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Rohmer and Permutations

From a book I recently bought (on sale from Schoenhof’s, the foreign bookstore in Cambridge):

Mais je proposerai plutôt l’exemple du musicien, puisque j’ai conçu mes Contes moraux à la manière de six variations symphoniques. Comme lui, je varie le motif initial, le ralentis ou l’accélère, l’allonge ou le rétrécis, l’étoffe ou l’épure. A partir de cette idée de montrer un homme solicité par une femme au moment même où il va se lier avec une autre, j’ai pu bâtir mes situations, mes intrigues, mes dénouements, jusqu’à mes caracteres. Le personnage principal, par exemple, dans tel conte sera puritain (Ma nuit chez Maud), dans tel autre libertin (La Collectionneuse, Le Genou de Claire), tantôt froid, tantot exubérant, tantôt bilieux, tantot sanguin, tantot plus jeune que ses partenaires, tantot plus âgé, tantot plus naif, tantot plus roué. Je ne fais pas de portraits d’après nature: je présente, dans les limites restreintes que je m’impose, différents types humains possibles, tant du côté des femmes que de celui de l’homme.

Et mon travail ainsi se limite à une vaste opération combinatoire que j’ai poursuivie, il est vrai sans méthode, mais dont j’aurais fort bien pu, comme tels musiciens d’aujourd’hui, confier le soin à un ordinateur.

(Rohmer, Eric. “Lettre à un critique: à propos des Contes moraux.” Le gout de a beauté (1984). Cahiers du cinema, 2004. 128.)

[Instead, I will propose the example of a musician, since I conceived of my Moral Tales in the manner of six symphonic variations. As a musician would, I vary the inital motif, slowing it down or speeding it up, stretching it out or shortening it, fleshing it out or stripping it down. From the idea of showing a man solicited by a woman at the same moment when he is going to befriend [get together with?] another, I was able to build my situations, plots, denouements, even my characters. The main character, for example, in one story will be puritanical (My Night at Maud’s), in another a libertine (La Collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee), sometimes cool, sometimes exuberant, bilious or sanguine, younger than his partners or older, more innocent or more cunning. I don’t make portraits from life: I present, in the limited boundaries [restricted limits] that I impose on myself, different possible human types, woman as often as men.

And my work is limited in this way to the vast combinatorial operation that I followed — it is true without method, but one which I could very well, as contemporary musicians do, entrust the care of to a computer.] (my translation)

I’ve loved Rohmer’s movies for a few years now (and have managed to see most of them), and this bit from a longer essay on his Moral Tales (My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee are my favorite) gives me reason to relate him to the idea of formal constraint. The Moral Tales are a series of 6 film (two are shorts) variations on the situation described above. Rohmer has gone on to make a series of movies based around proverbs and a series of season films. His films are very much in the French talking a lot style and also quite similar to each other, but, in their similarity, I still find them enjoyable and interesting works, small in scale, personal.

While what he discusses above is not a strict constraint, the idea of permutations and combinatorics are an element that can be used in numerous constraints. Anagrams, for instance, are nothing more than the permutations of the base set of letters. Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (100,000,000,000,000 Poems) is an example of combinatorics on the lines of sonnets. while (more subtly) Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (again, the working of this one is not clear to me), and Mathews’ Cigarettes (based on the relation X Takes Y for Z (See reference below)) are novel-length permutations of semantic situations. What we get with Rohmer is not wordplay, limitless variation, or oblique structure, but only a few variations on a theme that allow us to view a base plotline from different situations and perspectives.

There are a number of spin-off groups from the Oulipo for various types of work (painting, comics, math, music, cooking, etc.) but not one for film (that I am aware of). The closest thing is the former Dogme 95 [I don’t think they update this site anymore.] group which has a “Vow of Chastity” they used detailing the constraints they would work in for a “Dogme” film. Interestingly enough, many of these constraints are the same things Rohmer has been doing in his films for decades: using real settings (no created sets), natural sound (if there is music there better be a place where the music is coming from, be it radio or musicians), etc.

Rohmer also mentions computers, which is something the Oulipo were very early in investigating the use of for literary means. Paul Braffort and Jacques Roubaud, oulipians both, are founding members of ALAMO [in French, not recently updated] (Atelier de Litterature Assistee par la Mathematique et les Ordinateurs / Workshop for literature assisted by mathematics and computers) a group concerned with researching the use of computers for creating literature.

For more on Oulipo and combinatorics/permutations:

In Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer for Potential Literature:

Berge, Claude. “For a potential analysis of combinatory literature.” 115.

Calvino, Italo. “Pose and Anticombinatorics.” 143.

Queneau, Raymond. “The Relation X Takes Y for Z.” 153.

among others in the same volume.