Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Don't Fuck the Boss!

A bourgeois man, his declasse mistress, early 1970s French-speaking Europe. To Eric Rohmer in his 1972 L'amour l'apres-midi they provide the material for moral meditation in the final of his Six Moral Tales. Middle class taste (turtlenecks, a simple yet elegant Parisian office, sexual and emotional restraint) defines the world of protagonist Frédéric, and indeed, here as elsewhere, the world of Rohmer's dramatic possibilities. Bourgeois by default, the political and social upheavals of the late 60s register in L'amour mainly in the variety of eccentric fashions displayed by the women Frédéric ogles on the street, and of course in the unrestrained, anarchic personality of would-be mistress Chloé. There is no indication of a return to normal, but rather a sense that nothing had ever happened, aside from the shortening of skirts and bold abandonment of the neck tie. Alain Tanner's Le milieu du monde (1974) likewise does not dramatize any explicit political struggles. This provincial Switzerland is cold and conservative, and his bourgeois man, despite running for political office, is similarly removed from evident social antagonisms. Yet Le milieu is a consciously, immanently political film in a way that L'amour is not- foregrounded above all by the director's interventional voiceovers. Rohmer may hide behind the mysteries of love. Tanner may cynically dismiss them. Yet the odd couples in both films reveal a similar fascination with the interplay of the personal and political in post-'68 Europe, in this instance especially the bearing of class on sexual relations. L'amour is undoubtably the more widely seen and commented upon film, but after viewing Tanner's masterful work, it is impossible not to group the two works, and to retroactively reread Frédéric and Chloé's daliance with and against the torrid affair of Paul and Adriana in Le milieu. The strategies for evading and engaging material and political conditions in cinema, in such an investigation, become just as important as locating the ethical imperatives issued by these auteurs.

"We live like students,"
Frédéric declares in L'amour, and indeed he and his adorable wife Hélène are a tasteful and understated bourgeois couple, quiet and content in their small world of cutting the pages of books and slightly animated dinner parties. Not like the students who animated the radical upheaval of May '68, however, no, not like those students at all. We even half believe Frédéric when he states that the objects of his horny stares are merely "extensions of his wife's beauty." Yet stare he does, pathetically channeling his repression into bizarre fantasies of seducing passersby with a glowing medallion. Later, he will flatly admit that marriage has robbed him of any actual ability to seduce. A petty rebel, Frédéric finds pleasure in sticking it to the business world by eating at strange hours, affecting non-sexist relations with his pretty young secretaries, eschewing business attire conventions. From our vantage point in the present, we may locate the origins of the current bizarre convergence of political correctness and corporate culture in this pathetic figure. This reading of Frédéric is against the grain of Rohmer's intent, one would think. His protagonist is an everyman, tormented by desire, yes, but ultimately decent and, as we shall see, capable of acts of redemption and transcendence. Unlike Tanner's Paul, Frédéric commands our sympathy, he suffers quietly, and just as quietly overcomes in a moment of grace. Given the director and trajectory of this cycle of films, it is not surprising the blatantly Catholic overtones. Rohmer is a master of characterization and emotional inflection (rarely is there anything approaching hysteria or rage in his films), and there is real dramatic and ethical heft in his broaching of the universal crises of love, fidelity, desire. These concerns may be left aside for the moment, for a big, brassy woman demands our attention immediately.
Chloé, a primal force in blue jeans, pants suit, or baby doll dress (played brilliantly by Zouzou) From her first entrance, she upsets the unspoken hierarchies in Frédéric's little world. The two demure secretaries of the office defer to Frédéric's every wish in obedience to the habits of waged labor, responding appropriately to the little flirtations and glances of the boss, because he is the boss, a banal patriarchal relationship par excellence. When Chloé shows up unannounced at his office, Frédéric is clearly uneasy at her presence, an attractive woman in the world of commanding businessmen, unbeholden to his whims (decent and restrained as they may be.) He reacts coldly to his old friend's girl, but the sexual frisson is immediately palpable. Not only is Chloé a liberated woman, unabashedly recounting her ability to wield her sexuality for her own ends, she also has forsworn obedience to the capitalist economic order, submitting to wage labor only sporadically and moving from place to place as the spirit takes her. The extended game of seduction she initiates with Frédéric is not just a matter of individual morality. It is a strategic struggle of wills between opposing orders, a codified, patriarchal, pseudo-egalitarian consumer capitalism versus the destablizing forces unleashed in the 1960's- feminism, the challenge to waged work, new demands for personal freedoms, critiques of social conformity. Rohmer would seem at times to sense an opening for this interpretation, and cautions against it through character dialogue. Chloé states that she wishes she too was bourgeois, but its easy to decipher a teasing remark from this vulgar, unfettered, confrontational woman. We may characterize her as lumpenbourgeoisie, at best. Some might have regarded the revolting students of '68 in the same terms; it is a subclass that has produced many great anarchists.

