Love in the Afternoon (1972)
Director: Éric Rohmer
Writer: Éric Rohmer
Cinematographer: Néstor Almendros
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t really enjoyed much Eric Rohmer. The few I've see, particularly Suzanne’s Career and The Bakery Girl of Monceau have been overtly misogynistic. Typically you can forgive certain films as a reflection of the times, but these two were particularly harsh; appearing as though an extension of Rohmer’s personality. Love in the Afternoon contains elements of both, yet with a restraint I hadn’t yet seen. Eerily similar to Truffaut’s Bed and Board (Love in the Afternoon was made two years later), the story revolves around a middle class man, Frederic (Bernard Varley), who has a beautiful pregnant wife, great job, lavish home, and has lately developed an insatiable attraction to all things female. Similar to Antoine Doinel in Bed and Board it all seems rooted in a longing for youth, realizing that middle age and adulthood have arrived, creating a nostalgia for the pursuit, back when sex was a pursuit filled with a sense of excitement and mystery; you never know who the next woman would be or when it’d arrive, but that the passion will fire up your entire body, while unfortunately, domesticate life’s familiarity has grown dull.
Amidst these obsessions, one day his friend’s old girlfriend shows up - Chloe (Zouzou [no last name]). Chloe embodies the unhinged ex-girlfriend, very attractive, yet with an exotic eccentricity that demands apprehension; she can’t hold a job and doesn’t really care to try. Contrary to Frederic’s stable life Chloe has embraced adventure. While we don’t get many details, it’s suggested that she had been visiting the past men of her life for awhile now, looking for brief and passionate affairs before either party ends it, leaving Chloe to move on to the next one.
The two begin spending afternoons together, and what I found myself most surprised by was the restraint. It makes me wonder if Rohmer simply didn’t want to completely rip off Bed and Board, as by refusing to have the two finally hook up he creates an unbelievably fierce sexual tension throughout the second half. Each moment they get together you’re expecting it to finally occur, that come the end, in one of the most sensual and arousing scenes I’ve seen from the period, Frederic helps dry Chloe off after a bath, somehow excusing himself as she lays on the bed, ready for him.
Returning to his wife Helene (Francoise Verley; who I assume was married to Bernard, which is interesting), she breaks down in tears. We never learn what the cause is. My guess is Helene had cheated on Frederic, either moments before he showed up, or having had the guy escape before he could see. Earlier in the film, Chloe says she’s been seeing Helene with a man, which both we as the audience and Frederic dismiss as an uninspired ruse. I think it did actually happen, as I’m not sure how Helene could’ve suddenly cared all that much about Chloe, especially given her involvement with Frederic throughout the film.
Rohmer provides us with a fascinating look into the controllable urges that haunt men. As Stephen Pinker wrote in "The Blank Slate" - men are designed for quantity, women are designed for quality. There’s no problem with desire, and rather than showing the devastation and deceit of acting upon it, Rohmer instead shows a man who’s struggling to control himself; who moments before Chloe’s arrival was really struggling for excitement. Most guys I know in relationships have the same feeling - the exotic fantasy of returning to the single life, getting with as many girls as possible, because it’s only now that they know how to get the women. Of course, this fantasy ends when you think about what you’d give up. The problem is when you meet a woman who has an equitable sexual appetite; with little concern for work and family; so much as finding the next adventure. Frederic seems to know that there would be few strings attached, at least in the long run.
The film was made at the peak of the counter-culture, where gender norms were breaking down, and the sexual revolution was at its peak. Frederic is a man who was years too late to the party, wondering what he could done and been a part of. It’s common for anyone to reflect back on their lives, wondering what a difference a few years could have made for their careers, education, or relationships. Some moments will weigh you down more than others, offering long reflections of regret and dissatisfaction. Perhaps all that’s needed is the fantasy and the possibility. Similar to the talisman fantasy earlier in the film which would allow Frederic to seduce any woman he pleases, Chloe provided him a similar fantasy, a “What if?” that can now take him into fatherhood and offer comforting thoughts when his wife isn’t around, without the baggage of betrayal.
BELOW: An example of the boiling sexual tension between Chloe and Frederic
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