24 September 2004 | jandesimpson
A "street movie"
It is generally easy to detect stylistic or thematic indicators of what is to come in the first features of directors of originality. There are however notable exceptions such as Kazan's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", a worthy but wholly commercial venture, that give little of their creators away. Erich Rohmer's "Le Signe du Lion" however is in an altogether different category. You would expect something of the director's unique way of looking at the world to be present in what is in every sense a significant example of early French New Wave cinema and yet there is nothing I can detect that links it with, for example, "Ma Nuit Chez Maud" or the "Four Seasons" tetralogy. Rohmer went on to become the master of the conversation piece where characters chat endlessly about their philosophy of life, the interchange with others being all-important. How is it that in "Le Signe du Lion" there is so little in the way of dialogue and that in the lengthy central part of the film we simply observe the main character wandering the streets of Paris bereft of friends and money? Pierre is a forty-something American musician who does not appear to have achieved much apart from a violin sonata that often punctuates the film in a way that is again untypical of a director who tends to use very little and more often no background music. Equally untypical is this character who shows little interest in interreacting with others unless it be to touch them for money, the lack of which is the root of his downfall. "Le Signe du Lion" is therefore unique in Rohmer's output in being a solo piece. Other characters are around but they scarcely matter. This is his "Carrie" but unlike the Wyler masterpiece there is no Carrie, only a Hurstwood who slides down the slippery slope into degradation when an expected legacy fails to materialise and friends he might borrow from are all away on holiday. Like Hurstwood, Pierre suffers early on from the tragedy of his only suit being ruined. Later this is followed by his only pair of shoes falling apart. From then on it is but a short step to his acceptance of the lifestyle of a tramp and beggar. The term "road movie" like "film noir" has become a matter of common parlance. May I be allowed to coin a term, that I am not aware of having been used, for a particular genre - "street movie" - one that depicts characters wandering in a city, often round and round in circles in search of something that eludes them, the city becoming progressively more alien. Such a genre would include "Odd Man Out", "Bicycle Thieves", "The Third Man" and certainly this early work by Rohmer. Perhaps because it is so untypical of its director it has become undeservedly overshadowed by works such as "Le Beau Serge", "Les Quatre Cent Coups" and "A Bout de Soufflé" and yet, particularly in the extended sequence of Pierre shuffling aimlessly around the streets of Paris, it can hold its own in this august company. A rather glib ending apart, it remains of of Rohmer's finest achievements.