Dir. Eric Rohmer, 1987, France, 103min, French with English subtitles
Cast: Emmanuelle Chaulet, Sophie Renoir, Eric Viellard, François-Eric Grendon
One could be slightly nervous of approaching an Eric Rohmer film: he's a man - an auteur - who divides opinion yet has such a dedicated following that he can make whole cycles of films. L'ami de Mon Amie is the last of the "Comedies and Proverbs" series, this one being inspired by the proverb: "the friends of my friends are my friends," and the plot is fittingly convoluted. It's a typical rom-com: the story of girl-loves-boy-who-loves-her-friend-who-has-a-boyfriend-who-loves-the-first-girl; where broken hearts are avoided by good-natured partner-swapping and comic misunderstandings.
Yet it is not a Hollywood offering. The film does not rely on the charm of the stars, or the universality of its characters, to construct an air of romance. Instead, it is populated by very real characters, complete with their own neuroses, passions and annoying traits. The overall starkness of the production values - no music, little background noise or action and long takes - places further emphasis on the dialogue and the characters. What results is an astute, intelligent study of romantic relationships. What isn't guaranteed, however, is an enjoyable viewing experience.
Take Lea (Renoir), the eponymous 'girlfriend'. Impulsive, garrulous and immature, she leaves her boyfriend Fabian (Viellard) in a whim, only to return at the end of the summer, assuming that she can pick up where she left off - and she does. Our heroine Blanche (Chaulet), mid-woo with said Fabian, is pushed to the sidelines, which doesn't win Lea many favours with the audience. She's hard to take in large doses, yet she's the driving force in the narrative, and adds far more energy than our more sympathetic but ultimately quite dull heroine.
Blanche and as with name, so with nature. Quiet and reserved, her apartment reflects her character in its clean white starkness - even the view is a nondescript glimpse of the suburban architecture prevalent in the film. She is perhaps slightly mysterious (or is it that she just doesn't get a word in with Lea?) and even responds to Lea's desperate assumptions about her personality with "What do you know?" She has a hang up about being ugly, and likes swimming. This is pretty much all we learn about her, such is Rohmer's economy of story.
Blanche meets Lea randomly at lunch one day, and the two become friends. Lea can't decide if she likes her gorgeous boyfriend Fabian and eventually decides to leave him - but not before Blanche has met Alexandre (Grendon) a mutual acquaintance of the couple and decided she rather likes him. During Lea's absence, Blanche constantly bumps into Fabian and eventually agrees to go windsurfing with him - an interest that they both share but that Lea does not. The two strike up a friendship, but Blanche's heart is still hung up on Alexandre, even as the relationship with Fabian develops.
What's always clear to the viewer is that Alexandre is not particularly interested in Blanche - at least not in that way. So the way is paved for all the usual confusions of a romantic comedy once Lea returns - hearts crossed, words misconstrued. The two men don't get much of a look in. Fabian is sensitive and earnest compared to Alexandre's brittle charm, but they're two-dimensional compared to the women.
There's a slight case of overkill with the costumes. At the party where the four 'lovers' meet following Lea's return, she and Blanche are dressed in colours that negatively reflect each other, at the film's denouement the couples' outfits are matching. The world of late twentieth century civic architecture in which the film takes place - offices, restaurants, the bleached non-space of a public swimming pool, even Blanche's home - adds to the ultimate emptiness of the film's legacy. Who are these people but caricatures, figures on an architect's model? Does anyone in the film care about them? Then why should we?
Rohmer fans may find something inherently fascinating in his films. But non-fans may struggle as, unfortunately, there was nothing here that either made for an interesting two hours, or for a good ponder afterwards.