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February 02, 2005

Rohmer and Rubio

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I recently learned--where I don't know--that the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill is married to--or perhaps is just the “s.o.” of--the Mexican pop chanteuse and sex siren Paulina Rubio. ( gives Paulina a 95 rating for sexiness: "Paulina, it can be argued, is the most sensual artist on the pop charts today. She's incredible to watch, with her sexuality oozing off every video clip, every photo shoot, and every television appearance. She's not only the bomb, but the nuclear kind, a one-woman wrecking machine of men's hearts." Makes you wonder what a girl's got to do to get a 96. Anyway, lest any of you think to be part of my regular Internet browsing, I swear I'd never heard of the site until I Googled Paulina Rubio.) Well, good for Ricardo Bofill. Do any of you remember him? He was quite a hot architect in the 1980s. During that decade of what the media labeled “post-Modernism” (which in this usage did not always have anything to do with that term as philosophers and literary theorists used it) the cultured public grew besotted with architecture, which took over the cultural mantel that film had occupied in the 1960s and 1970s. We got the cult of the celebrity architect--a cult that has only grown greater, though by now the freshness and excitement have worn off. Anyway, not all the big reps of the 1980s made it intact into the new millennium. Bofill, it seems to me, is seldom discussed these days, though perhaps I'm just out of the loop.

I thought of Bofill recently when we undertook an Eric Rohmer festival. I know people who can't stand Rohmer's films, and I don't hold such a view against anyone. (Whereas I would have serious doubts about the sanity of someone who disliked Preston Sturges or Jean Renoir.) I, however, revel in the talky Frenchiness of Rohmer's world. Now, I have seen most of his films as they have been released theatrically. But over the years, it's occurred to me that I can't--not for the life of me--remember one from the other. So we conducted an experiment. We rented every Rohmer we could lay our hands on. We'd seen them all, some multiple times. Now, however, I'd take notes. I would master this oeuvre. I would tell one from the other. I'd make a Rohmer database. I'd quiz myself. I'd read up on each film and its performers. (We all have fun in different ways.)

I had no trouble with the early cycle Rohmer called “Six Moral Tales.” My Night at Maud's is very distinct in my mind from Chloë in the Afternoon. And the historical films and literary adaptations stand out, too. It's the later cycles, “Comédies et Proverbes” and "Contes des quatre saisons" that are all jumbled up in my poor head. Now, Rohmer makes the talkiest films in creation. And, as I said, I like the talk. But I like other things as well. I like the intimate depiction of the lives of the Parisian middle class, the unaffectedly observed customs and habits of a people I like and admire. I also like that Rohmer is an architecture buff. He shows off streets and buildings and rooms with a quiet precision. Though Rohmer's rep isn't that of a visual dazzler, in fact some of the most affecting images of French places I've seen have been in his films. He has, if not dazzling camera technique, a good eye. I might also note what everyone knows, that Rohmer was one of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics-turned-directors in the 1950s, along with Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Chabrol. (Here is Cahiers du Cinéma's ten-best-films-of-the-year lists from 1951 to 2001.) They clustered about the figure of André Bazin, a brilliant critic, still well worth reading, and part of the “new wave,” if you will, of postwar French Catholic intellectuals. Anyway, Bazin, too, was a real architecture nut. He died young, alas, at 40, while making his own first film, a documentary on Romanesque churches (Les églises romanes de Saintonge). (Here is a nice, deep site on Bazin's life and work.)

Rohmer's film L'Ami de mon amie, released in 1987, is one of the "Comédies et Proverbes." (In England, the title was faithfully rendered as My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. The U.S. distributor unaccountably rejected that cute title in favor of the insipid Boyfriends and Girlfriends.) This is not among my Rohmer favorites--but it is one of the few that my mind distinguishes easily from the rest. It has its moments, but the characters are rather too bland. (One of its stars is Sophie Renoir, the grandniece of Jean Renoir.) It's set in a French “new town,” half an hour from Paris, called Cergy-Pontoise. This town, designed to offer a plenitude of amenities--particularly sporting facilities--to appeal to the young middle class, was laid out in part by Ricardo Bofill, who designed many of its buildings. It's that sort of supergraphic, hypertrophied pop post-modern classicism, via Le Corbusier, that for about six months in the 1980s seemed like it was going to take over the world. (Here are some images of Bofill's Belvedere Saint Christophe in Cergy-Pontoise.) The late Vincent Canby of The New York Times once memorably described Cergy-Pontoise as a combination of Bath, Co-op City, and Disney World. In the film, these buildings dwarf their human inhabitants, so as to make their concerns about life and love and loyalty seem petty. Then, maybe that was Rohmer's point. Paris is made for romance; Cergy-Pontoise is made for a kind of preening simulacrum of romance.

