Jacques Rozier: Risk and Desire

Jacques Rozier

When Agnès Varda died in 2019, Jean-Luc Godard said he found himself thinking that among the filmmakers of “the real New Wave, there are only two of us left. Me and Jacques Rozier, who started a little before me.” Godard, of course, left us last September. On Friday, Rozier passed away at the age of ninety-six, and it’s heartening to know that he was aware that his work—championed by critics but ignored by too many moviegoers throughout his long life—was on the verge of rediscovery. In February 2022, the French distributor mk2 Films announced that it had acquired the bulk of the oeuvre, nine short films and four of the five features Rozier managed to complete.

After graduating from IDHEC, the film school that later became La Fémis, Rozier landed a job as an assistant to Jean Renoir on French Cancan (1955), an experience he later called “the best internship you could possibly imagine.” The following year, he directed his first short, Rentrée des classes, the adventurous tale of a boy who’s thrown his school bag into a river. His second film, the twenty-two-minute Blue jeans (1957), screened at the Journées internationales du court métrage, a festival in Tours, where he first met Godard. Writing for the French weekly Arts, Godard called Blue jeans the “freshest” film at the festival, and when his own debut feature, Breathless (1960), caught fire, Godard introduced Rozier to his producer, Georges de Beauregard.

Rozier intended to make a film about a draftee’s first few days in the army, but de Beauregard told him that with the Algerian War on, there was no way that the government would allow it. So Rozier shifted the time frame to the few weeks before the draftee, Michel (Jean-Claude Aimini), is sent to Algeria. Working as an assistant in a television studio, Michel meets two young women, Liliane (Yveline Céry) and Juliette (Stefania Sabatini), both of whom take an immediate interest in him and follow him to Corsica, where the romantic entanglements become fraught before Michel sails off to war.

The production of Adieu Philippine (1962) did not go smoothly. Some of the Corsican locations were only accessible by mule. Inspired by the Italian neorealists, Rozier and his wife at the time, Michèle O’Glor, created scenarios and his nonprofessional actors improvised their lines. There was no written record of what they were saying, and when the audio tracks were lost, the dialogue had to be reconstructed for rerecording by reading the actors’ lips. De Beauregard abandoned the project, and Rozier and a few friends pooled their resources in order to buy the rights so that the film could premiere at Critics’ Week in Cannes.

Reviewing Adieu Philippine, François Truffaut praised Rozier’s style as “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.” Writing in the Notebook in 2010, Daniel Kasman described “the Rozier touch” as “a talent for supreme fluidity of film movement, of a natural nonchalance as the story slowly weaves in a direction seemingly untouched by a filmmaker and directed instead by life.”

Revisiting Adieu Philippine last fall, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote that its “mighty originality—in its drama, tone, methods, images, dialogue, performance, and political audacity—is both immensely inspiring to other filmmakers and, even now, at sixty years’ remove, hard for audiences to assimilate. Moreover, its achievements and its difficulties both liken it to and distinguish it from the works of Rozier’s better-known French contemporaries. It’s a film that belongs to its historical moment but also reflects it from the outside like a magnifying mirror—and these qualities suggest the manifold, elusive nature of Rozier’s art.”

Cahiers du cinéma cropped a still from Adieu Philippine for the cover of its special issue on the New Wave, but for all the critical accolades, the film flopped at the box office. Nearly a decade passed before Rozier could make a second feature, Du côté d’Orouët (1971), but in those intervening years, Rozier found plenty of work in television.

On the set of Godard’s Contempt (1963), he shot Paparazzi, a short study of the photographers hounding Brigitte Bardot. In 1964, he directed an episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, a portrait of Jean Vigo that Michael Sragow, talking with Richard Peña for this publication in 2017, said “knocked me out as a piece of film journalism.” Peña noted that Rozier was “one of those French filmmakers like Claude Sautet, who is considered quite important in France but never really crossed the pond.”

Du côté d’Orouët essentially hangs out for two and a half hours with three young women vacationing on the coast one September. Writing for Senses of Cinema in 2018, Tope Ogundare called the film “the shaggier cousin of an Eric Rohmer picture: equally keen on youth and seaside leisure, but less bookish and with looser trousers.”

In the Notebook last fall, Patrick Preziosi wrote that The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976) is “a comedy of natural tactility, transpiring on old-fashioned trawlers and deep in Mediterranean forests: two travel agents, bored of their standard vacation packages, propose a ‘Robinson Crusoe trip,’ where participants would sacrifice comforts for rugged living, a quixotic aim that is disrupted time and time again.” The film starred Pierre Richard, one of France’s favorite comic actors, but few tickets were sold.

In Maine-Océan (1986), a gaggle of disparate characters clash on a train and then party together by the sea before returning to their respective daily grinds. “Rozier’s love for his characters is palpable,” wrote Giovanni Marchini Camia for Film Comment in 2013, “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 or patronizing.”

Maine-Océan won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, and while Rozier carried on working in television, festivals such as La Rochelle began staging retrospectives, and the French Academy presented its Prix René-Clair to the director in 1997. In 2001, Fifi Martingale, Rozier’s ode to theater, premiered in Venice but was never released in theaters. A few years later, Rozier started working on another project, The Blue Parrot, but was never able to see it through.

In a 2019 conversation for the French weekly Télérama, filmmaker Guillaume Brac told Rozier that all of his films “look like first films. The French directors following in your wake—I’m thinking of Sophie Letourneur, Justine Triet, and myself—have in common that they wrote and shot their first films in a few weeks, with a script that was rarely complete.” To which Rozier replied, “As soon as I hear someone tell me that he has been refining his screenplay for two years, I want to tell him to keep it to himself. Cinema is about risk and desire. Like love.”

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