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The Sign of Leo  
Eric Rohmer
1959 || 193 mins

Pierre Wesserlin (Jess Hahn) is a 39 old American composer, who lives a reckless, bohemian life in Paris. One morning he receives a telegram notifying him that his wealthy aunt has died. Assuming that he will inherit her fortune, he borrows a large sum of money and throws a lavish party for his friends. However he soon discovers that his aunt left everything to his cousin. Penniless and deserted by his friends, he wanders the streets of Paris through the long hot summer, scrounging for food and resorting to petty crime to make ends meet.

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Eric Rohmer was nearly 40 years old when he began production of this, his debut feature. Shot on location in and around Paris over a seven week period in 1959, produced by Claude Chabrol, and featuring cameo appearances from friends, including Jean-Luc Godard and Stephane Audran, this should have been the aspiring director’s entrée into the big-time, after producing a succession of witty, well crafted shorts through the 1950s. However Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo) failed to find the kind of success enjoyed by Rohmer’s Cahiers colleagues. The first private screenings for the film were very disappointing, and it was not shown commercially until 1962 when it quickly sank without trace. Rohmer was forced to return to writing criticism and low budget shorts until he finally found success later in the decade with La Collectionneuse (The Collector, 1966)

Today, despite its flaws, the film has many of the qualities that Rohmer would develop and refine in his later work. His commitment to naturalism and his attention to detail, while sometimes gruelling, do succeed in getting across the squalor and misery of Pierre’s ordeal, while the ultra-realistic portrayal of Paris, observed wonderfully through Nicolas Hayer’s observant camera lens, perfectly conveys the sheer languor of the city in August, when the residents have deserted and only the tourists remain. This is a hostile, colourless Paris, quite unlike the place of romantic possibilities seen in many of the films of the other New Wave directors.

At the centre of the picture, Jess Hahn gives a memorable performance as unlucky Pierre, lumbering through the streets of Saint-Germain des Prés like a wounded bear. He makes the character’s plight appear quite tangible as he descends from easy-going dreamer to somebody who worries about a spot of sardine oil on his only pair of trousers to a tramp who no longer cares what anybody thinks as he desperately tries to fish a discarded packet of potato crisps from the river. The goddess Fortuna appears to be playing a very rough game with Pierre until the rather too convenient Deux ex Machina ending restores him to prosperity. The ironical workings of fate are a theme Rohmer will return to frequently, and more subtly, in future films, nevertheless Le Signe du lion is a compelling cinematic debut.

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