Three girls in black stockings dance on a glistening street in London. Men have gathered around them watching their heels click to a silent tune. Wavering out of the shot, among the crowd, a man occasionally breaks the spell of movement as he gestures for the girls to move closer to one another so that they might all fit within the frame for the short actualité, Londres: Danseuses des rue. It’s 1896 and the Lumières, along with their surrogates, are on a journey to capture spontaneous moments that supposedly capture reality from all the corners of the earth. Even in this nascent stage, reality — filtering through this new medium of transmission– has altered the truth of the image, and the world would never be the same.
In 1968, cineaste and conversationalist Éric Rohmer produced a television documentary on Louis Lumière, Louis Lumière: conversation avec Langlois et Renoir. Co-produced by l’Institut Pédagogique National, la Cinémathèque Française and la Télévision Scolaire, the program was aimed at education. Rather than taking a biographical-historical perspective, however, Rohmer transmits Lumière’s impact and life through conversations. The director appears as a voice off camera, questioning two great minds (Jean Renoir and Henri Langlois) about their knowledge, impressions and thoughts on the work of Lumière. Trading in the stiff authoritarianism of facts, Rohmer presents learning and education as a conversation.
The conversation doesn’t center on cinematic firsts, but rather the progression of ideas. Langlois, an ardent supporter of the Lumières’ work, says that nothing in life is more boring than the erection of monuments, a statement loaded with contempt and viciousness to closed ideas. He also reveals the primordial vigour of the Lumières’ work, as they were not looking for monuments or people of importance, they were seeking to capture life in a single shot, on a limited reel within the best of their ability. These films do not reflect hierarchy or accident, but the deliberate artistic and political choices of artists. Within these films, he says, you have more than just the action onscreen, but the atmosphere of an era. Knowingly or not, they were capturing the philosophy of time.
As Langlois occasionally raises his voice, the ash from his hastily smoked cigarette threatens to topple as he looks around at his partners in conversation off-screen. More animated than the paternal Jean Renoir and less poetic than Rohmer’s behind-camera contrarian, the drama of Langlois works into the poetry of Lumière. As Langlois’ voice bleeds into another interjection of a short Lumière film, the clash of spoken and silent discourse emerges. Over the course of the television documentary film, Rohmer continually shocks and questions the Lumières’ artistry, as he showcases their silence and their inflexibility. Rather than exposing them as artistic frauds, however, Rohmer’s interjections about value and imagination shift the tone of conversation away from reverence. Lest we forget that Rohmer may be cinema’s great conversationalist, as the narrative of an unchallenged conversation has no real narrative at all. Rohmer’s films have always been about the power of conversation to drive storytelling using image, sound and performance in such a way that could never be adapted to another medium.
Moving away from the supremacy of a single voice, Rohmer reveals the value and poetry of criticism: it serves as an advancement rather than an echo chamber of ideas. The regurgitation of dates, numbers and facts provides little value to anyone and only corrupts the possibility of individual advancement. While facts have intrinsic value, they themselves say nothing — they exist in a void to be used or ignored in favor of someone else’s narrative. To treat facts as unquestionable reflections of reality presupposes that time and the natural world have an order that we have not merely imposed on them.
Eric Rohmer’s cinema has always had the atmosphere of a warm dinner conversation among friends. With his talks often loaded as much with what goes unsaid, the director took pleasure in the natural disagreements between lovers and friends as a progression of thought and spirituality. The comfort Rohmer takes in words and conversation explains some of his doubts (affected or otherwise) about Lumière. The pleasure in the treatment of this doubt, and the playful, divergent conversations among great minds, lies at the heart of great criticism. Through form, Rohmer demonstrates that criticism should not be a solemn mix of facts and authoritative declarations, but a conversation among peers over wine and good cheese.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.