François Truffaut once claimed that cinema is a ‘woman’s art, that’s to say the art of the actress. The director’s work is to make beautiful things happen to beautiful women.’ This view – that a woman’s place in cinema was as a composite of actress, model and muse – did not allow for women to take on any role behind the camera. Yet Eric Rohmer, Truffaut’s New Wave contemporary, presents a bracingly different way of seeing cinema as a ‘woman’s art’. Throughout his career Rohmer undertook a feminist revision of Truffaut’s depressingly misogynistic view of the cinema, offering an alternative gaze at the pressures and contradictions lived out by girls growing into womanhood in a world where gender roles have been questioned, but not overturned, by feminist politics. One of the ways in which he did so was to work extensively with women behind the camera, and in the two Rohmer films that address female friendship and isolation most directly – The Green Ray (1986) and The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987) – a crucial role was played by the cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux.
His first major film cycle, ‘The Moral Tales’, concentrates on the romantic dilemmas of a series of male protagonists torn between Woman A (to whom they are in someway promised by intention, engagement, or marriage) and Woman B: a seductive temptress, whether a fantasy, a possible one-night stand or a full-blown affair. Writing in Women and Film as early as 1973, Beverly Walker noted a nascent feminist sensibility in this cycle, which presents free-spirited women and shows admiration for the woman ‘who dares to be different’. Rohmer’s interest in and sympathy with heterosexual women struggling to reconcile their desire for independence with their yearning for sexual fulfilment and male companionship intensified in the 1980s, with his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series frequently featuring lead female characters. However, it was not until his decision in the mid-1980s to undertake two self-consciously different film projects – both of which privileged the New Wave values of spontaneity, improvisation, realism and youth – that he embodied the idea of a new gaze on the feminine by employing Sophie Maintigneux.
After a minor acting role as a child of 11, Maintigneux had decided that she wanted to work behind the camera. She gained experience working alongside Elisabeth Prouvost, director of photography on Marc Jolivet’s Ote-toi de mon soleil (1984). Working as assistant DP on Jacques Nichet’s La guerre des demoiselles (1983), she met Claudine Nougaret, who was employed in an assistant role to the sound recordist. Nougaret introduced her to Rohmer, who was specifically looking for a female DP for his next film project. Having impressed the director with a test film shot around the Square Brignole-Galliera in Paris, she was hired as cinematographer for The Green Ray as part of a small female crew, all in their mid-twenties: Nougaret on sound, Françoise Etchegarary as production manager and Marie Rivière as lead actress and co-scriptwriter. According to Etchegaray, Rohmer chose this young, female crew to support and provide friendly company for Rivière in her emotionally demanding role as the lonely, depressed Delphine. His attempt at creating camaraderie paid off: the four women named themselves, along with Rohmer, as ‘le club des cinq’ (‘the gang of five’).
Le club des cinq
Before employing Maintigneux Rohmer had only taken on male cinematographers, chiefly Néstor Almendros, who went on to a successful Hollywood career, winning an Oscar for Days of Heaven (1978). Rohmer’s decision to work with a young woman was remarkable then and remains so today: cinematography is still a highly male-dominated occupation, as Alison Smith’s 2012 investigation ‘Les chef-opératrices’ shows. In 2009, only ten of the prestigious Association Française des Directeurs de la Photographie Cinématographique (AFC)’s 107 members were women. The American Society of Cinematographers counts only seven women among its 334 listed active members. Of the more than 60 people to have won a César for Best Cinematography since the awards’ inauguration in 1976, only 5 have been women: Agnès Godard, Jeanne Lapoirie, Caroline Champetier, Claire Mathon and Irina Lubtchansky. Meanwhile, not a single female cinematographer has been nominated for, let alone won, an Oscar.
Female friendship in The Green Ray
The question of how much creative input and influence the cinematographer has and to what extent they are ‘merely’ a technical element in the film production process is key in a film culture which privileges the director as authority. Rohmer preferred not to hire cinematographers based on their professional credentials but to establish a complicity and mutual understanding of any given film’s aesthetics. In a 2004 interview with Priska Morrissey, he claimed that the best cinematographers are those who are able to translate the director’s vision using their technical expertise. For Rohmer, the cinematographer has an important technical and artistic function but remains in the service of the director’s aims. Given Rohmer’s small budgets and tiny crews on The Green Ray and Reinette and Mirabelle, Maintigneux was forced to give up on any idea that her cinematography would be an exercise in polished perfection. Both films were shot using a 16mm Aaton camera with very little recourse to artificial light, but Maintigneux was able to use these limitations to achieve a distinct artistic effect of rawness and fragility.
For example, some scenes in both films are underexposed, testing Maintigneux’s 16mm film to its limits. During the meeting of Delphine and Jacques in The Green Ray at the station in Biarritz, this underexposure ‘evokes the friability of the photographic image and the fragility of Delphine’s day dreams’, according to Jacob Leigh. Or take the barely visible night sequence in which Reinette and Mirabelle await the ‘blue hour’ in their white nightgowns, the ghostliness of their images suggesting the evanescence of youth. For Rohmer, the 16mm film conveyed reality more clearly, giving a documentary force to the images and helping us to understand them as the swift capturing of the everyday. Maintigneux’s facility for capturing these images fulfils the complicity that Rohmer sought.
