La Carrière de Suzanne / Suzanne’s Career (1963)

2 04 2014

Even with one feature film and one entry into his Moral Tales collection under his belt, I feel that by 1963, Eric Rohmer was still finding his voice. One senses the typical ethos of the New Wave sprinkled over what would become Rohmer’s primary concern throughout his career: heterosexual relationships and how people (primarily men) are really bad at them. The result is that Rohmer’s typical aesthetic (one that some may call uncinematic, but that I find to be fitting with his observations) is missing and replaced with something more typical of Godard and Truffaut during this period. There’s indeed a youthful, energetic, but sloppy quality to Suzanne’s Career. John Cassavetes’ Shadows might be an even more accurate comparison in that it’s an earlier effort that is a perfect introductory text to the filmmaker and what they’re about, but the more dense material would follow afterwards.


The shy and quiet Bertrand is best friends with outgoing schmoozer Guillaume. The former spends most of his time alone, the latter flirting. Bertrand is quick to dismiss any idea of jealousy towards his best friends, even more so when Suzanne enters the picture. Guillaume is fond of her, or at least he enjoys spending time with her. Of course, in keeping with his cool demeanor he never lets any signs of true affection show. He eventually moves on and does so with little trouble, “Her body is not bad, but she’s got my mother’s name” Meanwhile, Bertrand grows increasingly bitter towards her. Through voice over, he tells us that it’s hate that is fueling his feelings for Suzanne. He has no interest in her romantically, and repeatedly tells us that she’s actually quite ugly. Yet, this women occupies a great deal of space in his brain.


It seems that the women in these earlier Rohmer efforts are a little flat, as if they exist as accessories to the men. His best films, weirdly enough, are the ones that make women the focus, and I felt he kind of figured this out sometime in the 1980s. Full Moon in Paris and The Green Ray are the epitome of this, and two of his very best films. One could argue that the absence of such a character in this film to be a problem, but in a way it perfectly fits in with the mentality of Guillaume and more importantly, Bertrand. The latter is only able to see Suzanne in relation to himself, and because she won’t love him he puts up pillars, defending himself from the realization that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Basically, he acts more and more like an asshole to prove that he doesn’t feel anything for her. He only sees her in relation to his own unhappiness, rather than an individual breathing, living, and existing with her own concerns and anxieties. Bertrand tells us at the film’s end that Suzanne has “won the battle” but since, you know, had her own life outside of his brain, she probably never considered that they were in a competition to make the other person miserable.


This would not be the last time Rohmer made a point of calling out asshole male behavior, and he would pinpoint the inherent hypocrisy of the “beta male” with sharper precision in other films. Still, the broad strokes he uses here makes this film more widely applicable. Bertrand is an awful character, but Rohmer’s genius is not that he is able to enjoy the ugliness of his protagonists. No, he’s bothered by it just as much as we (hopefully) are, but the conversations isn’t meant to end at look at this fucking awful human being. The reality is there’s something of Bertrand in myself, and the same goes for any number of my “sensitive” male friends.


There’s been plenty of more in-depth pieces about the phenomenon of the hypocritically misogynist “nice guy” and I’m not here to rehash that argument. Rohmer himself has quickly and effortlessly translated the central idea into this film: that the men who aren’t explicitly assholes to women don’t inherently deserve the love and respect just by not being an asshole. One of the most interesting developments of this argument is that assholish behavior doesn’t have to explicit, and instead Bertrand (and many sad boys after him) bottled up their bitterness to women who didn’t pay him back for his ability to perform as pleasant with love or sex. Of course, I love to think I’m personally above this childish line of thought, but returning to Rohmer’s genius, one doesn’t have to completely emulate Bertrand to find his thoughts awfully familiar.


My intention here is to navigate the reality of being a lonely, sad dude without acting like a horny, entitled idiot. I get where Bertrand is coming from. I’ve been alone, unloved, and felt like those two things would never change. Hell, I feel like that today. I can’t even give some type of uplifting platitude that true love will find you or whatever. However, what I can say is that the sadness one feels is never the only one that exists.  We all suffer emotionally and just because your pain is yours and is only one you can feel does not mean that your ability to empathize with others should be shut off. This is not an easy thing to realize or even to apply in practice in your heart and head. In fact, the easy thing to do would be to complain about people you want to bone not noticing how nice you are to them. It sucks to be alone, but no one’s romantic anguish should come at the expense of reasonable behavior. Love going unreturned sucks, but I dunno, deal with it. Cry and jerk off and do anything but sacrifice your ability to be compassionate and empathetic.


My appreciation for Rohmer and this film in particular might be lost somewhere in the conversation about “sad boys” but I find the need to clarify that he’s done more than introduce another asshole into cinema. He’s done that with Bertrand, sure, but he’s introduced an asshole that should make any attentive male viewer reflect critically on how they view themselves and how they actually act. The film’s more crucial point might be the finale, which punctuates all of Bertrand’s musings with the reality that by seeing all of these women in relation to himself, he’s doesn’t know either of them. The result is that he’s as alone as he’s ever been. The film is not a tragedy of Bertrand’s collapse, but instead an investigation in the problems in how he thinks. In a way, this film is the antithesis of Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that sympathizes with the protagonist’s subconscious identifying as a martyr via heartache. Bertrand probably sees himself similarly, but Rohmer doesn’t accept this position. He makes it known that Bertrand is not the only person to ever feel lonely, and his unrest is no excuse to be, well, only concerned about himself.



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