“My characters don’t say everything; they have their secrets.”

-Eric Rohmer

For so secretive a man it is remarkable that there exist as many as three revealing documentaries about Eric Rohmer. “J’aime le mystère”, he says mischievously in the most recent of them. In chronological order they are: Cinéma, de notre temps: Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui (1994), part of the distinguished television series masterminded by André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin, widow of Rohmer‘s mentor, André Bazin; La Fabrique du Conte d’été (‘The Making of A Summer’s Tale’, 1995/2006), filmed by Rohmer’s long-time producer Françoise Etchegaray and presented, eleven years later, by Jean-André Fieschi; Les Contes Secrets ou les Rohmériens (2005) by Marie Binet, who worked with Rohmer as an assistant in the early 1980s and appeared in two of his films.

Fortunately for posterity, each takes its own distinctive approach to the subject. Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui brought Rohmer before the camera only after lengthy coaxing by Labarthe. He directs while another old sparring partner, Jean Douchet, interviews Rohmer across a desk in his new headquarters in the avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie in Paris. Rohmer reveals his approach to filmmaking, his methodology. Clips from both improvised and finished films are shown on a convenient wall; old notebooks are plucked off shelves to reveal how far back in time the initial idea for particular films came to him.

We have to thank Françoise Etchegaray, his producer, for the existence of La Fabrique du Conte d’été. She had the courage and foresight to ask permission to film him during the making of the Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale, 1996) in July 1995 on the Brittany coast. Perhaps surprisingly, Rohmer consented. Four months later a chance meeting between Etchegaray and Jean-André Fieschi resulted in the latter beginning work on moulding hours of tape into 93 minutes of sequential magic. But fate decreed that his labours didn’t bear fruit for another decade. The finished article offers us a unique insight into Rohmer’s working methods on location. (1)

Both these films present work in progress. But the third, Marie Binet’s Les Contes Secrets ou les Rohmériens, though produced in 2005, can now be seen more as valedictory, an affectionate look-back by sixteen of his actors. They dilate on their experiences of working under his direction and their approach to their roles. The film is organised into seven sections, each devoted to one of Rohmer’s ‘secrets’, and interspersed with clips from the films.

Together, the three films offer us origins and background, theory and practice, methodology, the subjective and the objective view, offered by Rohmer himself, a near-contemporary of his (Douchet), his staff (Etchegaray) and his actors.

What follows is a more detailed summary of the three documentaries.

A. Cinéma, de notre temps: Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui

In the introduction, written by Labarthe and spoken by Arielle Dombasle, we learn that the interview takes place before Rohmer moved in officially to his new headquarters, in a small room that he set up with the necessary bric-a-brac for the program. Shelves heave with books, files and notebooks; the desk carries two film-projectors and a tape-recorder, each of which causes its owner moments of confusion.

Here we meet Rohmer the speaker. His delivery is rapid, at times incoherent, as if the thoughts tumble out faster than the mouth can control them; but the overwhelming impression is of a deep thinker of the widest culture. A name may escape him momentarily, but we sense that he knows exactly what he wants, what is important to him as a director. Whether he is talking of sound, lighting, casting or plot-development, he explains his principles lucidly.

He avoids non-diegetic sound. It must be direct. When he does allow music, it is either an integral part of the plot (in Conte de printemps [A Tale of Springtime, 1990], Igor and Jeanne listen to Natacha’s recording of Schumann), or it comes during otherwise silent scenes (the opening of the same film as Jeanne drives away from the Lycée Jacques Brel in La Courneuve to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s ‘Spring Sonata’). Amusingly, a church bell tolls loudly outside the window in the middle of Douchet’s interview, causing them to halt a while.

Casting is a simple matter: you find the one person who fits the bill and employ him or her! Of course, it is more complex than that, but the example he chooses here, Amanda Langlet in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983), exemplifies his approach. With three of his other actors already booked, he enlisted Rosette’s help to find a suitable 15 year-old. One look at a photograph of Langlet, and his mind was made up. It remained only for him to check that she wasn’t intimidated by the camera and that she could speak distinctly, and she had her first major film role.

Incidentally, Langlet tells the story differently. She claims it was many months before she knew for certain that she had the part (2). Since Emmanuelle Chaulet, Blanche in L’ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 1987), and Serge Renko have a similar tale to tell (3), we may suspect that Rohmer enjoyed keeping his young actors in the dark.

