A Rohmer Tribute

by Terry Ballard

Terry Ballard is Assistant Director of Technical Services for Library Systems at The New York Law School and hosts an Eric Rohmer web page.

I can trace my interest in Eric Rohmer to the early 1980’s when I first saw La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1981). I was living in Arizona at the time. There had been a good review of the film in the local paper so, on a whim, I took advantage of “Dollar admission night.” By the end of the film, I was hooked for life on this man’s work. As we were leaving the theatre somebody remarked: “That was a waste of two hours.” Later on, while working at the library, I found out that an image from the book Screen World Annual that had caught my attention years before was from a prior Rohmer film Perceval le Gallois (Perceval, 1978).

Through the next decade I attended Rohmer screenings whenever possible and caught up with earlier titles on video. I liked all of them to some degree. Some of them I loved, such as Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK; Summer, US, 1986) and Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale, 1992). By now I had begun to notice something about his effect on people. The audience walked out in a state of mild euphoria, as if they had been given the shared experience of being transported to some unique new world, and they are marching into the lobby with others who have shared that secret.

To be honest, sometimes Rohmer’s world seems noticeably more tidy than the one we have to live in. In Rohmer’s world there are no car crashes. Crime does not exist (the lead characters running out of a restaurant without paying the check in Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (Four adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, 1987) constitutes the only crime I have seen in a Rohmer film). Young people do not take any drug stronger than pinot noir. Homosexuality is not acknowledged, except playfully in Rohmer’s last film Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007). Rohmer creates his world with so much conviction that none of this matters to the viewer.

In the late 1990’s after two decades of being a dedicated Rohmer enthusiast I was working late one night and checked for the main Eric Rohmer web page. It turned out that none existed – just hundreds or maybe thousands of pages that have reviews of his work or wanted to sell you something. I decided to create an online rallying point for fans of Rohmer. I set out to find the best material about Rohmer that was available on the web. That is how easy it is to become a pioneer on the internet. People asked if this led to any communication with Rohmer. It did not – he put up with my work. That was enough. I did hear briefly from his editor Mary Stephen and his sometime composer Jean Louis Valero. Shortly after the web page was announced, the page begat an online forum with an international following.

One day I was checking on the usage of my pages and saw that the Rohmer page had been visited hundreds of times in the past hour. I had a sinking feeling because I knew what that had to mean. We were sad to lose this amazing man, but grateful for his unique contribution to cinema.

An Autumn Afternoon: Notes On the End of Eric Rohmer’s Four Seasons

by Adam Bingham

Adam Bingham is currently working towards his MA in International Cinema in Sheffield, England.

Without in any way wishing to belittle his final three films, all of which are more than worthwhile, ‘Contes des quatre saisons’ (‘The Tales of the Four Seasons’, 1990-1998) to my mind stand collectively as the apex of the exquisite art of Eric Rohmer. And within the series it is the magisterial Conte d’automne (An Autumn Tale, 1998), the final instalment, which represents the peak of his achievements. Indeed, it cannot be divorced from those achievements, and should be considered as a culmination, a summation, of the archetypical Rohmer brand of cinema that it would, with hindsight, bring to an end.

Rohmer’s work has always been particularly receptive to specific times of the day. Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK; Summer, US, 1986) pivots on the protagonist viewing the split-second at sunset when the disappearing light briefly casts a green ray over the horizon; whilst the enchanting first story in his portmanteau film Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, 1986) entitled ‘The Blue Light’ similarly revolves around a time just before dawn. Conversely, the emotional trajectories and crises of the protagonist of Le collectionneuse (1966) can be precisely mapped out by considering his activities at particular times of the day. And the very title of the final moral tale, L’amour l’apres midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972) alludes to the recurrence of this time of the day in the narrative, when the central character (who professes a dislike for it) meets up with the woman who challenges his morality and personal code of behaviour.

‘The Tales of the Four Seasons’ extend this notion to the characters and stories in their entirety, relating their respective narratives directly to a particular time of year. With this in mind, the four works can be sub-divided into two sets of companion films (which doubtless helps explain the a-chronological order in which the series progressed). The central films – Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale, 1992), Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale, 1996) should be considered together; as should the first film, Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990), and An Autumn Tale. The first pair both feature protagonists who are sure of themselves and others and who spend the film waiting for the one person they believe to be their perfect partner. As such they mark time whilst looking forward to this idealised (re)union with dalliances that either confirm and reify their romantic idealism (A Winter’s Tale) or destabilise and dismantle it (A Summer’s Tale). The seasons involved here are thus meaningful in that they are the fixed, known periods of the year, with a climate and weather that is generally certain, predictable, and in this are reflective of the sureness of mind that both films’ central characters exhibit.

A Tale of Springtime and An Autumn Tale also revolve around characters who are waiting, but without the same sense of certainty and self-possession. Their lives are, as a result, more disordered. They remain in limbo, in-between, but feel this in- between-ness much more markedly, and are consequently the subject of matchmaking and plotting by others. They are acted upon rather than acting themselves; and thus the fitting application of the seasons of spring and autumn, which are transitional periods of the year, periods of change when the climate is in a time of transformation, uncertainty and potentiality.

Nowhere in any of the four works is this as overt as in An Autumn Tale. From the very beginning, Rohmer forgoes his typical method of opening his films in medias res and starts with a number of exterior shots taken around the village where the action takes place, all suffused with the dappled, almost melting light of a late afternoon in autumn. Thereafter, the precise connotations of these light and shade compositions make themselves felt in a narrative in which the characters tend to fall into two distinct groups containing the matchmakers and their subjects.

Or perhaps that should be the actors and the directors, as it is these figuratively contrastive camps that Rohmer stresses: those organising the lives and stories of others (the storytellers, as Rosine describes herself), and those who are then unwittingly charged with acting them out. The concept of performing and storytelling has long animated Rohmer’s universe (in his preface to the published copy of the literary forebears of his six moral tales, he notes how his protagonists frequently behave as though they were knowingly in a story) (1); and An Autumn Tale foregrounds and extends this paradigm with diagrammatic clarity by stressing the extent to which processes of narrativisation have become thematic precepts for this director. In other words, it is a film about narrative; about the order and control, not to mention the deceit and detachment, inherent in shaping stories and structure from the raw material of lived lives. Chalk it up to more of a nouvelle vague instinct than perhaps Rohmer himself might have admitted to. But in a work that fairly luxuriates in the obvious delights of the part of the world in which it is shot, it seems perfectly organic as a correlative to tacitly draw attention to the comparable pleasures to be found in the staging stories and creating, manipulating, characters. Like the perennial Paris of Jacques Rivette, the Ardeche is here both a universe and a stage for its director, an expansive set and its own somehow elusive narrative.

