Le Beau Mariage


France / 1982 / French

Directed by Eric Rohmer

With Béatrice Romand, André Dussollier, Arielle Dombasle

Still from 'Le Beau Mariage'Sabine is about to turn 25, works part-time in an antique store, and spends much of her time commuting between her mother’s house in Le Mans and graduate school in Paris. She has just ended an affair with Simon, an artist who is a bit older than her and a bit more married. On her abrupt exit from his studio, she declares that she herself is going to get married, although she doesn’t know, just yet, to whom. This statement of intent, also doubling as a vague plan of action, is at the heart of Lea Beau Mariage, a film that balances Rohmer’s wistful naïveté with a pitch-perfect rendering of a person’s mid-twenties, an age that Robin Marantz Henig, in the New York Times Magazine, refers to as “a black box,” fraught but ambiguous. At the same time it presents a deft and poignant commentary on how contemporary societies mold women’s identities, expectations, and senses of fulfillment.

Sabine’s mission at first seems reactionary, both in gesture and values (expressed in the conceit that a single, perfect marriage will signify being set for life), and also an offbeat, predatory approach, since it is most often (at least in films) not the woman who is actively hunting for a mate. But what are the concerns that she is refracting, exactly? There is little pressure being exerted on her by her social backdrop. She has a self-contained, firecracker personality, prone to loud exclamations, and is perhaps convinced that her impulses exude wisdom of some sort, or at least sureness. At a point in her life when she is fully out of childhood and its residual excesses (but at the same time living at home, in the unmoving shadow of adolescence), pointless or potentially circular tasks become deeply ominous, and the threat of seemingly everything is amplified by the urgency of her current life-stage. This pitfall is precisely what she is experiencing, with her life absorbed by writing her thesis in the library and doing errands for the saturnine antique dealer. She envies her friend Clarisse, who works independently as a painter of decorative lampshades and is serenely immune to the need for every action to be one of propulsion.

Clarisse, who is already has a fairytale wedding engagement, insists on the power of love at first sight. It is, of course, easy for her to say such things because she is free of the anxiety of seeking love. Any nonsense seems permissible when one is in such a position.  She functions as Sabine’s creative spirit, her Ariel, a believer in felicity and magic who is herself imprisoned, shackled by the safety and predictability of a sure thing. Clarisse represents an angle opposite to the assured hunting in which Sabine engages, and while they both have a material pragmatism to their attitudes, with security and personal satisfaction in mind, both are also severely out of touch and wanting of logic.

Sabine is aware that she can attract any man she could want, and thinks that this comes with an innate staying power. So securing a marriage should be quick and simple as announcing it. Clarisse, at her brother’s wedding reception, introduces Sabine to her cousin, Edmond, a personable and self-effacing lawyer about ten years her senior. He works in Paris and it seems to Sabine that she can incorporate attaining him into her schedule. And Edmond acts as though he likes her, but seems restrained by invisible forces. It is more than just feeling mortified at Clarisse’s efforts to set them up. (She wisely backs off of her attempts early on). He seems to repress an overarching drive that would lead him to settle down. Romantic comedies abound with characters like that, but rarely are they so distractingly benign and yet so difficult to read. It all seemed so simple, and Sabine isn’t used to notion of the man having much say in the matter of pairing. After so far using others as a means to satisfy herself, not in a calculating way but in an altogether natural way, additional complications are entirely unimagined. It doesn’t even occur to him to feel threatened by her advances; his mind is half elsewhere, and things cannot develop even to that point.

Still from 'Le Beau Mariage'Having known only an unchallenging job, disappointing romance, and an uncertain future in the arts, Sabine is troubled by a lingering desire to be useful to someone else. Providing for herself, through the stages that she has known it, seems facile and unrewarding. She says that she wants someone who is tied to his work. The reason she left Simon was because he wasn’t altogether absorbed by his paintings, and thus wasn’t thoroughly dependent on her for everything else. Their lovemaking would get interrupted by calls from his wife and young son. But Edmond is not entirely as Sabine would have liked him to be; he has all of his social graces and the ability to take care of himself, and he’s also just too damn busy. He doesn’t lack enough. It’s not as though she isn’t busy as well, but she needs enough time to get the courtship over with, and he cannot even spare that.

