This past summer, when I saw Eric Rohmer’s lesser known film The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle at the BAM Rose cinema, my mind went in an unexpected direction. Instead of thinking about Rohmer as one of the more cerebral and less flashy director to come out of the French New Wave, or of how many have called him conservative in relation to his contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut, or of his “novelistic” approach to filmmaking, I was reminded of the enormously popular sit-com Seinfeld and its HBO follow-up of sorts, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Four Adventures is one of Rohmer’s comedies, and, characteristic of Rohmer, it features intelligent characters doing little more than engaging in conversations about their different viewpoints and opinions concerning themselves and their everyday lives.
As the overall tone is light and playful, it anticipates the same feature in Seinfeld and Curb – the very feature that defines these shows.
Rohmer, a figure it would seem unconnected with comedy writers like Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, seems to have exerted an important influence on these two television series – perhaps a more significant influence than more obvious examples.
Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm obviously owe a great deal to sit-com conventions, Seinfeld and David’s stand-up comedy, as well as David and Michael Richard’s skits in the sketch comedy show Fridays. Because they are popular television shows their more apparent intertextuality is often limited to these examples and other pop culture references sprinkled throughout different episodes. But on a more implicit level, Seinfeld and David are indebted to Yiddish humor and figures like Woody Allen and Philip Roth. The fact that Jerry and George are neurotic, Jewish New Yorkers (we know Jerry is Jewish, and we can infer that George is, too) enters the shows into that conversation.
Yet a look at the films of Eric Rohmer – a director, writer, and film critic from a different continent and from a very different intellectual background – reveals that David and Seinfeld owe quite a lot to the spirit and project of his films, even if Rohmer strikes a more cerebral and less comedic note.
What Rohmer does that Seinfeld and David went on to do is create a universe unto itself, one where characters behave in a certain kind of way, encounter certain kinds of situations, and discuss them in a certain analytic manner—exploring their implications and the conventions, logic, and morality behind them. Through the many conversations and scenarios repeated, figured, and rethought in Rohmer’s films and Seinfeld and Curb, what one might a call a philosophy of the quotidian is created. Different more or less commonplace issues that most people experience are presented, and the characters submit them to scrutiny, often down to the minutest details. What is the proper way to behave? they wonder. What rules, if any, govern the situation? Which social conventions are necessary? Which conventions could we forget about?
With Rohmer, this is an obvious project of many of his films, and as much is suggested in his titles. Some of his most noted films, for example, belong to the series Six Moral Tales. In each one, a character is faced with more than one romantic interest and he or she must make a decision. In the Comedies and Proverbs series, Rohmer further explores the complexities of friendships and romantic relationships. In Boyfriends and Girlfriends (L’ami do mon amie) a woman wonders how, and if, she can see her friends’ recent ex-boyfriend. In Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la plage) a woman is seduced by a man the viewers and the others characters know is a disingenuous womanizer, and we are left to consider the reasons why men of dubious character are often desirable for women.
Similar situations arise in Seinfeld and Curb, and as with Rohmer’s films it is often the case that one episode will address one specific theme or issue. For example, in “The Wait Out” episode of Seinfeld (season 7), Jerry and Elaine discuss “waiting out” a married couple and how they can move in once the marriage ends.
In “The Ex-Girlfriend” of the second season, Jerry briefly dates George’s recent ex-girlfriend, and though George admits that he “should” be upset, he realizes that he actually doesn’t care at all. In another episode, George is faced with a very Rohmer-esque situation: should he cheat on Susan and embark on an affair with Marisa Tomei (“The Cadillac,” season 7)?
In another episode, Elaine inadvertently gives one of her co-workers the impression that George is “bad,” and suddenly she finds him alluring (“The Bookstore,” season 9). For a whole season of Curb, Larry attempts to have extra-marital relations after he wife gives him permission, and naturally a lot of questions over what exactly is allowable are considered.
If there is one Rohmer film in particular that, in an almost uncanny way, anticipates Seinfeld and Curb, it is The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. Most of Rohmer’s films are on the more serious side; they explore the drama of the quotidian rather than the comedy. But 4 Adventures, like Seinfeld and Curb, uses the everyday for humor.
4 Adventures is comprised of four scenarios or “adventures,” one in the countryside where Reinette meets Mirabelle, and three in Paris after Reinette moves into Mirabelle’s apartment. The first scenario in Paris concerns Reinette dealing with a particularly difficult waiter at a cafe who will not give her change and who insists that she is going to leave without paying. The sequence obviously plays off of the stereotype (based partially in truth) of the rude French garçon, and his characterization anticipates the many impatient and gruff New York City types depicted in Seinfeld (for example, in “The Soup Nazi,” the Soup Nazi imposes strict rules on his eager customers), as well as Curb episodes where Larry and his friends debate over how to treat servers (for example, Larry insists on “tip coordination” in “The Reunion” of season 7).
Reinette does end up leaving without paying, but only because she doesn’t have proper change. In an unnecessary, George-like gesture, she returns the following day to pay in order to prove the server wrong.
In the third scenario, Mirabelle witnesses a shoplifter in action and helps her avoid capture by the undercover police by running off with the bag of stolen items. This event is echoed in the Seinfeld episode “The Bookstore” when Jerry sees Uncle Leo shoplifting and wonders what to do. Jerry, like Reinette, is appalled at the act of theft. In yet another parallel with Seinfeld, in the fourth scenario Reinette concludes that she talks too much and takes a vow of silence. Similarly, in “The Cartoon” of season 9, Kramer takes a vow of silence when he realizes that he can’t hold his tongue.
4 Adventures is just a particularly strong example of a Rohmer film that in retrospect is filled with Seinfeldian moments (although if the French filmmaker’s works were more internalized in our culture, we might just as easily call many Seinfeld and Curb episodes Rohmerian or Rohmer-esque). Any number of the films call to mind different Seinfeld and Curb episodes, particularly when they involve a man scheming about how to pursue a woman.
Of course Rohmer and Seinfeld/David don’t always take the same point of view on the issues they explore, and Rohmer tends towards the metaphysical while David and Seinfeld tend towards the pragmatic. Rohmer explores the nature of infidelity and its moral considerations, where Seinfeld wonders if and how you can ask someone out on a date if you’re engaged. Nonetheless, what they both do is provide a framework with which we can consider quotidian life. Of course we cannot know if Seinfeld and David are aware of Rohmer and were insired by him, but it is clear that a similar spirit is suffused throughout all of these visionaries’ output.