84-year-old Eric Rohmer’s latest film, Triple Agent (2004), has recently been released as a handsome DVD in France. It’s partly a continuation of his fortÈ–verbose adults parcing the emotional and ethical twists and turns of their lives–and partly (like his previous The Lady and the Duke) a thoughtful period piece. Rohmer’s oeuvre is famous for its contemporary settings and long (but thoroughly charming) pontifications on love, romance, and philosophy that often seem more concerned for timeless ideals than social problems or specific political moments in time. If anything, his last two films (who knows, perhaps his last two films ever) admirably place their stories within overt historical contexts, the French Revolution and the politically tumultuous time in Europe immediately preceding World War II.
Triple Agent is the latter setting, beginning in France in 1936 just as the left rallied together, uniting communists, socialists, liberals, and large portions of the working class and bourgeoisie to form the Popular Front political majority in order to subdue the growing threat of fascism seen in Germany, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere. Spain would also form a Frente Popular that would only last a few months before Franco would initiate his own fascist rebellion, resulting in the Spanish Civil War. This multilateral leftist response was a result of Stalin’s laissez-faire attitude toward international communism during the ’30s as he was conducting his brutal purges, arresting, executing, or deporting vast numbers of real and imagined dissenters. One opposition group in particular, the Whites, were Czarists who had fought the Red Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, and many of them later emigrated to Europe in order to spare their own lives. But Stalin had his fingers in European politics as well, mixing and matching relations with various powers as the major countries circled one another warily and perpetuated a complex network of international spies.
Rohmer thrusts the viewer directly into this complicated milieu without much explanation and evokes the times through a judicious use of costumes, historic architecture, and occasional vintage automobiles juxtaposed with newsreel footage documenting key events. For the uninitiated, it might seem a bit overwhelming, so if you don’t consider yourself an expert on the era, simply print the preceding paragraph for reference. You’ll need it.
Based partly on a true story, ArsinoÈ (played by a typically Rohmerian intelligent beauty, Katerina Didaskalu) is a Greek stay-at-home artist in Paris who spends her days painting images of local color–street markets, beaches, children playing–while her Russian White husband, Fiodor (Serge Renko) spends his days on ambiguous missions of diplomacy and intelligence. ArsinoÈ and Fiodor have a loving relationship, but it’s complicated by the fact that each of them live in their own worlds; she in her art, he in the shifting loyalties and secrecies of pre-war Europe.
Despite the semi-lurid sound of the film’s title, Rohmer carefully arranges his plot, with his ever-solid attention to logic and detail, so that most of the espionage occurs offscreen, leaving the focus on the relationships that exist apart from the more conventionally exciting elements. Rohmer derives great pleasure from the verbal explanations, justifications, and persuasions that occur between his various characters: the Russian communists who live next door to ArsinoÈ, Fiodor’s immigrant cousin and loyal White, the White spy organization in Paris. And the film develops considerable romantic tension along the way in its study of a married couple who don’t fully know each other’s secrets, two people in love yet because of Fiodor’s career, constantly having to make personal assumptions and draw their own conclusions.
Like The Lady and the Duke, the film emphasizes painting, but rather than its function in that film as a commentary on the representation of 18th century reality, Triple Agent uses the medium as a commentary on ArsinoÈ’s worldview. An apolitical artist who sketches quickly on the streets of Paris in order to escape the stares of strangers but then retreats to her apartment for extended embellishments in oil, ArsinoÈ is a picture of domestic tranquility who is happy to leave political discussions to her scheming husband . . . until she tragically finds herself too deeply embroiled in current affairs to escape them. In some ways, it’s a refreshing corrective to Rohmer’s previous work, a movie about the dangers of political naivetÈ despite the relative comforts of art and love.
As with nearly all of Rohmer’s films, the camerawork is elegantly understated, with little camera movement and straight cuts, presenting a clear-eyed examination of his characters’ emotions and reasoning. It’s not a typical espionage film, but a subtly moving and complex one by an aged and masterful filmmaker.