Why can’t Americans make good political movies? This crisis occurred to me when I re-watched Eric Rohmer’s 1993 caprice The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque), which deals with politics in ways American filmmakers refuse to imagine.
Rohmer’s lovely, civilized comedy observes Julien Dechaumes (Pascal Greggory), the socialist mayor of a small French town, who wants to up his political profile by building a media library in his bucolic district. Support comes from his ultra-bourgeois lover, novelist Bérénice Beaurivage (the siren Arielle Dombasle), and opposition comes from a local schoolteacher Marc Rossignol (Fabrice Luchini) and an ambitious Parisian journalist Blandine Lenoir (Clémentine Amouroux).
More than a politicized sex farce, these characters actually talk — not the specious “conversation” urged by pundits, but honest, personal communication. Issues dissolve in the face of egoistic, often romantic, conflict and connection. Rohmer’s mastery (best known from My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, and Chloe in the Afternoon) reveals characters speaking in the language of their times, then honestly confronting their own moral imperatives. The revelation is beautiful, beyond Hollywood’s self-satisfied groupthink that passes for thoughtfulness.
Rohmer avoids the brainwashed pretenses of characters who parrot our current state-media; his dramatic, verbal strategy uses haphazard personal encounters. The film’s subtitle, “The Seven Chances,” nods to the social slapstick of Buster Keaton’s 1925 Seven Chances, while acknowledging the accident of political preferences and the reality of citizens making personal choices. (Seeing the mayor and the schoolteacher’s daughters’ playtime détente — an innocent ideal — is pure elation.) Hollywood–New York narcissistic filmmaking partisans simply don’t go there.
Right now, we’re suffocating under enforced political correctness in which moviemakers lecture on proper social stances — while denying their own political biases. Nomadland; The Trial of the Chicago 7; Promising Young Woman; Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always; Minari; and most other new releases — all tell us what to think rather than entertain us. Unmoved, bored? Then you must be a “domestic terrorist” wasting your Netflix privilege.
American filmmakers who consider social activism an artistic prerequisite actually avoid political discussion — it’s their Sovietization of cinema. By some Nouvelle Vague miracle, Rohmer refuses to take sides yet infatuates us with his attractive, articulate characters. These perfectly witty, humane portrayals by Greggory, Dombasle, Luchini, and Amouroux are Rohmer’s most dazzling since Pauline at the Beach (1983). Much of this film’s pleasure is gratitude, because American movies do not provide such delightful spiritual insight and moral candor. Today’s glut of bad American political films proves we’re going through a media- and government-wide charade where power, corruption, and lies dominate our social experience.
One of Rohmer’s most droll details is Blandine Lenoir’s journalistic fake-out (a craven editor abbreviates her interview with the mayor in favor of quotes from the schoolteacher) for the newspaper Après Demain (After Tomorrow). This sobering jest counts as speculative political fiction, a prophecy of how our media actually front a political agenda. No contemporary American film would dare such disclosure.
A major part of America’s political-movie crisis stems from the media’s partiality (as Rohmer’s title slyly suggests). But Cahiers du Cinema critic Antoine de Baecque broke through film journalism’s disingenuousness when parsing The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque:
First of all, politics isn’t a subject, it’s a language. One does not speak “about politics,” one talks “in politics.” In the same way, in a Rohmer film, a character does not talk about love but as a lover (which is to say, triumphant, frightened, self-confident, doubtful, betrayed, lying). At the end of the day, politics is used to make characters talk, and each character contributes his accents, misinterpretations, interpretations, and score to this language.
De Baecque’s point is confirmed in a sequence of villager interviews that suspend the narrative, letting realism enhance romantic farce. It documents actual citizens adapting to social change, expanding the film’s depth and universality.
The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque is the rare Rohmer film that never had American distribution. In the Nineties, it probably seemed esoteric, Rohmer’s God-man-institution triangle confirming life’s inescapable order. Today that clarity feels blissful. Find it on the MUBI website. We can only learn from Rohmer’s love story and social story, turn from the media’s addiction to hate, and move beyond uncivilized propaganda. Maybe then, Americans might make political films that are not demoralizing.