The fact that the two main actresses in An Autumn Tale, Marie Riviere and Beatrice Romand, are surely the two most recurrent and seasoned Rohmer performers further underlines the film’s textual summation of this director’s canon. In a sense, they are each here essaying variant roles to their typical Rohmer characterizations, and again there is a discursive frisson to watching the pair, as though the whole were a documentary record of working and having worked, creating and having created, with them. The way the camera seems by turns to observe and scrutinize them (contrast with the shots behind and to the side of the characters in A Winter’s Tale and A Summer’s Tale) underlines this notion. And when in the final image, a look of pensive rumination shades the hitherto radiant light of Riviere’s face as she is dancing, the final responsibility for ordering this material – that is, for storytelling itself – is cast back onto us. It is a perfect end for a film whose delights could match any vintage wine.

Endnotes

  1. Eric Rohmer, Six Moral Tales, Sabine d’Estrée (trans), New York: Penguin, 1974/1980, pp. v-x

Eric Rohmer’s Living Cinema

by Conall Cash

Conall Cash is completing his Masters in Film & Television Studies at Monash University.  He writes about film for a few publications, and is an editor of the website Screen Machine.

There is a scene in Tsai Ming-liang’s great 2009 film, Visage, in which a Chinese-speaking director (Lee Kang-sheng) and a French actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) sit and speak to each other in the only language they share – listing the names of great dead auteurs in a back-and-forth game. Léaud finally reaches the most recently dead, slowly and grandly articulating each syllable of the name: An-to-ni-o-ni.

What is most unacceptable and upsetting about Eric Rohmer’s recent death is the possibility that his name could now end up on such a list of dead masters, ringing out after Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni have been sounded. An artist’s death brings with it the opportunity to fix their position within a canon of authors and texts, to fix our idea of their contribution, their value, their “worldview”. To think that such a thing will happen to Rohmer, that in his death he will achieve a place among these hallowed names, will achieve the lineage he deserves, the lineage of Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, is as heartbreaking as it is gratifying.

For Rohmer’s is a living cinema, an unfixed, moving cinema, wherein the relationships between elements are in constant fluctuation and uncertainty, and knowledge is constantly being assumed, disintegrated, reconstituted and re-disintegrated. His cinema is a philosophy-in-action, a perennial questioning of assumptions, of the foundations for knowledge, and of the self-evident explanations for the things people say and do. Watching a Rohmer film, nothing is ever quite the same as the last time you saw it – the unsolved mysteries (who stole Bertrand’s money in La carrière de Suzanne [Suzanne’s Career, 1962]? Do Louise and Bastien, towards the end of Les nuits de la pleine lune [Full Moon in Paris, 1984], realise that they’ve met before, at another party, four months earlier?) grow deeper, while the joyous revelations (Natacha’s discovery of the missing necklace at the end of Conte de printemps [A Tale of Springtime, 1990]; the finally achieved sighting of the “green ray” in the film of that name) acquire complexities and ambiguities. Some people like to say that the point of Rohmer’s films is to teach us to be smarter than his characters, to understand more about their actions and thoughts than they do; but this is never a fixed relationship, and throughout each film we are on a journey of self-questioning and uncertainty as much as Rohmer’s characters, and as much as his camera. To say that Rohmer’s films are all about irony is like saying the same thing about Douglas Sirk or about Rainer Werner Fassbinder; it ignores the passion (and Rohmer’s are among the most passionate films there are), the unceasing search for truth – a search that, like Perceval’s search for the grail in Perceval le Gallois (Perceval, 1978), will never end in absolution or absoluteness, but is all the more important for that – which will not settle for an easy ironic detachment.

The challenge for us now, following Rohmer’s death, is to revitalise this project of a critical, philosophical, radically unfixed and living cinema for our own criticism and canonisation of his work; to treat Rohmer with the humility, curiosity and passionate self-questioning with which he treated the world and the people he filmed; to maintain his cinema as a living cinema.

Under the Sign of Leo

by John Conomos

John Conomos is currently at the Cite in Paris doing a Power Institute research residency. His most recent anthology is, Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, (co-edited with Brad Buckley), 2009.

The Parisian newspapers and posters carried their headline announcements of Eric Rohmer’s death as a rigorous geometrical declaration of fate: “Rohmer is Dead”. It is hard to imagine in a country like Australia encountering such headlines. Yet in Paris, a city that carries its cultural heritage as an integral cornerstone of its iconic everydayness, the legacy of the French New Wave is a cultural given.

Paris, city of light, city of cinema, whose ubiquitous presence indelibly informs so many of the seminal French New Wave films – her buildings, sidewalk cafes, pinball machines, boulevards, arcades, cinemas, railway bridges, locks, monuments, museums, and kiosks – defining the aesthetic, cultural and behavioural contours of their unique mise-en-scene, themes, styles and narratives.

I want to reflect on Rohmer’s first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), a film which I saw in the late 1960s – if my memory serves me correctly – and that has lingered in my mind’s eye ever since. (1) Quite untypical of Rohmer’s films in general, but paradoxically, it does contain certain identifiable key elements of Rohmer’s auteurist vision.

Rohmer, like his other Cahiers du cinema colleagues, had an inestimable impact on one’s generation in the sixties in terms of one’s understanding of cinema as an art form. We are all familiar with the customary (debatable) perceptions of Rohmer as the most conservative minded of the Cahiers group, whose low-budget films that were rigorously prepared and shot (often one take would suffice), notable for their lyrical sensuality but often accused of being banal, and for the director’s characteristic literary and philosophical classicism.