It is significant in comparing the two films in question to consider the treatment of work and the workplace.
Frédéric's bourgeois office, his site of command and power, is breached repeatedly by Chloé, who casually occupies it, smoking, sitting on tables, slouching in a chair. In capturing this stronghold, the remainder of the struggle is pre-ordained. Indeed, in a predictable inversion, Frédéric verbally commits to adultery with Chloé in the basement of her work place, a modest boutique, a stronghold of the feminine and petty-bourgeois. Le milieu's Adriana is spotted by her pursuer Paul working as a waitress in a provincial train station cafe, submitting to the small degradations of unwanted touches and verbal harassment by the customers. She is a working-class woman, and on top of that an immigrant, in a workplace openly characterized by humiliating submission to men. Paul, in spite of the gentlemanly nature of his overtures, is hewing to the essential pattern of patriarchal behavior in pursuit of Adriana. Whereas in Rohmer's film the male protagonist in under attack "unjustly," or in a way that upsets the established norms, in Le milieu Paul is merely following the imperatives of a patriarchal order. It should be noted that while Adriana accepts on her own terms, and is not a simple victim, Tanner takes great pains to underscore the marginality and vulnerability of her position.

Paul is a far less likable figure than
Frédéric, I would argue quite intentionally so, despite showing psychological weakness, flashes of pedestrian decency, etc. For one, we never are shown his wife and children, sequestered in a well-appointed Alpine home. He is also involved in the unsavory business of politics, running as a candidate for a bland technocratic law-and-order party of the right. He is an apathetic candidate, drafted solely for his image as a pillar of bourgeois society: a competent manager, family man, native son. The poisonous tension sustaining Le milieu derives from the systematic revelation of every one of these identities as empty hypocrisy. For who does Paul court at a wayside cafe while he should have been campaigning? Adriana- beautiful but scarred (literally), a working-class immigrant from Italy, with a family history of work place militancy. Unlike Chloé she has no interest in games, but does harbor a deep well of emotional strength with which to navigate Paul's maneuvers. And unlike L'amour, Tanner does permit flashes of genuine love and affection between the man and his mistress. Rohmer has a real feel and concern for love, but often in his precisely plotted films, the result resembles a game of chess, balanced and strategic. The relationship of Le milieu suggests an organic realism, yet one haunted by an explosive contradiction, a fatal imbalance emerging from the core of the lovers' subjectivities.

Adriana and co-worker

Le milieu's concluding voiceover obliquely accounts for the end of Paul and Adriana's affair with a vague humanistic note on diverging lives. An attentive viewer can not miss the real reason, which is immanent in the characters themselves, emerges slowly in the course of their affair, and is brilliantly, forcefully illustrated in the final sequences. En route to a tryst at a swank hotel, Paul rehearses a speech, full of dull platitudes of social cohesion and order. Adriana interrupts him, correcting his conservative nonsense. Later, she refuses to stay the night in such luxury, demanding to be returned to her tiny apartment to make love. The class gap between lovers lies latent while passions run high, even as the power dynamics of their relationship become more apparent. To Paul, once he has seduced Adriana, she is his, forever, and should be brought into the periphery of his false bourgeois world of small luxury and patriarchal "love." His worldview is blindly positivist, naive yet iron in its enforcement of normality. Indeed, we find some coincidence between the worldviews of the character Paul and the director Rohmer. Unfortunately, Paul is character not creator, and reacts with incredulity when Adriana tires of his narcissism and hypocrisy. Even as their trysts become an open secret around town, Paul continues to campaign, much to the dismay of the party bosses.

