Jacques Rozier is often conspicuously absent from tributes to the French New Wave. Even though his debut Adieu Philippine (released in 1962) was considered a landmark film of the emerging movement, championed by Godard and Truffaut and featured on the cover of Cahiers du cinéma’s special edition on La Nouvelle Vague, its commercial failure set the course for Rozier’s subsequent career in cinema. It would be 10 years until his next features, Du côté d’Orouët (73) and The Castaways of Turtle Island (76). Again, his films were received exuberantly by critics, with many hailing Rozier as the realist successor to Renoir and Vigo, but these too flopped, instigating another decade-long hiatus for the director.
He returned in 1985 with Maine-Océan, his penultimate film to date. Widely regarded as Rozier’s best work, it was one of the 30 films the late German critic Frieda Grafe listed among her favorites in Steadycam magazine. The Arsenal cinematheque in Berlin is currently screening all 30 titles, and the turnout for Maine-Océan was impressive (all the more so considering it was shown at 9pm on a Friday), testifying to the importance of a director whose entire oeuvre remains virtually unavailable outside of France.
Like all of Rozier’s films, Maine-Océan’s plot is little more than a premise by which to explore the social realities of the protagonists. A series of arbitrary incidents bring a group of disparate characters—two train-ticket inspectors, a sailor, an upper-crust lawyer, a Brazilian samba dancer and her Mexican impresario—to the Île d’Yeu, off the coast of western France. The film initially pits the characters against one another, defining each by their social status and using their reciprocal prejudices to set off a chain of comical vignettes that culminate in their arrival on the island. Once there, pacified by the sea air, good food, samba music, and, most importantly, plenty of wine, they set their hostilities aside for the night and come together in a cheerful Bacchanalia before the sobering dawn returns them to the mainland and to their everyday routines.
Rozier’s love for his characters is palpable, and in his treatment of social issues his affinity to Renoir, whom he has called the greatest French director, is apparent. Although Maine-Océan highlights the disparities generated and/or sustained by class hierarchies, immigration, and globalization, the film has no villains. Rozier’s critique, while markedly on the Left, is never vitriolic nor patronizing. Failed communication lies at the root of all these problems and this provides the film’s central theme, brilliantly illustrated through a dexterous use of language. Like a miniature Tower of Babel, Maine-Océan’s characters all speak in different tongues: the inspectors and lawyer speak the French of their respective classes, the sailor spews an impenetrable vernacular not unlike Popeye, and the dancer and impresario speak Portuguese and Spanish. Each character’s social standing is thus delineated and the film derives a lot of its humor from emphasizing the absurdity and arbitrariness of these separations.
This is exemplified in one of the film’s funniest scenes, in which the lawyer represents the sailor in court. The sailor, Petitgas (whose name is a humorous play on petit gars, French for “little guy”), is wrongly accused of assaulting a businessman and in his defense the lawyer goes on a long tangent about the inequality of language, the inability of the less educated to defend themselves, and the dangers of prejudice. Her soporific and preposterously fluffy speech stupefies the judge into giving Petitgas a pass in exchange for an apology, which he then bungles through one of his furious, profanity-laden outbursts. By playing with the literal and figurative versatility of language, this scene provides a biting critique of social inequity and the justice system, and while the dialogue is very funny, Rozier’s humor is always marked by striking empathy and never elicits laughs at the expense of the characters themselves.
Rozier’s restraint from outspoken moral judgment led critics to accuse his cinema of disengagement and to label his “holiday films” as inconsequential. It is true that Rozier’s first four films all take their characters on a seaside vacation. These holidays, however, could almost be regarded as situations in the Debordian sense, albeit solely in their emancipatory dimension and devoid of the original’s revolutionary intent. In Maine-Océan, as with its predecessors, an egalitarian space of solidarity is created as social barriers are temporarily knocked down, allowing the characters—and us—to embrace life’s unadulterated pleasures. Each one of these holidays is brought to a close as the characters depart from the seaside at the end of the films and normality is reinstated. The unexpected and overwhelming sense of melancholy that takes over as the idyll disintegrates foregrounds the films’ issues, making an unequivocal and deeply felt comment about the human condition and, not less significantly, about cinema.
In reviewing Adieu Philippine, Truffaut encapsulated Rozier’s style by describing “something of genius in the balance between the insignificance of the events filmed and the density of reality that confers sufficient importance on them to fascinate us . . . [A]ll of it is filmed with intelligence, love, and enormous scrupulosity and delicacy.” That his realism was free of sensationalism, intellectualism, or overt stylistic flourishes at a time when the radicalism of his peers was so in vogue certainly accounts for a large part of Rozier’s commercial tribulations. Nevertheless, watching his films today, one discovers an extremely keen filmmaker with an assured technique and distinct personal style, able to distill the poetic from the banal and create human portraits as touching as they are convincing—an auteur in the truest sense of the term for whom a thorough reappraisal is long overdue.