A plaintive note. One of Rohmer's enchanting visions of Paris (all the more enchanting for containing no overhead shots of the Eiffel Tower, no kisses on the Pont Neuf) is Full Moon in Paris. This starred Pascale Ogier, a kind of punk gamine on the Paris scene. (She was the daughter of Bulle Ogier.) Pascale flourished as a multitalented director/writer/designer/actress (she was the art director and costume designer of Full Moon in Paris as well as its star) until, shortly after starring in this Rohmer film, she died, from a drug overdose, at the age of 24.

Rohmer made it into the news in 2003 in an unexpected way. That was when Jane Juska's book A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance was published. In 1999, Juska, a 66-year-old divorcée who had not had much of a romantic life for 27 years, placed this personal ad in the New York Review of Books: "Before I turn 67--next March--I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." She says in her book (which I have not read) that she was inspired to do this after seeing Rohmer's film Autumn Tale (1998). In this film, Marie Rivière plays Isabelle, a happily married 40-something bookstore owner in Montelimar who decides to do something about her 40-something vineyard-owner friend Magali's unhappiness. So Isabelle places a personal ad in the paper seeking a mate for Magali (played by Béatrice Romand). Rivière, by the way, is part of Rohmer's "stock company." She first appeared in a Rohmer film in Perceval le Gallois (based on Chrétien de Troyes) in 1979 (Pascale Ogier was also in this film), and starred in Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife in 1981, when she was 25. Most recently, she was in Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke in 2001. Anyway, Jane Juska placed her ad, and was inundated with responses. Her book is about her sexual escapades through the year that followed. She says that many of her respondents were good-looking, successful young men, a fact, she says, that seemed to surprise women a lot more than men. As for Trollope, he, like Rohmer, does turn up in unexpected places. Juska loves Trollope so much that she claims in her book that she had an orgasm while handling the manuscript of Trollope's Miss MacKenzie in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Trollope, whom I, too, adore, wrote, I might add, the most chaste of 19th-century novels.

I have somehow managed never to have seen Rohmer's 1993 The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque, which I've heard is a fine attack on Modernist architecture. Anyone seen it?

Paris is romantic and cinegenic. (Duh.) This spring I'm giving some lectures on 19th-century Paris. The film that for everyone captures Paris in the 19th century is Les Enfants du paradis (1945), which was written by the very important French poet Jacques Prévert. It is surely the most romantic movie ever made, and one that seems, as much as any work of art does, to capture the French soul. But its setting is the Paris of pre-Haussmann, a Paris that Napoleon III tried to obliterate, and to a great extent did. It's the Paris of Cousin Bette and of La Bohème. I can't think right off of a film that seems to get late 19th-century Paris just right, in the way Pissarro's boulevard paintings do. (By the way, a century before Ricardo Bofill, Pissarro visited Pontoise.) For modern Paris, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, the aggressive chicness of which leaves me a little cold, nonetheless provides a stunning view of Paris.

What are your favorite depictions of cities--both historic and modern--on film?



posted by Francis at February 2, 2005


A quick question before I gather any thoughts together? How were the Rohmer DVDs? I was thinking of revisiting some Rohmer myself recently, but Amazon and Netflix viewers nearly all say that Fox Lorber has done a lousy job withe the DVDs. I could live with mediocre visuals on some of the later Rohmer, but it's awful to think of "Claire's Knee" without sunlight that really twinkles...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 2, 2005 4:16 PM

What a coincidence! I liked "My Dinner at Maude's" and "Claire's Knee" and, of course, "Les Enfants du Paradis." But when I opened 2blowhards just now, I was composing a little post asking if someone could suggest an English-speaking architectural historian to guide me in looking at Haussmann's effects on medieval Paris. I'll be in Paris in early March. Please send suggestions to

PS. I'd wager there are no romantic films set in modern quarters of modern cities. To use the towers of Sixth Avenue, for example, as backdrops in a romantic film would require looking at them either from a vast distance or else through an awful lot of gauze. Depictions of modern cities are not romantic, they are critical. The modern developer's Berlin in Run, Lola, Run. The modern gentrifier's Paris in When the Cat's Away.

All the best,


Mary Campbell Gallagher

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 2, 2005 8:54 PM

Some movies that "got" certain cities ...

"Slacker" got a side of Austin.
"High Fidelity" got a certain something about Chicago.
Altman's "Long Goodbye," "California Split" and "The Player" showed what a lot of LA is like.
Scorsese's New York?

I'd be curious to see a graph showing how well represented (or how poorly represented) certainy cities are in movies. The Wife, for example, grew up in LA, and takes it for granted that a lot of movies show her hometown. I grew up in Western NY state, and have seen only a couple of movies set there. Is there a movie set in Atlanta that really shows what that city's like? Or Dallas? Or Minneapolis? And how many? So maybe LA and NYC tower above all other cities in terms of how often and how comperehensively they've been represented in movies? SanFran, with "Vertigo" and "Dirty Harry"? Is there a movie that shows Providence and does so well?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 2, 2005 11:58 PM

Many of the film noirs of the 40s and 50s "got" Los Angeles. At least the Los Angeles that existed for many city dwellers.

Just the other night I watched "Cry Danger" (1951) with Dick Powell (one of the great unheralded noirs btw). The entire picture was filmed in the now completely changed Bunker Hill section of downtown. Bunker Hill was a lower middle class section that was then on the edge of downtown L.A. but that has since been urban renewaled into a steel canyon of skyscrapers that sits right in the middle of the current downtown.

For more on how Bunker Hill and Los Angeles has been depicted in films see Thom Anderson's "Los Angeles Plays Itself," a three-hour documentary which uses clips from around 200 films to attempt to show Anderson's view of the real Los Angeles versus how it has been been portrayed by Hollywood.

Posted by: grandcosmo on February 3, 2005 4:57 AM


Here or elsewhere, could you give the syllabus for your lectures on 19th century cities, and indicate which cities you are talking about on which dates?


Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 3, 2005 11:04 AM

"Modern New York" - Breakfast at Tiffany?

Bofill's complex reminded me of G.Di Chirico, but less emotional and more fascist (in original Italian fascism sense).
Or should I just get anothe coffee and snap out of it?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 3, 2005 12:03 PM

Actually there was a stretch when the modernist-box/6th-Avenue thing looked romantic and fresh to people, or to some people, anyway: the '50s romantic-comedy era -- Doris Day movies, that kind of thing. There was even a recent French musical comedy ("Jeanne and the Perfect Guy," with the divine Virginie Ledoyen) which resurrected the genre: the whole movie (and Paris itself) was given a '50s-Paris-Match look, and amazingly enough it was sold as retro-charm. And as Tatyana notes, Blake Edwards (Pink Panther, 10, Breakfast at Tiffany's, many others) developed an entire comic style that takes off from that look.

But Mary's right too: it wasn't long before people starting portraying postwar modernism as soul-sucking ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2005 12:25 PM

Not just Tiffany's but Breakfast at Tiffany's, as I recall, rely on traditional architecture. Maybe it's selective memory, but I don't remember the romantic Sixth Avenue aspect. It's also been a while since I've seen a Doris Day movie. Which ones make midtown Sixth Avenue look romantic and fresh, Michael? I promise you I'll rent it.


Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 3, 2005 1:26 PM

Egad. Correction: I promise you I'll rent them. I knew I should have previewed that last post.


Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 3, 2005 1:27 PM

I've been to Paris three times and it's not that Paris is overrated, it's that we are so soaked in images of the city before we arrive that somehow it isn't...fresh.

Posted by: ricpic on February 3, 2005 7:38 PM

It's a great pity that film makers make such little use of second tier cities.

Lyons, which is France's second city (sort of its Chicago to Paris/New York) has an atmosphere all its own. Toulouse is another special place. Marseilles was used very well in The French Connection II and gave that film its special flavor.

Italy is loaded with second tier cities, each with a distinct character. Bologna, with its arcades is especially atmospheric in rainy winter weather. Genoa was used very effectively in a scene in The Jackal (original version).

There are many second tier cities that aren't picturesque but have a gritty character all their own. Heck, why not make a winter film in Buffalo, the home office of winter?

Posted by: ricpic on February 3, 2005 9:53 PM

Michael et al., early-sixties retro-charm was also the point of the American "Down with Love" a couple of years ago.