What needs to be remembered is that Rohmer’s unprecedented advocacy of a “talking cinema”, that shows people moving and talking through the everyday spaces of the quotidian, was formulated as earlier as 1948. In his ‘For a Talking Cinema’ article, which originally appeared in Les Temps modernes under the name Maurice Scherer (2), Rohmer adumbrates his auteur vision as someone who valued speech as a verbal and behavioural text equivalent in its importance to the visual element of a film. Underlining this distinctive contribution to modern cinema was Rohmer’s profound intellectual and stylistic awareness of seeing talk as an integral part of cinema’s and life’s fabric. Image and word combine to produce cinema. Yet it is not an ethnographic awareness per se that Rohmer specifically emphasised in his cinema but a multifaceted dialogic grasp of the artistic, cultural and phenomenological inflections of his characters encountering life through all their daily movements, gestures, contexts, and spaces. We also need to be clear that his approach to dialogue as existential psycho-geography was never overtly literary as such, but emphatically cinematic. Talk as cinematic language and as revelation of character and the world.

After all, Rohmer was already a teacher, critic and novelist before he became part of the Cahiers group and he was, unmistakably, a latecomer to feature film directing. He was 38 when he directed and co-wrote with Paul Gegauff (Rohmer provided the scenario and Gegauff the dialogue) The Sign of Leo. Ironically, this was the only time that Rohmer did not write the dialogue to one of his movies.

Rohmer saw life as a comedy disguised as tragedy and this is so vividly expressed in his directorial debut, produced by his colleague Claude Chabrol, whose collaborative book with Rohmer on Alfred Hitchcock had such an immense influence on our contemporary understanding of Hitchcock as a Catholic moralist. (3) Often critics have accused Rohmer of being non- judgmental concerning his characters’ actions, contradictions, obsessions and values and seeing the world as a constant state of ambiguity and non-commitment to political views. Over the years, many critics and scholars have weighed up the pros and cons of such a common perspective on Rohmer’s dialogic oeuvre.

Rohmer, like his self-absorbed characters, reflected how human behaviour is predicated on choices with people often unaware of their moral consequences. It would be profitable to see Rohmer as the shy, reclusive late-developer to filmmaking as someone whose work over the decades did document changing social and cultural values and awareness of new technologies in contemporary cinema. He was, in the wake of his legacy to Andre Bazin, classical French and German literature, philosophy and Alexandre Astruc’s key notion of ‘camera-stylo’ cinema, a late-developing arch-realist moralist who would not make grand ex-cathedra pronouncements on the shifting complexities of human motivation and society. Hence the commonplace accusation that his films are often too open-ended in their conclusions. Life, for him, does not end on neat closures for it is an infinite web of overlapping human ambiguities, possibilities and contexts.

Rohmer focuses on the words and actions of his characters driven by the essential belief that at the heart of the quotidian lies the profound. In this critical sense, Rohmer’s films represent moral tales as a kind of “Bressonian” geometry of speech, desire, gestures, faces, train rides, landscapes and hesitancies. To some, Rohmer’s films are tedious because they do focus on the banality of life. The director’s ordered moral universe therefore is recognisable for its rigorous, formal and spatial configurations that steadfastly acknowledge a certain “Bressonian” Catholicism which is encapsulated in delineating the complex nature of morality rather than demarcating clear distinctions between good and evil. Rohmer believed in the Bressonian perception that “it is the flattest and dullest parts that have in the end the most life.” (4)

Life as transition, as travelling through space, as inextricably interconnected and overlapping stories, all unmistakably represented by the director’s exquisitely structured seemingly artless talkative films with their un-showy ‘invisible’ mise-en-scene of ambiguity, irony and nonchalance. Yet nothing is arbitrary in Rohmer’s limpid cinema of, in Tom Milne’s words, “cerebral exploration, metaphysical conceit and moral nuance.” (5) A cinema whose visual shooting style is pared down to its essentials, predicated on elaborate preparation, scrupulous location hunting and long rehearsals demonstrating (as Tamara Tracz has persuasively argued) Rohmer’s compensatory directorial assurance for his late start as a filmmaker after many years as a film critic, novelist and cinephile. (6) Though he was an admirer of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler , Alfred Hitchcock and FW Murnau, the great visual poet of German expressionist cinema, it was to his classical French literary and philosophical traditions that he sought his inspiration as a filmmaker (Diderot, Pascal and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) .

The droll, aloof, aristocratic Rohmer, who avoided film festivals and the public gaze, was a subtle rhetorician of the cinema who had a profound grasp of the more classical features of French comedy, and who, as Gilbert Adair reminded us recently, was essentially an aphorist in the eighteenth century French tradition (La Bruyere, Marivaux, and La Rochefoucauld) who directed and wrote his films in the “nothing but ….essayistic formula of that particularly literary essay tradition.” (7)

Rohmer’s The Sign of Leo (completed in 1959, but not released till 1962) was a critical and commercial failure, but it aptly belongs to those early new wave films of Parisian life. Paradoxically, it is quite uncharacteristic of the director’s subsequent oeuvre, but it does contain certain definitive seeds of his cinematic vision. It was not critically speaking ‘new wave’ in its film techniques and narrative but in its specific audacious representation of its urban locales. It is a very poised, austere morality tale with its pronounced absurdist view of life and fate, and its aesthetic architecture is quite sobering as a cinematic experience. It tells of a wandering feckless student composer who believing he will receive a promised inheritance from his aunt slides helplessly into irretrievable debt and abject destitution. The inheritance, in accordance with the ironic tropes of eighteen French literature and theatre, turns out to be a hoax. Fate is utterly cruel and without mercy. The Sign of Leo is a black comedy of existential tragic consequences and arguably its overall atmosphere is one of an absurdist view of human conduct governed by chance and the random entropy of modern life. The film’s title specifically refers to the zodiac sign Leo under which the protagonist claims that he was born.

The protagonist, Pierre (beautifully performed by the American-born Jess Hahn who retired to become a farmer in Brittany in the seventies after a rather patchy existence as a film and television actor) who is living a bohemian existence as an aspiring composer receives a telegram informing him that his wealthy aunt has passed away. Assuming that he will inherit her factories in Germany, he throws an extravagant party with his journalist friend Jean-François (Van Doude). To do this he borrows a lot of money thinking that he can pay back everyone with his inheritance. Soon he finds out that his aunt has left her money to his cousin. Stranded by his friends and penniless he becomes homeless. In a word, a wandering Beckettian tramp. Such is fate to Rohmer the ironist of human foibles.

