Nathan Silver (Exit Elena) Talks Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

At his second attempt, the Brooklyn director writes about one of the Tales of the Four Seasons, plus a deal with the devil and Kelsey Grammer sitcoms.

Nestor Almendros said that Eric Rohmer had some kind of deal going with the devil, and I can’t help but believe this to be true. The sheer and insanity-inducing simplicity of his storytelling is not the work of human hands or eyes; he seems above life and able to extract from it only the essence (saying this sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true). Perhaps it’s because my editor always talks about movies in meal metaphors that I can only think of movies as food at this point, but who cares… Rohmer’s a preternaturally expert life-butcher, throwing the fat of human experience into the garbage bin where you’ll find the meat of most other movies. What a pleasure it is to gorge on his work, but it’s also a dare.

We’ll get back to this dare later, but let’s now focus on the movie at hand: A Tale of Winter. I won’t bore you with the details of the plot; I will simply urge you to do everything you can to seek out this film. We have something here that presents the craziness of love so elegantly and forcefully that it’s necessary viewing for every human interested in matters of the heart (which is most of you, I hope). Here, as in many of his other films, Rohmer asks us to have faith in circumstance, and in our own delusions, but here, in particular, makes us acknowledge how absurd love is, how selfish it can make us. In the winter light of the movie, we can very clearly see the trail of psychological corpses the main character, Félicie (Charlotte Véry), leaves behind in pursuit of her one true love. “How many corpses have you left behind?” is the question that nags long after you finish the movie. “Are you sleeping beside a future corpse?” is the question that immediately follows.

The movie has a miracle of an ending that borders on fairytale-like, but how will this miracle jibe with reality — how will it play out? We do not know. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is referenced in the movie, used to be labeled a comedy, but has since been grouped with his “late romances,” all of which have tragic elements. I do not think of this movie as having a happy ending, but a nerve-jangling one: will life live up to the dream Félicie has been carrying with her for years, that she has spoken of ad nauseam…? The movie ends in pure speculation and anxiety, at least for me.

Speaking of speculation, let’s assume Rohmer made a deal with the devil… Whenever I try to explain him or his movies, I stop myself. Everything I jot down seems cluttered and unnecessary; I think of the crisp experience of watching any one of his movies and how clumsy my attempts to describe his work are. In fact, I was supposed to write about A Summer’s Tale for this very website back in June. When I failed at doing so, I wrote an insane, over-the-top apology to the editor, ending my email with: “Rohmer’s a devil.” So why now can I write about A Tale of Winter?

Even though it might sound strange, it’s because I’ve started watching Frasier. I find myself traveling a lot these days, and I don’t always have a clear idea of which time zone I’m in at any given point. I’ve developed a healthy dose of insomnia, and for whatever reason the voice of Dr. Frasier Crane helps put me to sleep. In those moments directly before sleep, I hear Frasier and his brother, Niles, constantly talk about themselves; they justify themselves and their behavior to others, but mostly to themselves. One night in Vienna, in that stage just before sleep, I confused an episode of Frasier for a Rohmer movie, ignoring the fact that it was in English. I feel (perhaps wrongly) capable of writing about the show Frasier as well as the character Frasier, who after 11 seasons is a monster of self-obsession — not unlike many of Rohmer’s creations.

This sudden conflation of Frasier and Rohmer freed me up, and I told myself that if I had the opportunity to write about Rohmer, I would take it. I also realized that I was simply aping a Rohmer character by stopping myself from writing about him, in that I was analyzing, obsessing and questioning everything that went into watching a movie by him. There’s no such thing as a Rohmer character; there are Rohmer people. Frasier is a character, and therein lies the difference between watching an episode of Frasier and watching a Rohmer film. Perhaps it takes a devil to make a movie about people (or at least someone who’s struck a deal with the devil). I know little about Rohmer’s life, save the movies he made and the fact that he was verging on middle age when he really broke through, but I get the feeling that he was extremely private and simply observed life, coming out of hiding only to reveal his research to all who would watch.

In late summer, A Tale of Winter screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Upon exiting the theater (with my editor, who called the film “a feast”), not only did all the nagging questions of love assault me, but I felt dared to present the mess of life in an insanely simple manner, and so I concocted a movie that I hope to shoot in the spring. I’m sure to fail at portraying anything clearly, but that’s because I don’t know where the devil’s hanging out these days… and perhaps my failure will simply look like an episode of Frasier — that is to say, made by a human, who can only make stories with characters and not people.

Nathan Silver graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005. Since then, the filmmaker has written and directed five short films and eight feature films.  His films have played festivals and venues around the world, including New York Film Festival, Tribeca, Locarno, Rotterdam, Viennale, Deauville, Melbourne, AFI, MoMA and the Cineteca Nacional Mexico. (Portrait by Cait MacIntosh.)