The amateur conditions Rohmer favoured on these two projects also gave Maintigneux an extraordinary amount of freedom in deciding the composition and framing of the image, since Rohmer was unable to intervene and demand certain kinds of shots. Maintigneux therefore had total control over how she would move the camera and frame the image, partly by using a zoom lens (albeit a rather clunky, old-fashioned one). In some of the most memorable scenes from both films the combination of a highly mobile camera and the paradoxical need for a relatively discreet camera presence leads to extraordinary results.
For example, in the famous scene in The Green Ray where Delphine has to defend her vegetarianism to a group of friends-of-a-friend, the camera starts on Delphine then moves to the right as a character places a plate of pork chops onto the table. The camera doesn’t pan upwards to capture the man’s face but stays at seat level, focusing on the plate heaving with meat and Delphine’s strained smile as the plate looms above and around her. The camera moves around the table as the other characters help themselves to meat and ask Delphine facetious questions about vegetarianism, then zooms forward, framing her in a single shot that underlines her isolation from the group. As she goes on to explain that she thinks people eat meat out of sheer force of habit (‘they don’t think about the animals being killed’) the camera moves again, framing two children silently eating their pork chops and ignoring the adults’ debate. It is a brilliant piece of comic timing that allows the camera (and audience) to sympathise with Delphine.
For the dialogue-free sequence where Delphine spends a day by herself at the beach in Biarritz, Maintigneux and Rivière spent part of the day alone with sound recording carried out separately. This approach allowed Maintigneux to capture the crowds unnoticed, her framing sometimes echoing holiday snapshots and sometimes seeming like an ethnographic observation of lifeguards moving their watch tower, children building sandcastles and people jumping in and out of the waves. One particularly memorable shot films Delphine from the sea itself, looking back to the beach, so that the camera is pushed and jogged about by the force of the water. In the next shot the camera is at ground-level alongside Delphine as she lies on the sand. Maintigneux’s camera becomes part of Delphine’s day at the beach in a way that more sophisticated techniques could never allow.
Rohmer was so impressed with Maintigneux’s work that he hired her again for his next film. Reinette and Mirabelle continues to showcase Maintigneux’s ability to place her camera sympathetically alongside her characters and their experiences, and gently pokes fun at Rohmer’s obsessions with weather and geography, often through the device of the camera picking up an image that directly contradicts a man. For instance, in a comic scene in which Reinette asks the way to the Rue de la Gaieté, two male passers-by begin to argue over the best way to the street. Reinette spots her destination and walks out of shot, but the two men carry on arguing, ignoring Reinette’s shouts. The street itself offers a comment on the narcissism and hubris of these men arguing over partitions of space: just between them is a poster for a production of King Lear. At last the camera leaves the men and follows Reinette as she looks at the street sign, and holds the image long enough we clearly see it too.
Maintigneux, although still using what Derek Schilling calls ‘undressed’ 16mm photography, also demonstrates an astonishing handling of light and colour in scenes such as the wonderful long shot of Reinette and Mirabelle, both clothed in red jackets, sitting at a table covered in a white tablecloth. The table is in a field, with a large pear tree framing the scene and a clump of white flowers in the right foreground. The low evening sun creates stripes of light and shadow over the scene: a symphony in blue, white, green and the contrasting bright red of the jackets. This beautiful image is not the individual creation of Rohmer, Maintigneux or their actors, Joëlle Miquel and Jessica Forde). Rather this idyllic image, reminiscent of Impressionist painting, is the product of their combined talents. The image’s impression of harmony and sympathy echoes the complicity between director, camerawoman and subjects.
With films that pay such close attention to female experience, it is hardly surprising that Rohmer easily passes the now notorious Bechdel test: does a film include two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man? Reinette and Mirabelle is the more radical of the two in this respect: the friends discuss almost everything apart from men, including nature, money, art and morality. So noticeable is the absence of any love interest in the film’s four adventures that it drew critical comment in Cahiers du cinéma at the time of the film’s release. The girls’ developing friendship spans a series of disagreements, over whether, for example, one should accept stolen goods or give money to beggars. These small, everyday incidents are recorded by Maintigneux in obviously real places – streets, cafés, supermarkets, train stations, traffic-choked roads – so that we are constantly aware of how these decisions are framed by a broader socio-spatial context.
For Rohmer, the value of female friendship lies precisely in how it allows girls and women the space to figure out who they want to be and how they wish to act. As Felicity Colman explains in her 2005 essay ‘Hit me Harder: The Transversality of Becoming-Adolescent’: ‘friendship contains the possibility of becoming not the other, but becoming self-sentient. I become aware of my own desires, of what I do not desire, of what I do aspire to, through my interactions with my friend.’ Through his engagement with relations between women, not just on screen but also between his female crew and actresses, Rohmer did more than most directors to foster this space, showing one possible way for cinema to truly be a woman’s art.
 Felicity Colman, ‘Hit me Harder: The Transversality of Becoming-Adolescent’, Woman: A Cultural Review 16:3 (2005), 356-371.
Fiona Handyside is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Exeter. She is author of Cinema at the Shore: The Beach in French Cinema (Peter Lang, 2014), editor of Eric Rohmer: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2013), and co-editor with Kate Taylor-Jones of International Cinema and the Girl: Local Issues, Transnational Contexts. Her current book project is Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood, to be published by I.B. Tauris.