Plodding through the city of Paris – it is not the familiar playground city of fast cars, gunfights , women and the like as presented in other French New Wave films- but a nightmarish, cruel and indifferent city. A haunting violin score mostly accompanies the hapless protagonist as we see him not in cafes as such, but along the lower riverbanks of the Seine and the unforgiving cold cobbled stones of the city’s streets. Paris as an urban inferno, frustrating and utterly forbidding. W.H.Auden’s description of Los Angeles, as represented in American hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir, as “the great wrong place” comes to mind with Rohmer’s bleak Paris.

Typically, Rohmer’s debut film shows little interest in action or plot but emphasises how the city itself becomes an objective correlative to the doomed protagonist’s state of mind and feelings, gradually depicting a metamorphosing from the customary welcoming romantic city into a heartless dark city as he realises that the friends who might help him have deserted the city for vacation.

Therefore, the film is often observed for the differences in visual style and tone it possesses in comparison to the films that the director is famous for. The film was shot in a wider aspect ratio, 1.66, than most of Rohmer’s features (1.37 Academy aspect ratio). Also, it should be mentioned that The Sign of Leo features a musical score by Louis Saguer, which was rare for Rohmer. And it has a cameo appearance by fellow New Wave critic-turned director Jean-Luc Godard as one of the partygoers playing a portion of a record over again and again.

The film’s crisp black and white photography by Nicholas Hayer appropriately captures the forbidding cruel stimmung of Paris as our drifting protagonist deteriorates into unmitigated abjection. In accordance with Rohmer’s unique approach to location shooting as an expression of the character’s interior world, we encounter many outdoor scenes that graphically underscore the importance of location (both public and private spaces) being shot exactly in every film scene in order to highlight this critical behavioural-spatial nexus between his characters and place. Rohmer’s meticulous preparations for non-arbitary location shooting included even careful ecological and meteorological considerations.

Rohmer’s preference for small budgets and resources became the modus operandi for his intelligent, subtle literary evocations of the ‘human comedy’. The Sign of Leo, like all of his following films is preoccupied with the intimate moral problems of living indicating the wisdom of being sceptical, self-questioning and open to change because things are not what they seem to be.

Rohmer, above all, illustrated the intimate adventure that talk can be in regards to it as an expression of life’s fluid states of transitions, uncertainties and ironies. The small personal things that we reveal about ourselves when we talk. The Sign of Leo, although not fully expressive of Rohmer’s characteristic concerns with first love, dialogue and chance encounters, does clearly foreshadow his constant project to make cinema as if he was writing a novel and significantly underlines the importance of location shooting as a vital part of his auteurism. Further, it shows the dire consequences of foolishly naïve, self-deceiving and not cautiously cognizant of how the universe has its own logic of cruel determinism. It is a black comedy that clearly anticipates the director’s concern with the exquisite unravelling of his character’s emotional complexities and moral deceptions – incarnated in all of his films – especially his influential ‘Six Moral Tales’ (1966- 1972) and his two subsequent film cycles, ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ (1980 – 1987) and ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’ (1989-1998).

The Sign of Leo, recalling the naturalist novels of Emile Zola and the realist novels of Theodore Dreiser, is an extraordinarily engaging black comedy that speaks of the director’s intimate knowledge of the eighteenth century novels, essays and plays and their classical playful tropes of comedic irony, morality and psychological realism. It is a film that over the years keeps coming back to me like one of my childhood homing pigeons. A dark morality tale for all the seasons of our lives. Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage to it in his first short film, Der Stadstreicher (The City Tramp, 1966), it is that kind of film. Unforgettable.

Endnotes

  1. In the Anglo-American world, it is one of Rohmer’s least seen films. Ironically, given Rohmer’s past policy of only seeing films once before he would pen his critical pieces, I have only seen it once.
  2. Reprinted in Eric Rohmer, The Taste For Beauty, (ed.) Jean Narboni, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 29-33.
  3. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.
  4. For Robert Bresson’s statement see Philip Lopate, Portrait of My Body, New York: Anchor Books, 1996, p. 74.
  5. See Tom Milne, “Eric Rohmer obituary”, The Guardian, London, 2010. This obituary was amended on 13 January 2010. Tom Milne passed away in 2005. Milne was one of the most influential critics/cinephiles of his time. His articles, books and film programming helped shaped my generation’s views on the cinema.
  6. Tamara Tracz, “Eric Rohmer”, Great Director Series, Senses of Cinema, December 2002. See especially footnote 8. I am indebted to Tracz’s insightful overview of Rohmer’s cinema.
  7. Gilbert Adair, “ Eric Rohmer: Let’s talk about ……everything “, The Guardian, 12 January 2010,

Eric Rohmer

by David F. Coursen

David F. Coursen resides in Washington, DC and has written about film for Sight and Sound, Movietone News, Film Quarterly, Take One and Parallax View.

Watching an Eric Rohmer film was famously described by Harry Moseby, the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), (in a line quoted in both Rohmer’s Wikipedia entry and his New York Times obituary), as “like watching paint dry.” It’s my favorite movie line about a filmmaker. Part of the fun is that it’s so incongruous to have Rohmer’s name come out of the mouth of an American movie tough guy, played by an actor whose roots in the action cinema include parts in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and became a star portraying iconic cop and francophobe extraordinaire Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971). Crime fiction and its creatures were virtual touchstones for Rohmer’s fellow New Wavers: Jean-Luc Godard (A bout de soufflé/Breathless, 1959), François Truffaut (Tirez sur le Pianiste/Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), and Claude Chabrol (from long before he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl (Le cheval d’Orgeuil, 1979); heck, even Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974) has a murder mystery. But Rohmer, after a debut feature set on the down-and-out (if not quite mean) streets of Paris in Le signe du lion (The Sign of the Leo, 1959), mostly placed his characters in a resolutely unthreatening world, for the most part in settings that are sunny, cheery, and comfortably bourgeois.

Making Rohmer’s world even less congenial to the laconic Hackman character is its pervasive logorrhea: Rohmer’s characters talk, and they talk, and they talk, long enough for several coats of paint to dry in all the rooms of all of their homes and vacation houses. It can be quite exasperating, particularly when the characters wallow in apparent self-absorption (not much leavened by self-awareness, something present in inverse proportion to verbosity). So it’s easy to sympathise with Harry (even before we learn his wife is doing some après-Rohmer extra-marital trysting). Even for the non-Harrys among us, Rohmer requires patience and a tolerance for slow spots if not quite a fondness for stasis. But when the best of his films reach their end, (that is, when the characters finish talking), the denouements often put things into new and surprising, sometimes exhilarating, perspectives amply rewarding the audience’s patience.

