L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque / The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993)

5 02 2014

I hesitate to put even the most woeful of directors in tiny compartments, let alone do the same for directors I love. Yet, if I had to do this for Eric Rohmer, I would obviously say he’s a filmmaker interested in relationships. Heterosexual relationships in particular, and whether or not that means something romantic or strictly sexual varies from film to film. The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque is a unique effort then because none of it is about coupling. The protagonists are already comfortable where they are it seems, and despite some quick allusions to divorce, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a problem with who is sleeping with who. Despite this, Rohmer’s interest lies in something similar. The etiquette of relationships shifts to the etiquette of political policy and the performance of progressive.

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Julien Dechaumes is the mayor of a small French town and he’s worried about its prospects for the future. Thanks to some connections in Paris, he’s able to afford the town the opportunity of a media library, or mediatheque. He envisions a place where the inhabitants of this isolated town can congregate, read books, watch movies, and listen to music. He sees this library as a potential cultural landmark, one which will eventually pull people from the city to the country and maintain the population which is slowly descending. The plan seems ideal, but there’s one thing standing in his way: Marc Rossignol, a school teacher who values the landscape over structures.

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The setup here seems sort of basic and unimpressive, but Rohmer throws in several ingredients that make the film not resemble a simplistic underdog activist against the modern, unappreciative politician. For one thing, Julien, by conventional narrative expectations, should have more say in the progress of the small town. He was born there and still lives there, in contrast to Marc, a city person who relocated to the country because he valued its idyllic beauty. In a more conventional script, the backgrounds would be flipped, Marc would be the faithful native and Julien would be the city person with no understanding of the landscape’s importance. In Rohmer’s world, these conflicts of the self serve as a reminder that the binary is hard to uphold when there’s contradictions on both sides. To be more clear, neither Julien nor Marc are given a vote of confidence from Rohmer. Instead, he’s more intrigued by the implications of what the two wrestle over.

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Rohmer has examined the differences between spaces before. Full Moon in Paris sees Louise juggling her life in two apartments: one by herself in the middle of Paris and one with her boyfriend in the suburbs. The two serve as constructed differences in her own mind, even though they might be exaggerated. One represents her independence, the other perhaps a longing for something more stable. There’s no absolute in Rohmer’s investigation of spaces, because if one is to take any conclusion from his studies, its that their meaning comes from who inhabits them. Sure, there’s outside influences but most of their meaning comes from our own mental construction of them. This is an absolutely crucial point in The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque because the crux of the script falls on the meanings Julien and Marc assign to a space. Marc, perhaps because he’s from the city wants the country to remain the same because it represents something opposing that city space. Julien, from the country, would rather see the evolution of this country space.

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Early in the film, Julien and his lover, Berenice (the two are divorced with a child, but not separated) go into the city to discuss the media library with an architect. The design upsets Berenice because a parking lot is placed next to it. She’s irritated by the visuals of this, because it will seem inauthentic. She requests the parking lot be underground so as not to ruin the imagery of the building, which is designed to fit in with the rest of the town’s architecture. In other words, the media library will not be a successful imitation if it doesn’t hide something like cars. Berenice is also a city person and like Marc she doesn’t want a mental construction of what represents “the country” to be compromised by progress that would actually help it. The two are a perfect match, seemingly defending the integrity of the small town and taking on the position that they think all residents should have. They think this because it seems the most conscious of preserving its essence.

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A small town like the one in the film would be “inauthentic” with a shopping mall. Or better yet, it would be tacky because of its falseness. Modern shopping malls came from somewhere, though, the arcades of Paris were once “sacred” land that transformed into a cityspace. Marc actually stumbles on the issue of his authenticity argument: “In ten years, the country will be the city.” Does the age of a setting lend its cred to authenticity? Seemingly yes, or do we forget that small, suburban shopping districts were all modeled after Madison Avenue, which isn’t any more or less authentic itself. It seems like a pessimistic point to make, but it is actually just one that demystifies reality: nothing is really authentic and there’s no deep “essence” to life. Everything is influenced, indirectly or not, by something. This is where the film comes back together with the rest of Rohmer’s work. His relationship films all comment on gender, the expression of which (especially in heterosexual relationships) is not always deep within our souls, but a product of our surroundings.

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