Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rohmer: Suzanne's Career

Let me come right out and say it: the two men at the center of Suzanne's Career, Guillaume and Bertrand, are extremely unpleasant people. Guillaume seduces Suzanne, not through any subtle charms but by way of ugly bullying, manipulation, and insults. His philosophy is that women like to be forced. Later, he and Bertrand spend a few weeks living off of Suzanne's money; she treats them to movies and dinners and other entertainments until she's flat broke. And this isn't unintentional. It's Guillaume's stated purpose to bankrupt her.

Why on earth does Suzanne let this happen? Why, after he's insulted her so crudely and she's decided to leave, does she settle back down on the couch beside him? Partially, she is a product of her times-- as the otherwise execrable Mad Men evinces so well, many women were raised to think themselves inferior to men. And partially, it's a matter of her personality, a personality that is better understood through Bertrand, who shares it.

The Guillaume-Suzanne and Guillaume-Bertrand relationships mirror each other pretty acutely; both Suzanne and Bertrand are the recipient of Guillaume's abuse and insults. He bullies both of them, and both of them, in turn, react passively. Through out the film's fifty-odd minutes, Guillaume will ask Bertrand to come out and do something, often to play some kind of role in one of his debauched schemes; Bertrand will say no; Guillaume will ask again, more forcefully; Bertrand will immediately say yes. Just as Suzanne immediately recants her desire to leave, Bertrand puts up no fight. He likes to be forced.

Not to get all homoerotic-subtext-y here, but I think Bertrand is as much in love with Guillaume as Suzanne is. He says he is particular about the women he pursues, but the putative object of his desires, Sophie, never really commands his focus as much as Guillaume does. And in the scene where Guillaume cruelly asks each of his women, both Suzanne and Bertrand, what they would do if the one made a pass at the other or vice-versa, he's abusing both of them in the same way, treating both of them like objects, conquests, ancillary to his ego. If he pulls back the curtain slightly for Bertrand, explaining his stratagems, it is not because his feelings towards Bertrand are any different than his feelings towards Suzanne, but because Bertrand is biologically male.

It is Suzanne, though, who breaks the cycle. Suzanne is engaged to be married, and by taking that massive step towards adulthood, she exacts, as the narration so memorably puts it, her "revenge". She's matured to some degree, whereas Bertrand remains the same.

We didn't enjoy Suzanne's Career as much as the first Moral Tale-- for one thing, Bakery Girl was extremely funny even as its male lead was unpleasant, and for another, the pace was kinda draggy and had us sleepy-eyed by the end-- but neither did we hate it. As much as we might despise Guillaume and alternatively feel both pity towards and frustration with his two willing victims, we found it a complex and somewhat rewarding piece of cinema. Not necessarily something that we really dig, or that we want to see again, but we can already start to see what some of our friends see in the late director.


The Angler said...

I too wonder what Bertrand sees in Guillaume. Bertrand spends most of the film alternating between being annoyed with Guillaume and defending him, which could be a result of Bertrand's narrative distance (he's narrating from some point in the future). And while it's true that Suzanne might be an early 60s woman and instinctively submissive, I wonder if she might not be working the system to get what she wants. She doesn't seem to be under any illusions about her bank rolling Bertrand and Guillaume. There could be a reading of the film that puts Suzanne in a stronger role.

Tom Russell said...

Mr. Angler: Very good points about the narrative distance, and about Suzanne's knowingness. You've given me something to chew on there.