Rohmer worked continuously, albeit in fits and starts, after The Sign of Leo in 1959, when the New Wave was just getting started. Leo was not a commercial success, (it’s tempting to think of his later works as inverting the first film’s formula), and his next feature wasn’t until 1967. In the early sixties, he made two shorts as the first two installments of his first film cycle:’Six Moral Tales’. The remaining Moral Tales were released between 1967 and 1972; he made period pieces (never described as linked) to finish the 1970s. He completed a second cycle of related films, ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ during the 1980s, and his third cycle, ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’ in the 90s. Each cycle produced a masterpiece: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) from the Moral Tales, Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK; Summer, US, 1986)from Comedies and Proverbs, and, the Seasons cycle’s Conte d’automne (A Tale of Autumn, 1998), when he was nearly 80.

My favorite moment in Rohmer comes at the end of Le rayon vert, the title referring to a phenomenon that sometimes appears at the very end of summer sunsets and supposedly brings good luck. This one appears to the film’s frazzled central character, who has been earnestly struggling through the film to get comfortable in her physical and social setting, and in her own identity; most painfully, for a Rohmer character, she has also been struggling to make herself understood, to find words to explain herself satisfactorily during the film’s myriad conversations. It has been getting harder to avoid viewing her as a self-absorbed ninny, so obsessive, perfectionist, judgmental, and—insofar as Rohmer allows for such things—abrasive that she brings on her social unease. But then, when her earnest hope to see the green ray is finally realised, the effect is almost magical, and she inexplicably achieves what Catholics might call a state of grace; the ray’s appearance provides a tangible, objective reflection and validation of the strength and sincerity of her desire to see it. It doesn’t do much for her self-awareness, bringing nothing like the kind of epiphany that we typically expect to accompany transcendent moments. But in Rohmer, a moment of enchantment and vindication will suffice.

The moment is only slightly less cathartic for the audience, leading us to take another look and give another thought, to what we have been seeing and how we have been responding to it. And we finally, inexplicably, succumb, warming to a character we have all along been wanting to like.

La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1980) works a variation that is less transcendent, but easier to explain. Two characters have been following another, and—as naturally—they talk, have been building a charming and not implausible narrative to explain what they are seeing. But a series of mistaken assumptions make nearly every part of their narrative wrong, and when this becomes clear, it forces us to go back, and reframe what we have been seeing, in an object lesson both in how to watch a movie and on the pitfalls of mistaken assumptions and unreliable narrators. Rohmer’s characters are so attractive and personable, such good talkers, widely-read, glib, engaged, often articulate, that it can take a while to recognise them as self-deceiving and unreliable, even, in some cases, full of shit. And Rohmer abets the process by largely letting them speak for themselves, with little by way of directorial editorialising, letting his endings bring things into focus.

I rather dimly recall Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) as an illustration: a young adult male, supposedly in a committed relationship, gets the silly notion that if he touches a winsomely charming young girl’s knee, magically romantic things will happen. After much postulating and posturing, wondering whether he dares to touch a knee (to eat a peach?) and ponders what will happen if he does, the conceit inflates into something like an obsession. Then when he does manage to touch the magic knee … nothing much happens. This is not a bad thing: he is an adult, at least chronologically, and she is not. Given the daffiness of the knee obsession, the anti-climax serves to illustrate how much self-dramatising has been going on and how little, after all, has been at stake. And that seems to be the rather placid and vaguely reassuring point. For Rohmer’s characters, self-acceptance obviates a need for self-awareness.

A more compelling variation occurs in an earlier Moral Tale: My Night at Maud’s. The central character, an earnest and erstwhile man of “faith”—a term doing multiple duty here: he is a practicing Catholic, views himself as being in a committed relationship (with a “dream woman” he has seen once on the street but, as of the night in question, never met), and sees his fidelity to the “relationship” being tested during his night with Maud. Maud is one of Rohmer’s most attractive characters, truly a dream of a woman: vibrant and intelligent, engaged and engaging, attractive and sexy. She can challenge and stimulate him intellectually and morally. They pass a night together in her apartment, sharing lively and intimate conversation and jockeying around her bed. He stays out, convincing himself that this shows his commitment to something “deeper” –more abstract and idealised, certainly, and undoubtedly safer, and more staid–than a one-night stand, or a relationship, with Maud. He never needs to acknowledge that he is too repressed–the film flinches from suggesting he is actually frightened–to respond to her sexually, and too stodgy, complacent and–despite his ability to engage in repartee with Maud for an evening–too dull to have any genuine appreciation for, or interest in, the riches she offers.

As this finally comes into focus, the slow pace and lack of action that so exasperated Harry Moseby turn out to be critical. What is remarkable is how little has actually happened, and how much time and how many words the characters have expended in achieving that result.

This makes Rohmer something of a miniaturist, patiently observing how things unfold so that minor shifts in focus, tone, and emphasis shed new light on what we see and how we understand it. His respect for, or empathy with, the characters almost makes him complicit in their self-involvement. The audience has to do some of the heavy lifting, through close observation, patience, and a willingness to draw inferences that Rohmer declines to make explicit. And maybe that explains why the “paint dry” line has endured and resonated. As paint dries, there are subtle shifts of texture and brightness and tone that culminate in something recognisably similar to what was applied, but often decisively different, richer and deeper and more satisfying. In any case, Rohmer would appreciate the paradox: the most famous and enduring line about a filmmaker defined by his characters’ endless conversations comes not out of the mouth of one of his characters’ but from another movie, where an American film detective is telling his wife why he won’t join her at a Rohmer movie.

A Gesture

by Adrian Danks

Senior Lecturer and Head of Cinema Studies in the School of Applied Communication, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (University). He is co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, and editor of Cteq: Annotations on Film, published in Senses of Cinema.