As he leafs through his little carnets and his larger notebooks, we come to appreciate the long gestation a single film can undergo. Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK /Summer, USA, 1986) had its origins before Marie Rivière, the memorable Delphine, was born! And it can change its shape dramatically both before, during and after shooting. Pauline at the Beach was but the third title chosen for the third of his ‘Comédies et proverbes’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs’).

This is probably the closest we will get to an autobiography by Rohmer, which alone makes it a significant work.

B. La Fabrique du Conte d’été (1995/2006)

The mere existence of this DVD documentary is more than a Rohmer enthusiast deserves. We owe it to two unlikely events: first, Rohmer’s consent to Françoise Etchegaray’s request to film the making of the A Summer’s Tale; secondly, Jean-André Fieschi’s chance encounter with her in Belfort, four months after the shoot was completed.

When Fieschi heard of the existence of this footage, he was stunned. He knew that only Rohmer’s trusted producer could have popped that question and got ‘yes’ for an answer. He started work immediately, reducing a mass of material to two hours’ worth of introduction. That left a lot over. Was a series the best way forward? Before he could continue, legal constraints intervened. Months turned into years. Only when Rohmer was busy preparing Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007) in 2005, did Etchegaray persuade him to let the film emerge to the light of day. Neither of them had seen a foot of it!

The result is pure magic. At the start, we see Rohmer doing sound tests a month before shooting; he recites Rimbaud as he jumps across a quiet street in Dinard. Then we follow the film through its many stages; the crew prepare and discuss; Melvil Poupaud offers Amanda Langlet a banana as they wait for a scene to be prepared; Rohmer pushes the dolly down the sea-front as a holiday-maker wonders why the youngsters don’t save the old man the trouble.

No commentary is needed. We hear all the participants on and off-mike. For the rest, Etchegaray’s camera is our eye as we eavesdrop on events before and behind Diane Baratier’s professional camera. How else could we expect to see Rohmer applying sun-cream to Langlet’s back on the beach or running far across the bay to catch up with a fast disappearing Aurélia Nolin?

The DVD contains both the ‘making-off’ (as the French like to misname it), and the original film; it is packaged with an informative booklet containing an essay by Fieschi, full details of each scene and a catalogue of the stills (Rohmer & non-Rohmer) included on the DVD as a ‘portfolio’.

C. Les Contes Secrets ou les Rohmériens (2005)

Marie Binet is an experienced filmmaker, specialising in modern art and painters. Some 20-odd years after working for Rohmer, she had the idea of producing a documentary on him, based on the reminiscences of his actors.

The 16 who are included here are: Féodor Atkine, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jean-Claude Brialy, Florence Darel, Arielle Dombasle, André Dussollier, Françoise Fabian, Pascal Greggory, Amanda Langlet, Melvil Poupaud, Serge Renko, Marie Rivière, Rosette, Béatrice Romand, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Zouzou.

These include both those highly successful away from Rohmer (for example, Brialy, Dombasle, Luchini and Trintignant), and other particular favourites who have appeared several times for him (Rosette, Rivière, Renko and Langlet). We are lucky to have Brialy’s contribution secured before his death in 2007. The youngest here is Poupaud (born 1973), but the reactions of yet younger actors can be found elsewhere on the web and in film magazines.

Binet concentrates on the notion of ‘Secrets’, which characterise Rohmer’s life and his characters. Each of the seven sections is introduced with a Rohmer voice-over.

Part I: The Lie

« Le mensonge est très intéressant pour l’intrigue … le mensonge est plus essentiel au cinéma qu’au théâtre » (“The lie is very interesting in creating the plot…it’s more important in films than in the theatre”). Some of his most prominent liars are Isabelle in Conte d’automne (An Autumn Tale, 1998), Jérôme in Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 197o) and Fiodor in Triple Agent (2004).

Part II: A Panoply of Human Failings

“On peut trouver tous les péchés du monde à mes acteurs” (“You can find all the world’s sins in my actors”). Speaking of L’amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972), Zouzou has no doubts about one sin: Frédéric returns to his wife rather than go through with an act of adultery he may regret for the rest of his life. Rohmer disowns adultery, she claims, though Haydée in La collectionneuse (1967) and Marion in Pauline at the Beach have other ideas about sexual mores.

