Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo) is a 1959 French film directed by Éric Rohmer, his feature debut. Along with Le Beau Serge, directed by Claude Chabrol (who produced The Sign of Leo), it was one of the first films of the French New Wave. The title refers to the Zodiac sign Leo, under which the protagonist says he was born. Much of the film’s plot is concerned with notions of luck and fate. The film was not a commercial success and Rohmer didn’t make another feature for 8 years, instead concentrating on short films and his position at the influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma.
The film is often noted for the differences in tone and cinematic style it has from the work Rohmer is best known for. The film is shot in a wider aspect ratio, 1.66, than most of Rohmer’s features; the director has used the 1.37 aspect ratio (also known as Academy ratio) for almost all of his films. It also features a musical score (rare for Rohmer) by Louis Saguer and a cameo by fellow New Wave director and Cahiers du cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard; though the other French New Wave directors frequently appeared in cameo roles in each other’s films (or, as in the case of Godard, cast directors they admired in their films), this is the only instance of such casting in a feature film directed by Rohmer. Writing for the website kamera.co.uk, Chris Weigand notes that in The Sign of Leo “perhaps more than in any other New Wave work,” Paris appears to be “a filthy and unattractive city, viewed through the eyes of the desperate and needy.”
Also unlike most of the director’s films, Rohmer did not write the dialogue for the screenplay. The work is credited to Paul Gégauff, and Rohmer is instead only credited with the film’s story.
Though praised by other members of the Nouvelle Vague (including Jean-Luc Godard, who put it on his top ten for 1962, The Sign of Leo was a commercial failure, a fact that kept Rohmer from making another feature until 1966.
The film is one of Rohmer’s least-seen features in the Anglosphere; it did not screen in the UK until 1966, and didn’t show until 1970 in the United States. Because of this, critical writing on the film is relatively scarce. Writing for the British film website kamera.co.uk, Chris Weigand notes that “the film is littered with painful moments” and that “with its depiction of one man’s long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Émile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors – always devoting particular attention to his characters’ complex emotions and inner thoughts.”
The film influenced German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who paid homage to it with his first short film, Der Stadtstreicher.
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