40 years old by the time he completed Sign of Leo; he wouldn’t start filming the Moral Tales until he was 47. This late start also suggests more of an affinity with novelists than with filmmakers, as it’s more common in literature to arrive at storytelling after collecting a store of life experience.