Boyfriends and Girlfriends (France, 1987)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Throughout his long, respectable career, French auteur Eric Rohmer has been known for three qualities: a gentle touch, a simple style, and the ability to craft some of the most delectable dialogue ever to grace the screen. The magic of Rohmer's films is that nothing is allowed to get in the way of people talking to one another. In fact, many of his best efforts are little more than several lengthy conversations strung together. Through such seemingly banal interaction, Rohmer surprises us by revealing more about his characters and their motivations than many filmmakers get across through lengthy scenes of exposition.

Throughout his career, Rohmer has worked with themed sets of movies. During the '60s and '70s, he made a series of movies that, when grouped together, formed "The Moral Tales." In the '80s, he moved on to "Comedies and Proverbs". And, during the '90s, he worked on "The Tales of Four Seasons." Boyfriends and Girlfriends, released in 1987, was the final installment of Rohmer's "Comedies and Proverbs". As its jumping-off point, it used the following adage: "The friends of my friends are my friends." Through his consummate skill as an observer of human interaction, Rohmer finds a way to apply this common phrase to the minutiae of everyday living - meeting new people and embracing some attractions while fighting others.

The characters in Boyfriends and Girlfriends are all self-centered and shallow. They rarely speak or think about anything deeper than their feelings, and never seek anything more substantial than transitory satisfaction. They are four young yuppies - twenty-somethings who have embraced the age of materialism and self-gratification that characterized the '80s. They live in a new, sleek Parisian suburb that has none of the old world charm of the ancient city. It's modern and sterile, and the closest it gets to Paris is a distant view of the Eiffel Tower peeking up over the horizon.

In the hands of another director, Boyfriends and Girlfriends might have turned into a biting satire, but Rohmer is a sympathetic filmmaker. He never condemns his characters - he merely presents them as they are and lets the viewer decide whether or not they are deserving of affection. In this case, he shows that, despite their superficialities, they are flesh-and-blood individuals, not comic contrivances or caricatures. The little touches that make them come alive also make them compelling individuals. Ultimately, this film isn't really about much, but we are drawn into it because of the way in which the artist sketches his subject. Many important aspects of their portraits are left out, but the intriguing details incorporated are what make them fascinating.

Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) is a civil servant who lives a simple-yet-unfulfilling lifestyle. Although comely, she has not had a lover for over two years - a fact that seems to define her existence. In fact, she doesn't even have any platonic friends until she meets college student Lea (Sophie Renoir) over lunch one day. The two hit it off immediately and soon have become pals. Lea is in many ways Blanche's opposite - she's more self-assured and vivacious. She is also involved in a steady relationship with a boyfriend, Fabien (Eric Viellard). However, while the two are committed to one another, they are incompatible - a fact that Lea sometimes acknowledges and sometimes shrugs off. Meanwhile, Blanche is smitten with one of Fabien's friends, the handsome Alexandre (François-Eric Gendron), but he plainly doesn't feel the same way about her, preferring instead to allow his eye to wander in Lea's direction. And Fabien is becoming increasingly interested in Blanche. The body of the film is then taken up by the shifting tides of these relationships as each new factor causes them to mutate ever-so-slightly.

One of the things that makes Boyfriends and Girlfriends engaging is its ability to remain focused and intimate. The characters may be white bread, pampered yuppies, but their problems are the kinds of trivial stumbling blocks that everyone can relate to in one way or another. What could be more familiar or painful than unrequited love? What can be more delirious than the joy of finding that you connect perfectly with another person? Rohmer shows that friendship and love are two sides of the same coin. Sex is not much of an issue here; instead, this is about people connecting or failing to connect.

On one end of the motion picture spectrum, we have the grotesquely budgeted American movie, which is typically all about big moments and big events. On the other end is the deeply introspective, existential art film, in which characters undergo painful revelations that impel them to new levels of self-discovery. Boyfriends and Girlfriends falls somewhere in between, a little closer to the latter camp than the former. In fact, the characters don't experience any significant internal changes throughout the film - fundamentally, they're the same at the end as they are at the beginning. Only their circumstances are different. Yet because of the way Rohmer writes dialogue and because of the easy rapport he develops between the protagonists and the audience, such a seemingly stingy diet is more than enough. Boyfriends and Girlfriends satisfies on its own terms.

Like most of Rohmer's films, Boyfriends and Girlfriends mixes low-key drama with equally sedate comedy. The movie is pleasant and breezy, but never hilarious. The funniest sequence - a mistaken identity conversation near the end - works surprisingly well even though Rohmer is toying with an ancient convention. However, while it is amusing, it's not laugh-aloud funny. Anyone expecting to be rolling in the aisles during Boyfriends and Girlfriends will be disappointed. Likewise, as is his trademark, there is no melodrama. Rohmer tweaks our intellect, not our emotions.

Recently, a group of Danish filmmakers have embraced an austere style that they have dubbed "Dogma 95". A similar simple approach has long been favored by Rohmer. Almost every tenant of Dogma 95 can be found in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, with the exception of using only a handheld camera (Rohmer disdains shaky shots). There is no incidental music. Natural lighting is preferred. No props have been brought in. Shooting is on location. And there are certainly no mindless action sequences. One cannot imagine Boyfriends and Girlfriends having been made in any other manner.

For his cast, Rohmer has selected a fine group of young actors. All of them have two critical qualities - they can deliver the script's lines naturally and flawlessly, and the camera loves them. Rohmer has a history of working with capable-yet-beautiful people, and this is no exception. None of the performers in Boyfriends and Girlfriends became a prominent names before or after this movie, but all of them had careers. Emmanuelle Chaulet would go on to appear in Claire Denis' Chocolat. Sophie Renoir and Anne-Laure Meury (who plays Alexandre's sometimes-girlfriend, Adrienne) had roles in other Rohmer films - Good Marriage and The Aviator's Wife, respectively. And François-Eric Gendron would amass a significant number of TV credits.

Admittedly, Rohmer's style is not for everyone. Watching a French film that is start-to-finish dialogue requires a fair amount of concentration, and, if you don't know the language, the ability to read subtitles quickly. But, for those who brave such cinematic hurdles, the rewards are considerable. Few directors are capable of immersing us into their worlds in the manner of Rohmer, and, even when his subjects are as apparently superficial as they are in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, his movies remain rich and multi-layered.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends (France, 1987)

Director: Eric Rohmer
Cast: Emmanuelle Chaulet, François-Eric Gendron, Anne-Laure Meury, Sophie Renoir, Eric Viellard
Screenplay: Eric Rohmer
Cinematography: Bernard Lutic
Music: Jean-Louis Valéro
U.S. Distributor: Orion Classics
Ranked #88 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1