Eric Rohmer’s films are often – and rightly – lauded for their sense of naturalism, their respect for the order (or disorder) and rhythm of the everyday world. His films also often turn on a gesture, the moment when a character must choose – or chooses to choose – a particular line of thought or action. The group of films commonly called the ‘Six contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’) are particularly marked by such moments: the various pregnant pauses in the almost night-long conversation between Maud (Françoise Fabian) and Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969); the tension and sensual longing that precedes the ultimate, almost comic touching of a knee in Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970); the various temptations and possibilities that lead up to the “almost-consummation” of the relationship between Frédèric (Bernard Verley) and Chloé (Zouzou) in L’amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972). These films are also marked by a complex sense of morality, an order or system uneasily reduced to a simply stated set of values and judgements.

Rohmer’s final film in this series, Love in the Afternoon, is one of the densest and most carefully arranged of the director’s works – qualities often disregarded in many critical discussions that highlight the lightness or less-than-truly-substantive aspects of Rohmer’s cinema. Almost every moment in the film speaks to another; motifs, gestures and elements of décor and a broader mise en scène (costume, in particular) build an elaborate and devastating pattern or net within what might seem, at first, a rather casual and even frivolous narrative structure. The particular gesture I wish to discuss appears towards the end of the film, and is one of the most talked about moments in Rohmer’s cinema. The protagonist, Frédèric, has spent most of the film trying to convince himself – and I guess us – of his extraordinary qualities, those parts and details of his daily life that mark him as exceptional, an individual outside of the routines and commonalities of bourgeois existence (for example, he reads several books at once depending on the particular or perceived needs of a specific time and place). Like many of Rohmer’s characters, he is defined by a somewhat solipsistic and maddeningly indecisive relationship to the world and how he “acts” within it. But also like many of Rohmer’s characters, this is what draws his experience closest to ours. We recognise ourselves in these characters’ limitations and often shallow perspective on the world.

In the scene in question – and you can sense I’m practicising my own kind of Rohmer-like deferral here – it appears that Frédèric is about to finally consummate his “relationship” with Chloé. They have arranged to meet at her apartment, and everything she does – including embracing him wrapped in a towel, and then asking him to dry her – suggests and “confirms” this inevitable and much-anticipated consummation. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter seems almost stage-managed, Frédèric’s “automatic”, even disinterested movements suggesting that it is the possibility or potential of a relationship with Chloé rather than its actuality that keeps him interested, pensive (and the great questions raised by Rohmer’s cinema relate to what happens after such moments or decisions). But as he is about to remove his clothes and join her on the bed, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The pose or gesture he sees reminds us of the game he played with his child, pretending to be a monster by pulling his jumper partly over his head. In viewing this image Frédèric becomes – perhaps – aware of this connection and the moral weight of the action he is about to take – to cheat on his wife and act “against” the family. But I don’t think that Frédèric ’s choice – he pauses, rearranges himself, and then quickly leaves the apartment – is predominantly a moral or even existential one – it is overwhelmingly situational. At this moment, Frédèric becomes aware of his own surroundings and physicality, the fantasy, possibility and mental justifications of his relationship with Chloé broken by the “discontinuity” of what for him is an inappropriate and out-of-place image. Like many of Rohmer’s characters he needs to be totally in the moment, subsumed by his own subjective relation to a particular time and place in order for the fantasy, and his peculiar view of reality, to hold.

In many ways, what follows this simple but plaintively haunting scene is even more remarkable. After brief scenes showing Frédèric escaping down the stairwell and bidding farewell to his office secretaries for the day, we see him and his wife finally “reconcile” and provide a kind of consummation of the film’s title (the camera pans to a neat but appropriately banal side-table, lamp and window as the couple leave the frame and enter the bedroom). This scene is remarkable for the level and extent of emotion expressed by Hélène, who seems almost hysterical as Frédèric explains the reasons for his appearance at home that afternoon. We become aware that the world has gone on outside of and beyond Frédèric’s experience – and, by implication, ours – his wife’s reactions suggesting a whole range of activities, suspicions and even infidelities that we have been shielded from. For me, this knowledge and recognition of both the world of the characters and that beyond is the definition of Rohmer’s supremely moral and humanistic cinema. Roberto Rossellini once stated that he could justify a whole movie on the basis of a gesture, but for Rohmer it is the movie that justifies the gesture, makes it complete, even mysterious.

A Tribute to Le rayon vert

by Linda C. Ehrlich

Linda C. Ehrlich, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, has published articles in Film Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, and Film Criticism. Among others book, An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice, appeared in the Scarecrow Press Filmmakers’ Series (with an expanded paperback edition in 2007).

“The sun was just halfway below the horizon, and its powerful rays were shot across the sky like golden arrows…At last only a faint rim of gold skimmed the surface of the sea. `The Green Ray! The Green Ray!’ came one shout.”

Jules Verne, The Green Ray (1)

Le rayon vert. Small heroics of a young woman who wills herself to see. No longer just looking on, no longer just overhearing others. For her, this is a revolutionary act.

Delphine (Marie Rivière) is a secretary in Paris–a job of little importance to her or to anyone else. Abandoned by her friend Caroline who was supposed to take the official two-week vacation in July with her, Delphine agonizes over how she can take a vacation alone. Where should she go? What if she meets someone she used to know? What if she doesn’t?

Everyone offers Delphine advice, all of it wrong. One family suggests camping in Ireland; Delphine wants the heat. A friend suggests visiting Spain. “I’m not the adverturesome type.” Picking up a playing card caught in a crack in the pavement, she turns it over to see a Tarot card of the Queen of Spades, a bad omen.

As in all of his ‘Comédies et proverbes’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs”, 1980-87), Eric Rohmer takes his time to let his characters tell their own story. ‘What I say, I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either…I show. I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do, but that is my true subject.’ (2)

Finally Delphine accepts the invitation of her friend Francoise to go to Cherbourg together. The camera pans gently around the charming outdoor table as Delphine takes a leisurely noontime meal with Francoise and her friends. One by one, they take note of Delphine’s diet. A vegetarian by choice, she lectures them as they eat their greasy pork chops. A heavy pallor settles over the gathering. “Vegetables are airier, lighter”, Delphine affirms. One of the men at the table offers her flowers to eat.

Back in Paris yet again, Delphine looks wistfully at the people sunbathing along the Seine. Spotting an old friend Irene in a café, she discusses her vacation dilemma. The sympathetic older woman offers Delphine her brother’s empty place in Biarritz. At least this would be a place without memories. We see Delphine among crowds of people on the beach, bouncing up and down in the gentle surf.