Wishing for home and kids, Sabine mostly desires a readymade life, a gift she can own, and conflates such a thing with happiness and also love, itself an abstraction only imagined through human behavior and not a cause in itself. She visits a friend of hers named Claude, who is her age and married, a high school teacher with a small apartment and a future nursery in the offing. She dismisses his lifestyle as not serious, incomplete – bachelor plus wife. But she is still very much at his level, their ambitions similarly modest. She says she wants to be a housewife but he knows her better: “you’ll be bored,” he warns her. Still, she feels freedom’s doldrums acutely, and those don’t come with the same accompanying sense of security.

The intense dissatisfaction that marks Sabine’s situation is redolent in every dusky, autumn-lit frame of the film, seen in the constricting stone streets of medieval Le Mans, and felt in the eyelid-forcing monotony of her routines. The brisk air and dark, unresonant stillness of the surroundings invite hibernation of a sort, either as rest or simple escape. In her case it is turning away to a different path all of a sudden, seeking an ember’s glow to erase the chill. She is not going back on her principles, however, because, although she has been living their ideal, the values are not hers. She is more or less unattached to a feminist philosophy and thus there is nothing from which to cut herself loose.

“I’m getting married” is said reflexively, as a self-purgative. She says it when she needs to get away, or when the logic of her forward thrust is punctured. Even her mother, whom she informs the very last of anyone (besides Edmond, of course), calls her old-fashioned. “You’re going from one extreme to the other,” she tells Sabine.  It’s out of character and, as the mother suspects, not the whole story. In her eyes Sabine has not grown up fully, and this is both another capricious sign of that and a disappointing step back. Not feeling completely at home anywhere, Sabine wants a place and a situation she can settle into. Her bedroom hasn’t changed since she was 14. The age she is at is like waiting on the tarmac, being certain that one’s life will take to the air at any minute. Bored with the immature, she wants to arrive at the next phase instantly, and wants it to be the final one. In the adult sense, nothing is her own and, for the first time, that really matters.

Still from 'Le Beau Mariage'Were the commentary expressed in Le Beau Mariage to begin and end merely with a story about the effects of having grown up, it would not be enough elevate the film much higher than the level of a pleasantly-atmosphered dalliance full of beautiful characters. However it also speaks of modern womanhood, shown through the eyes of someone fairly new to it and still utterly incredulous towards its supposed gifts. Sabine is, however, aware of the significance that being independent has to all that she has become. But it is the responsibilities she yet faces that cause her to want to retreat a little bit, not out of cowardice, but out of the yearning to have a self, and not get lost or subsumed. There is something in family life that acts as a preservative, sheltering a person from having to adapt or update like they must when independent. Continuing on her own, it is the very possibilities that lie before her that are stifling.

The film is not so conservative as to suggest that rejecting career and agency for the trappings of married life (and, as Sabine imagines: domesticity, financial dependence, etc.) reflects a natural tiring with the demands of the world. If anything it creates a portrait of confusion, picturing the modern woman as isolated and purposeless, and how she, in turn, sees herself. This is best illustrated in the fact that Sabine thinks of her quest to win Edmond as terribly progressive in itself, not an opting-out in the least. The permeation of older, more limiting values into one’s lifestyle is not a modern reaction but, Rohmer suggests, the mix-up is. The values are all right, but it is their current ideal, the way they have become manifest, that ring hollow to him, and he sympathizes with her suddenly-felt revulsion.

Independent living within a bourgeois-capitalist reality demands fulfillment of oneself by oneself, which may seem wrong precisely because it is untested, unique to each person. This is why we continually turn to others, as though following the steps of a dance that goes unchanging over generations. Sabine is choosing a simplistic solution to a modern problem, unaware that she has already followed her own path beyond the possibility of devolving her acquired power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: