Our favourite films often have a habit of making us mute, of striking us dumb (to use a more old-fashioned phrase). Once the lights have come up (or the desktop player window has minimised itself) we are left wondering, with a faint sense of embarrassment and a shrug of the shoulders, whether it is enough to just say “it’s everything I’ve wanted, it’s everything I want”.
Maine Ocean is everything I’ve wanted, and thirty years ago (when this film was released) is just about recent enough a time for me to suggest that its existence is proof positive that what I want can still exist. Jacques Rozier, and do not make the mistake of assuming past proclamations of the same sort of sentiment I’m about to express are mere hyperbole only designed to advertise a much under-appreciated and obscure auteur, is part of a lineage that includes Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Jacques Tati; he also turned out, with Maine Ocean, possibly the most sincere, wise and humane film of the 1980s (a decade when such qualities were in short cultural supply). Humane here does not mean the sort of soft-headed, soft-focused cinema to which the word is usually applied (the treacly, or the films with both eyes set on Oscar and not on the people of which the film speaks); it reminds us (as does Jacques Demy, alongside the trio above) that to be humane means to be aware and understanding of the centrality of disappointment, frustration, anger and compromise to modern life , and the vast, hierarchical separations (maintained by outside forces and the by people themselves) between sections of society that make communication and symbiosis something only fleetingly, briefly possible. The message is not “All You Need is Love”, but rather a musing on what exactly message is (i.e. what it is made up of), and how it can it be transmitted to people in a way so that they, hopefully but most likely impossibly, can draw some understanding and meaning from it.
Maine Ocean is beautiful because it charts, unsparingly and with precise and essential detail, an extended moment of perfect and liberating symbiosis (the remarkable semi-improvised bossa-nova-cum-samba sequence), but it also charts what exactly it takes for this to happen within the modern Babel (i.e. for these people to get together, for them to be in or become possessed by the right spirit, for their language to be fully understood by each other or its differences be rendered utterly irrelevant) and the thudding, laborious return to ‘reality’, the return to one’s (or one’s class’s) defined, divorced and limited space, which occurs when the bacchanalia which momentarily lived ceases to exist.
Along the way the film can show too its understanding of, but disappointment in, selfish desire, acting at cross-purposes, miscommunication, misunderstanding, rejection, prejudice. What is wonderful is that we learn from this (and how often do we learn from a film really?); we are able to understand something more of the shape of our lives, the shape and course of certain events in them and the shape and meaning of others behaviours towards ourselves. It would take a rigid and unimaginative personality for one not to be cast in a nostalgic mood by Maine Ocean (and Rozier understands it is at the seaside, in the old port towns, that we feel the most nostalgia; they are places haunted by our own memories, and the ghosts and leftover traces of many others’ memories, activities and lives lived long before and after our visits, which are almost tangible on the sea breeze), but again it is not a simple or soft-minded nostalgia; rather it is the nostalgia that accompanies a much-needed, retrospective revelation.
What is also beautiful about Maine Ocean is that no image, or line of dialogue, in it is banal, bland or mediocre; rather each image has its own feeling, texture, personality, contributed to by the fact that each location and each character is so finely-grained, so possessed of their own language, so pregnant with the feeling of a life lived beyond the edges of the frame; it would be easier to say that each character is a person, and a very distinct one, nothing more or nothing less. Maine Ocean is the sort of film that makes us think that it’s not really so hard to point a camera at something and, by doing so, reveal both its truth and its immense, infinite possibility. Of course it is hard, and this is why Rozier is so remarkable, but so casual does his carefulness seem, so simply is his complexity rendered and delivered, so much does he make us see, that we are led to believe that it’s simply a case of nearly everyone else getting it horribly wrong and Rozier alone getting it almost entirely right. It’s a conclusion that is perhaps wrong, but also perhaps not that wrong; Maine Ocean is essential as an entertainment, as a lesson, as a reminder.