Perhaps her luck has changed? Ever on the sidelines, Delphine sits listening to a group of middle-aged women travelers in a public garden, discussing a book they have just read: Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, set in Scotland. “When the sun sets on the horizon,” one woman instructs, “the green flash is like a sword blade—very pretty, but very brief.” An elderly man with a bushy beard joins in the discussion, adding his scientific expertise (invited or not): “You can never see it in the summer; it’s too hazy,” he instructs. And, sure enough, as they speak we see the sun setting over the turquoise water. No green flash.

Up to this point, Delphine has been comparing herself (and we compare her) to other women who are more aggressive or more self-assured. Now in Biarritz, the brunette and slender Delphine is befriended by a flamboyant Swedish woman—blond and voluptuous—who adores traveling alone. The Swedish woman, Lena, compares relationships with men to a card game. Following Lena’s lead, they easily entice two men to join them for an aperitif and some flirtation. And it is here that our sympathies for Delphine begin to turn. There is something more refined in her, something far from that meaningless banter. Delphine flees and we cannot help but applaud her stubborn fortitude.

And so we find her in the train station, returning home yet again, all attempts at taking her only vacation of the year a disaster. Alone on a bench, waiting for the train. What else could she be reading but Dostoevsky’s The Idiot? “I’m a fool,” she says to herself. “I talk a lot, but I don’t expect anything.”

A young man enters the station. In any other film, this would be a cliché; in this case, it is a miracle. He sits across from Delphine on the bench. They glance at each other. Probably nothing will happen. There is a quiet air about him. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would sardonically offer someone a flower to eat.

They glance at each other. Probably nothing will happen. She speaks. Miraculously, she sends a few words across the space between the two benches. He joins her at her side. A quiet-mannered, handsome young man, a carpenter by trade. A carpenter who has read The Idiot, and who is en route to a small resort town, St. Jean de la Luz, close to the Spanish border. “May I go with you?” Delphine finds the courage to ask. Another miracle.

And there in St. Jean de la Luz, all the worrying, all the preparation, gathers together into a grand crescendo, into ‘the luminous ending…where Marie Rivière’s ridiculous stubbornness eventually pays off.’ (3) Seated together with Jacques by the side of the sea, filled with her habitual self-doubt, she chatters on as if afraid of the silence.

Seated comfortably together at the edge of the sea, Delphine repeats what she had overheard about le rayon vert—its rarity and its splendor. Suddenly she starts to cry, yet again. Somewhat charmed, somewhat dismayed at this unpredictable stranger, Jacques puts his arm around her. It is early August, still the hazy months of summer.

As she sits there, facing possibility, the woman and the rock and the sunset flash as one. Encircled, this woman–ready to collapse into fragments at any moment–becomes a weighted mass, rooted to the present.

Looking out to the horizon, she cries out, almost despite herself, an epiphany, a triumphant “Oui!” And just as suddenly, the film ends.

Flash of green, the last colour of the setting sun.

Endnotes

  1. Jules Verne, The Green Ray, I.O.Evans (ed), Westport, Conn: Associated Booksellers, 1965, p. 137.
  2. Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, (trans. Carol Volk), New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 80
  3. A description by film historian Bérénice Reynaud.

Eric Rohmer – A Man Apart

by Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009), and A Short History of Film (2008; co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster).

Eric Rohmer was a late bloomer. Although he was devoted to the cinema from his early thirties on, up until his association such well-known New Wave luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette starting in the early 1950s, Rohmer was more interested in literature than film. He was also a man of mystery; as Dave Kehr noted in Rohmer’s obituary in the New York Times, Rohmer “born Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer in Tulle, a city in southwestern France, on March 21, 1920” or, perhaps not; other sources claim that “his birth name as Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer and place his origins in the northeastern city of Nancy”. (1)

His first novel, Elisabeth, was published under another pseudonym, Gilbert Cordier, but after a move to Paris, he started the short-lived La Revue du Cinéma, which collapsed after five issues, and then moved with his compatriots to Cahiers du Cinéma, where he began his critical career in earnest. (2) He also directed during this period a short film, Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak (Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, shot in 1950/1951), featuring a young Jean-Luc Godard in the leading role, the two would later work together on other projects, such as Godard’s Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (Charlotte and Veronique, or All the Boys Are Called Patrick, 1959), for which Rohmer wrote the screenplay.

Rohmer mounted his first attempt at a feature film, the abortive Les Petites Filles Modèles, in 1952, but when the film’s producer went bankrupt, the entire project collapsed (3), and Rohmer went back to critical writing. However, to keep his hand in,during this period he directed and/or scripted a number of short films, including Journal d’un scélérat (1950, literally ‘Diary of a Villain’), Bérénice (1954, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe), and Véronique et son cancre (Véronique and Her Dunce, 1958). But he was biding his time all the while, waiting for a chance to direct a full-length film.

Rohmer’s first completed 35mm feature, Le Signe du Lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959, released in 1962), emerged as a sort of Beat Agonistes, dealing with the precipitous fall from grace of a disillusioned young American in Paris. Roughly constructed film in many ways, The Sign of Leo still shares many concerns with Rohmer’s later films; the protagonist, Pierre Wesselrin (Jess Hahn), receives a telegram telling him that his wealthy aunt is dead. Pierre mistakenly assumes that he will inherit her fortune, and throws a party to celebrate his good fortune, running up huge debts, and borrowing money into the bargain.

The next day, however, Pierre discovers that his cousin has inherited all the money, and that he is penniless. Drifting down and downer through Bohemian society, Pierre finds his former friends, to say nothing Paris itself, cold, cruel, and brutal, until, in the film’s final scenes, the cousin is killed in a car accident, and it seems that Pierre’s fortune will be restored to him. Even though the film’s plot is a forced, at times conventional narrative, The Sign of Leo demonstrated that Rohmer had found a new way to tell the stories that mattered to him, stories with a strong element of fate and chance, in which plot, dialogue, action and character motivation are almost opaque, and the true nature of things is often discovered only in the last minutes of the film.

It’s also more than a little ironic that one of partygoers in the opening party scene in The Sign of Leo is Jean-Luc Godard, as “young man in dark glasses sitting at a table, endlessly lifting the needle off a record to play and replay his favorite piece of music.” (4) Godard would soon after break through to international acclaim with his debut “girl and a gun” feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959), while Rohmer would be forced to continue his career, for the moment, solely as a critic. Godard became the foremost polemicist of the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut the supreme romanticist, with Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), while Chabrol was soon typecast as the New Wave’s Hitchcock.