Paul and Adriana, after the election

On the morrow of his defeat, Paul retreats to Adriana, expecting consoling and more besides. He is shocked when Adriana shortly announces her departure, given the death of the cafe owner. What is the motivation of her decision, her decisive break with her lover? Significantly, it comes on the heels of a work place change- a familiar lever of working class decision, as she had noted earlier regarding her own family history. Registering as well is a certain disgust with Paul's casual disregard of his election loss- a reaffirming of his trivial engagement with the world, of the hypocritical gap between the speeches he can convincingly deliver and the reality of his single-minded desires. It is a masterfully ambiguous moment in the narrative by Tanner; by allowing space for the mysteries of individual agency, we approach the power of Rohmer's story-telling. Or, I propose, Tanner draws explicit attention to the embodiment of the contradictions of capitalism in Paul and Adriana's affair, but, like these contradictions writ large, one never knows where, when, and how they will resolve, explode, or be displaced. When the didactic thrust of the film resumes and drives it to conclusion, the political meaning crystallizes in a pair of matching scenes detailing the lives, post-affair, of the couple. Paul is back at work, surveying the workings of his factory in technical dress and authoritative demeanor. We then see Adriana at work in a factory in another city. Walking down the aisle is a supervisor, in dress and demeanor nearly identical to Paul as he was just shown. After the brief, unsustainable illusion of sexual dalliance, Paul and Adriana have returned to their essential lots in life: privilege and authority for the former, alienation and exploitation for the latter. Although Adriana may be seen to have conducted the affair of her own volition, for her own ends, she ultimately returns to her structurally imposed position as an immigrant working-class woman. She has been sleeping with the boss, an embodiment of the ruling class if not the same individual. Paul, pleasure won if broken-hearted, appears to have lost little. Like
Frédéric, he can safely return to the bourgeois bosom after dipping his feet in the exhilerating waters of another Europe.

From the fate of the couples in these parallel narratives, we have distinct injunctions issued to their respective protagonists. "Don't fuck!"
Frédéric is commanded by his moral tale. Adriana is made to understand a supplemented proscription, "Don't fuck the boss!"

Frédéric (don't do it!) and Chloé


The salience of
Frédéric's proscription in the contemporary zeitgeist is most aptly seen in the Hollywood reinterpretation of L'amour l'apres-midi as the 2007 Chris Rock vehicle I Think I Love My Wife. We should not hold our breath for a multiplex release of I Think I Hate My Class Enemy, but return instead to our initial situating of the two films in the context of early-70's Europe. It is a period described by Tanner in Le milieu's voiceover as "normalization;" Alain Badiou has described the movement more colorfully as the "Restoration." Within this retrenchment of the established order, post the upheaval of the 1960s, two general trends may be identified. First, the beating back of radical groups and social movements, a process more successful in some places than others. Notably, the 1970's saw an intensification, not diminishing, of struggle in Italy- an enticing point of significance in Le milieu, which dramatizes the emigration of class-conscious Italian Adriana to the more pacified nation of Switzerland. Second, the recuperation and integration of oppositional cultural and social formations into the circulation of capitalism- both in the fulfillment of certain moderate demands, and in the proliferation of commodifiable identities, especially youth subcultures. Is there not a certain odor of this hanging about L'amour, with its veneer of risque fashion and new sexual sensibilities, but absolute avoidance of the political?

Tanner's work of the decade is dominated by the theme of 60s subjectivities cut adrift in the normalization of the 70s, in the demoralizing return of business as usual. "What now?" is the implicit question dominating the drama of nearly every character. Note, for instance, the unresolved fate of Adriana at the conclusion of Le milieu, in contrast to the happy return of
Frédéric to the timeless, unchanging family unit in L'amour. Le milieu thematizes normalization in more formal ways as well. Calendar date intertitles precede most scenes, a reminder both of the historical specificity of the moment, and the ever increasing distance from the event of '68, the grinding dead time of depoliticized existence, the time of work and capital accumulation. There is also a potent visual trope of a Swiss country field, alternatively fallow in winter and sun-splashed in summer. The symbolic gesture towards the immense power of change on a place and people is self-evident. Finally, the materialist marking at the film's onset, acknowledging both in mise en scene and voiceover the materiality of the film as situated artistic intervention and commodity, as product of a specific place and time.
Where then does that leave us to consider L'amour in the context of normalization? I argue above for a reading of
Chloé as an embodiment of some of the oppositional movements of the 60s, but in the form of a sexual predator that rationalizes her to an extent in Rohmer's ahistorical worldview. Rohmer does obliquely acknowledge the antagonisms of preceding years, but not the process of normalization. Rather, what appears on the surface of his film is recuperated debris of a capitalist counteroffensive, namely sexual mores, fashion, etc. As an aside, it is fascinating to review in Rohmer's work post L'amour numerous commendable period films that reveal a keen appreciation for the subtleties of history- be it in the stylized Medievalism of Perceval, or the perceptive Popular Front spy thriller Triple Agent. If only we could all be like Frédéric, and only have to furrow our brows to consider the singular quandary of whether or not to keep our pants on.

Frédéric, Hélène, and child, happily ever after...