Ricpic, I can think of some films that do justice to "second-tier" cities: Malle's "Murmur of the Heart" (Dijon) and Antonioni's visually stunning "Beyond the Clouds" (Ferrara and Aix-en-Provence). And Barry Levinson did a pretty good job with Baltimore in "Diner." Also Bill Forsyth's "Comfort and Joy" for Glasgow. (Glasgow appears as New York in Terence Davies' film of Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth"!) I'm going to think of others.

"Medium Cool" did an incredible job of capturing the Chicago in which I grew up. And I'll always love the picture of New York in "The World of Henry Orient."

Tatyana, I love your description of Bofill's architecture.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on February 3, 2005 11:01 PM

I'm delighted we agreed, Francis. For illustration - and Il Duce himself...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 4, 2005 12:26 AM

I'll throw in Woody Allen in general for romantic modern city cinematography. The scene in his super-minimal apartment in Stardust Memories stands out.

As for Bofill, sometimes I'm glad I was very small in the '80s.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 4, 2005 4:52 AM

In "Avalon," Barry Levinson showed the first gneration's close family life and festive holiday dinners in the little Baltimore workingmen's rowhouses . Then the children of the hard-working immigrants got the money to move, and you see the young couple celebrating Thanksgiving in the suburbs. They are by themselves, eating from trays in front of the television set.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 4, 2005 7:41 AM

"What are your favorite depictions of cities – both historic and modern – on film?

I'd like to toss in some names – especially some that are somewhat unknown or, in my opinion, underappreciated – since seeing cities in the movies has always been a very large part of the appeal of movies (and TV) for me. Even as a pre-schooler, I was the kind of kid who favored the more "citified" cartoons of Max Fleischer (e.g., Betty Boop dodging subway trains and the urbanized Manhattan insects of "Mr. Bug Goes to Town") and of Walt Disney (cosmopolitan London as seen at dog eyelevel – "Lady and the Tramp")! Since some of my favorites are remembered from ages ago, I hope I haven't misremembered them, however.

For me, a large part of the fun the of the mildly enjoyable "Gregory's Girl" (1982) was seeing life in a English (or Scottish?) New Town, Cumbernauld. If I remember correctly, "Gigo," which was Jackie Gleason's attempt at breaking into serious movie making (he plays a deaf/mute), shows a non-touristy (but still beautiful) side of Paris (1962, in color). Also enjoyed Truffaut's "500 Blows" for showing what I assume was an accurate depiction of working class Paris of the 1950s.

Two movies that seemed were interesting to me because they were, in part at least, "about" city vs. suburban living were "Mon Oncle" (1958) and "Parent Trap." While "Mon Oncle" seemed to stack the deck in favor of city living (although the supermodern suburbia depicted in it, did have a strange, wacky appeal), Disney's "Parent Trap" seemed to stack the deck the other way (grhhh!). In the "Parent Trap," one of a pair of identical twins lives with her mother in Boston's Beacon Hill (shown solely through a stuffy interior and process shots of them walking through the Commons) while the other twin lives with her father in a knockout modern Arizona ranch house. I saw this movie at a kid's matinee in Jamaica, Queens, and, to my disgust, the other kids in the audience lapped up the Arizona scenes and appeared to want to move there as soon as the movie was over!

Three of the films of Judy Holliday are among my favorites because of the way they seem to truly capture the "Wonder City" that was New York of the early 1950s. (Judy Holliday disliked working in Los Angeles, so her films have an unusually large number of New York location shots.)

"It Should Happen to You" (1954) has, for instance, great shots of Columbus Circle, Central Park and, if I remember correctly, you even get a peek at life on the Upper West Side during its humble but proud SRO (single room occupancy) "era." Even interior scenes that were probably filmed inside a studio (like a scene in Macy's) seem nevertheless to capture a certain late 1940s, early 1950s New York flavor.

"The Solid Gold Cadillac" (1956), depicts a glamorous late-moderne corporate New York. Again, while I suspect that most of the interiors were shot in a studio, they nevertheless seem to capture the New York of Rockefeller Center in the 1950s. There are also two great exterior location shots. One of them is of the fictional corporation's headquarters, the building that closes off the northern vista of Rockefeller Center. The other one is just terrific – it's a brief glimpse of a heartstoppingly beautiful mews that use to exist on the eastern end of 72nd (?) Street. (One side of the mews was redeveloped in the 1970s.)

