Paris, 1936. Spain is in the grip of civil war and Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany are growing in power. Fyodor Voronin (Serge Renko) is a White Russian general living in Paris with his Greek artist wife Arsinoé (Katerina Didaskalou). Arsinoé is not clear what her husband does when he leaves the house every day. It’s not clear where Fyodor’s allegiance is: is he working for the Soviet communists or the anti-communist White Russians. Or the Nazis? Or even all three of them?
In between his final Moral Tale, Love in the Afternoon (1972), and the first of his Comedies and Proverbs, The Aviator’s Wife (1980), Eric Rohmer made two historical dramas, both literary adaptations: The Marquise of O (1976) and Perceval (1978). In more recent years, with the completion of the Tales of the Four Seasons, Rohmer has returned to the form, with The Lady and the Duke (2001) and now Triple Agent. Rohmer’s historical films have given him the opportunity to experiment, as all deviate from his usual working practices in some way. The Marquise of O is in German. In Perceval, Rohmer and his then regular DP Nestor Almendros, departed from their usual realist style in favour of visual stylisation. And in The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer explored the possibilities of digital video, shooting his characters against painted backgrounds.
Triple Agent is a return to shooting in 35mm, and a classical filmmaking style. Rohmer cowrote with Claude Chabrol one of the earliest books on Alfred Hitchcock, and in this film he takes on subject matter more usually associated with The Master. Based on the real-life Miller-Skobline case, Triple Agent has the plot of a spy thriller and a mystery at its centre. But anyone searching for thrills and suspense would best look elsewhere: we see the film through Arsinoé’s eyes, and we know no more than she does. This is less a thriller than a character study of how a life of constant deception eats away at the soul. For Arsinoé, the final betrayal is that she never really knows her husband.
Rohmer punctuates the story with extracts from contemporary newsreels, which provide a background timeline to the events of the story. Even so, as with The Lady and the Duke, some knowledge of the history will benefit the viewer, though the basic plotline is clear. As ever with a Rohmer film, he tells his story mostly through dialogue scenes, which do require you to pay attention to nuances and character. His directorial style is as ever simple and unobtrusive, the pace measured, and the performances of his two lead actors are first rate.
I have to confess that Rohmer’s historicals aren’t my favourites of his work, and anyone unconverted to this director’s work is unlikely to have their mind changed by Triple Agent. But it’s a generally absorbing character study, handsomely photographed by Diane Baratier. Eric Rohmer turned 85 this year, but he’s still active and planning future productions. Long may he continue.
Triple Agent is a multinational DVD, with menu choices in seven languages: French, English, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish. These don’t just lead to differently-translated menus, but also different distributor logos as well. The English menu begins the film with Artificial Eye’s camera logo. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. There are eighteen chapter stops and subtitles available in the same seven languages.
When I saw Triple Agent in the cinema, it was shown in a ratio of 1.66:1, which is common enough for Rohmer’s latterday 35mm work. The DVD transfer is 4:3 and hence non-anamorphic. It’s not so simple as to describe this as an open-matte transfer, though. Although the dramatic scenes do seem composed for 1.66:1, the newsreel inserts were of course originally made to be shown in 1.37:1, and did seem noticeably cropped at the wider ratio. As you’d expect from a brand-new film, let alone one of French origin, the transfer is first-rate. This isn’t the most colourful of films, Rohmer and Baratier going for a muted brownish palette, and interiors are often shadowy.
The DVD cover supplied with the review checkdisc suggests that Triple Agent has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but this is incorrect. There are two options, Dolby Digital 3.0 (left, centre, right, no surround) and a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo alternative. Much of the film is resolutely single-channel mono in any case, as you’d expect from its dialogue-driven nature. The newsreel footage is monophonic too, as it was originally made. The left and right speakers are occasionally called into play, for occasional directional sound and most notably the song played over the opening credits, which begins in the centre and ultimately uses all three speakers. You can get the same effect with the 2.0 track by playing it in Dolby Prologic, though the 3.0 track wins out for clarity.
The extras begin with the trailer, which is 4:3, with a 2.0 soundtrack, and runs 1:31. The other extra is quite substantial. In “The Miller-Skobline Case”, Françoise Etchegaray (one of the film’s producers) interviews Nicolas Werth, a historian specialising in the Stalinist period, and Irène Skobline, niece of Nicolas Skoblin(e), on whom the character of Fyodor is based. As with the film, this does assume some knowledge of the history of the time and is likely to be heavy-going for those who don’t have such a knowledge. But anyone with an interest in the subject matter is likely to find it fascinating. This featurette runs 38:34. Oddly there are only two subtitle options for both extras: English and Portuguese.
Triple Agent won’t go down as one of Eric Rohmer’s greatest works, and some will no doubt find it slow and talky, but established fans, plus anyone interested in the period immediately leading up to World War II, will need no further recommendation. Artificial Eye will be releasing several Rohmer titles in 2005, including all of the Tales of the Four Seasons.