Part III: Rohmer’s Notion of Morality

He speaks of “… la peinture du cœur humain” (“a portrait of the human heart”). The original French sense of ‘la morale’ was more concerned with an examination of human nature than with passing ethical judgements. Rohmer says his characters obey rules imposed by others (society) or by themselves.

Part IV: Waiting and Other Games

« Mes films peignent des gens dans un état d’attente » (“My films portray people in a state of waiting”) – Gaspard (A Summer Tale), Jérôme (Claire’s Knee), Delphine (The Green Ray/Summer) are but three striking examples of this characteristic, though each responds to it in a different way.

Part V : Talk-talk

«Dans mes films il y a de la conversation, c’est délibéré . On m’a reproché de faire trop parler mes personnages. Et oui, c’est délibéré chez moi » (“There is conversation in my films, it’s deliberate. I’m accused of making my characters talk too much. Yes, it’s deliberate on my part”). Significantly, Françoise Fabian comments on the very positive response of people of widely different backgrounds to the discussions in Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) when it was first shown. All three lead actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian and Marie-Christine Barrault speak lucidly about the implications and influences of this keynote film.

Part VI: Religion and Other Matters

“La religion m’inspire, il est normal que la religion soit dans mes films.” (“Religion inspires me, it’s normal that religion appears in my films.”) He claims not to be an apologist for religion, merely a commentator on it; it is treated in some of his films, not in others.

Part VII: Can We See Rohmer in His Characters?

Both Pascal Greggory (in Pauline at the Beach) and Melvil Popaud (in A Summer’s Tale) felt strongly that they were portraying Rohmer in their roles. More than one actor has admitted to imitating his voice and gestures on screen. Béatrice Romand claims that he reveals himself solely through his films, leaving his private life strictly excluded from public gaze.

Some of us will enjoy seeing how favourite actors from the past have withstood the passage of time; most of them triumphantly well. In their comments they cover a wide range of topics beyond the simple theme of secrecy. But above all, they impress us with their intelligence and wit, the very essence of a Rohmer actor.

One major asset of this DVD is its excellent subtitles in English. These are a godsend for anyone not totally at home with the French language. But one disadvantage: it is not (yet) available on the open market.

All three DVDs provide an invaluable guide to the Rohmerian legacy. Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui and La Fabrique du Conte d’été are available only in French. For non-French speakers, there are great compensations: watching Rohmer discuss and show his work in interview and seeing him on location, where the visual element is paramount. Both contain generous informative booklets. Marie Binet’s film includes English subtitles, relevant clips (including rare footage of Rohmer on set in Perceval le Gallois, 1978) and Rohmer as voiceover. The Etchegaray/Fieschi offering stands out for its portrayal of the man in action. The other two delve deep into his unique approach to cinematography.

Details:

Cinéma, de notre temps: Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui (1994)
Producer: André S. Labarthe with the participation of Jean Douchet
Camera : Maurice Perrimond
Sound: Xavier Vauthrin
Editor: Danielle Azenin
Commentary: André S. Labarthe spoken by Arielle Dombasle
Coproduction: AMIP- La Sept Arte
PAL all zones
Length: 117 minutes
The DVD also offers a trailer of the series created by Bazin and Labarthe, showing glimpses of other great directors it has treated.

La Fabrique du Conte d’été (with Conte d’été and portfolio)
2005 95 min
Françoise Etchegaray (camera), Jean-André Fieschi (editor)
PAL
Total length : 3 hours 22 minutes
L’Eden Cinema www.artsculture.education.fr

Les Contes Secrets ou les Rohmériens
Productions de la Lune Montante
Producers: Hans Bronsgeest and Marie Binet
Director: Marie Binet
Script : Marie Binet
Camera: Nicolas Brunet, Stefan Zapasnik, Michel Bercq
Sound: Nicolas Favre
Editor: Jean-Luc Thomas
Original Music: Sebastien Teulié
Apply to : [email protected]

Endnotes

  1. The only other film which shows Rohmer at work is, I believe, Perceval le Gallois, a clip of which is shown at the end of the Binet film. But its setting is the Épinay studios outside Paris.
  2. “Eric Rohmer – Évidence et ambiguïté du cinéma” ed. Jean Cléder, Le Bord de l’eau 2007, p. 58.
  3. “A Balancing Act” F. Emmanuelle Chaulet, Starlight Acting Books 2008, p. 6; and sergerenko.com

About The Author

Bruce Perkins is a UK based cinephile.