(There were also two later, non-Judy Holliday, films that I also enjoyed, in part, because they seemed to visually capture the slick glamour of corporate New York – this time the hard-edged modernism of Park Avenue – "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" [1967] and The Secret of My Success [1987].)

To my mind, the greatest "New York" Judy Holliday film is "The Marrying Kind" (1952), which is about a bickering young working class couple (Judy's husband is a postal butcher or postal worker[?]), that lives in newly built Stuyvesant Town. While there are also some good location shots (e.g., the Seventh Avenue side of Penn Station) in this film, I think the really wonderful thing about this film is the way it captures working class life in Manhattan in the early 1950s. (The film is also unusual in that it is an emotional roller coaster – a Hollywood comedy with realistically tragic overtones.)

Another favorite New York film of mine from roughly that era is "Junior Miss" (1945), the popular film version of a Broadway drawing room comedy of the same name. While this movie was probably made inside a Hollywood studio, it does have the somewhat unusual focus for a "New York" film of middle-, upper-middle class family life in Manhattan. (And, if I remember correctly, there were some scenes set in Rockefeller Center that seemed to have been shot on location or by a second unit director.)

I've never seen either "Marty" or "Stardust Ballroom," but I think the depiction of working class life in the Bronx in "Raging Bull" is amazing. Two scenes in particular standout. Having lived my early years on St. Ann's Ave. and E. 137th St., I gasped at a brief early Bronx street scene – it was so uncannily real; yet so many of the actual blocks that I remembered had been demolished for housing projects or lost to abandonment; I wondered how Scorcese was able to get that "look." Also, Jake's idea of an "I've-made-it," upscale home on Pelham Parkway also seemed to really ring uncannily true. (In a more comedic vein, "Car 54 Where Are You," which was filmed entirely in the Bronx in the early 1960s, seemed to me to so perfectly capture what were to become the waning days of the Bronx's middle-class golden age.)

"The Goodbye Girl" (1977) seemed to me to be an especially "right on" look at life on the Upper West Side, and I think you get a good feel for the area's "in between" years – after Lincoln Center, but before its recent transformation by a number of megadevelopments.

"Broadway Danny Rose" (1984) is probably my favorite Woody Allen film, in part because of the way it seems to accurately capture the middle class world of "small time" New York entertainment – the people who work in some capacity in, or have some connection to, the entertainment world but live in Queens, Nassau or northern New Jersey. (One house filmed in the movie was behind a bus stop I use to use when I would visit my aunt in North Bergen.)

"My Favorite Year" was about live television in New York during the "golden age" of television. I loved two location shots in particular. One is of the now demolished Rivoli Theater on Broadway (with 1950s cars hired to drive down Broadway in the foreground). And the other was an amazing scene in the theater district, looking east along 45th St., that included the old Hotel Astor – which had been demolished about 15 years before the movie was made! (My guess is that this was a matte shot, with the camera shooting through a piece of glass upon which an image of the Hotel Astor had been realistically painted.)

I'm especially fond of movies that show life in the relatively rarely filmed working class neighborhoods of the "outer boroughs." One of my favorites, and perhaps the most famous, is "Saturday Night Fever," which was about working class life in Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge as much as it was about disco. (While I've never lived in either neighborhood, I had friends and relatives from there, and the movie seemed to me to be pretty accurate.) I also enjoyed experiencing the Brooklyn of "Dog Day Afternoon" (Windsor Terrace[?], 1972) and "the Chosen" (Crown Heights[?], 1982).

In terms of showing working-class, middle-class life in the garden apartments of Queens, I don't think anything can beat Ira Wohl's classic documentary, "Best Boy," about the efforts of his aunt, uncle to take care of their 52 year old son, a delightful man with the mental capacity of a five year old. (It seemed to me that they lived in the area just to the south of Queens College, not far from where I grew up.)

One of the things I loved most about "On the Waterfront" was the way it seemed to be a virtual guided tour of a small city – Hoboken. Yes, I know it was supposed to be Brooklyn, and at first I was thrown by the fact that the skyline was "in reverse"! But once I accepted the fact that it was Hoboken instead of Brooklyn, I marveled at the way this film seemed to communicate the spatial connections between the different parts of a neighborhood (in this case a small city) like no other film I had seen.

(Please forgive the enthusiasm, I see I've gone on quite a bit!)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 9, 2005 7:04 PM

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