Indeed, while Rohmer wrote the screenplay for The Sign of Leo, Paul Gégauff, Chabrol’s key scenarist, provided the dialogue for the film, which was rigorously scripted; in addition, Chabrol himself produced the film. Certainly Chabrol seemed attracted to the film’s dark, unrelentingly pessimistic trajectory. But the film failed both commercially and critically, and Rohmer was not catapulted to fame in the first years of the Nouvelle Vague. The schematic nature of The Sign of Leo makes it a “one off” experiment for the director, although it has its adherents, among them Rainer Werner Fassbinder, perhaps not surprisingly given his own bleak view of humanity.

But all this was about to change, and Rohmer was about to find his authentic voice as a filmmaker. It was with his small, micro-budgeted 16mm short, La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1962), which Bruno Barbey and Jean-Michel Meurice shot in 16mm black and white from Rohmer’s script, using the director’s friends as actors, and actual locations as sets, that Rohmer began to find his true méier as a director. Running just 23 minutes, this simple film launched Rohmer’s series of ‘Six contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’), and was based on short fiction pieces he’d written years before, long before the thought of becoming a director ever crossed his mind. (5) As with his later films, camera movement was kept to a minimum, as if documenting the actuality, rather than staged events.

At the same time, a strong element of theatricality pervaded this first film in the true Rohmer style, in which “a law student [future director/producer Barbet Schroeder . . .] stuffs himself full of sugar cookies and pastries [ . . . ] in order to garner the attentions of the pretty brunette Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) who works in a [ . . .] Paris bakery.” (6) Indeed, Barbet Schroeder functioned not only as the lead actor in the film, but also as the project’s producer. Everything about the film aims for simplicity of motivation, design, and intent. Rohmer had found his definitive style; observant but detached, sympathetic yet clinical.

This project was followed by the second conte moraux, La carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963), a more ambitious project at 54 minutes in length, in which the director’s interests in relationships between men and women began to most fully manifest itself, as it would in the remaining films in the series, particularly the ways in which attractions shift and change with waxing and waning passion. Here, as in nearly all Rohmer’s films, people think they know what they want in life, and in relationships, but they are almost always mistaken.

The audience, too, is led to believe that one set of circumstances are true, only to discover by the end of the film that they, too, have been deceived by appearances. This is more or less the framework in which Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’ operates; they are moral in the sense that they point up the folly of human emotion, the fallibility of our mortal selves, the mutability of passion. We think we know ourselves, but we are often mistaken; perhaps the only comfort is that others are equally in the dark themselves.

In La collectionneuse (The Collector, 1967), the first film Rohmer made in colour, Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) and Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) are smitten by the elusive charms of the young, capricious Haydee (Haydée Politoff), who seems to “collect” lovers as a sort of hedonistic hobby; at first, the two men look down on her, but then Adrien finds himself increasingly drawn towards Haydee. . In the film, Rohmer used colour to seduce the viewer much as Haydee’s eroticism suffuses the film as a whole; what was once a world of sculptural black and white has given way to a world of greens, golds and blues, in which nature becomes a part of the film, bringing to life the romantic, indolent world of the protagonists.

Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night At Maud’s, 1969) takes this theme of temptation even further, as it chronicles one night in the life of the devotedly Catholic Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is determined to marry the beautiful young Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), but who is forced through circumstance to spend a night in conversation with the boldly independent divorcée Maud (Françoise Fabian), who calls his entire value system into question. Nothing much happens in terms of action, but that’s the point; Rohmer’s interest lies in the temptation of the flesh represented by Maud’s free spirit, as opposed to Jean-Louis doctrinaire stolidity, and the dialogue that is exchanged between them.

Ma nuit chez Maud was Rohmer’s breakthrough into the “art house” circuit in the United States, and an unexpected hit for the director. Shot in austere black and white by the gifted Néstor Almendros, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards, and considerably lifted Rohmer’s profile within the mainstream media. Other films in the series now quickly followed, including Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and L’amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972), further consolidating Rohmer’s reputation. And, for many, this period represents the apotheosis of Rohmer’s career.

But in his later cycle of works, especially the ‘Comédies et proverbes’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs’) series, we can see that Rohmer is really hitting his peak, making films in rapid succession that succinctly explore the same themes again and again, with a bewildering multiplicity of variations; how little we know about ourselves, how easily we are misled, and how often we are mistaken in the objects of affections or obsessions. These films are also very simply made, and some are even shot in 16mm as opposed to 35mm, to keep costs down, and make it easier for the crew to move from one setup to the next. In time, Rohmer would also embrace digital cinema, as we’ll see below.

Of these later films, one of my favorites is the evanescent Le rayon vert (The Green Ray, UK; Summer, USA, 1986), in which the seemingly inconsolable Delphine (Marie Rivière) doesn’t know what to do with herself during summer vacation, and spends a few miserable days in the country with friends, and then tries the beach, where other vacationers tell her that just at sunset, a mysterious green ray can be seen on the horizon of the sea.

Rohmer builds up to this moment for the second half of the film, and then shows us the appearance of the “ray” for the space of an instant; but have we really seen it? Just as Delphine’s heart is an unknowable mystery, the green ray itself is a phenomenon we can never really understand. As a heroine, Delphine is rather unsympathetic; self-pitying and endlessly complaining, she’s hardly the ideal storybook heroine. But this is precisely what Rohmer is after; a delineation of human relationships with all their infelicities, devoid of the conventions of storybook romance.

In his final years, Rohmer was as busy as ever, even venturing into the realm of digital imaging with his period drama L’anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2001) 
effectively blending naturalistic interior decors with exteriors that are obviously computer generated, to create a slightly surrealistic effect, something like Roberto Rossellini’s late historical dramas for Italian television. As ever, however, it is the relationship between the title characters that is at the core of the drama, and Rohmer’s camerawork is calm, disciplined, and judiciously distanced.

In 2004, Rohmer’s period piece Triple agent (2004) was an unlikely addition to his personal canon, superficially a spy drama that again centered more on the characters in the film, and their myriad flaws, than on any sort of international espionage. Set in France in 1936, the film explores the troubled, shifting relationship between the spy Fiodor Voronin (Serge Renko) and his ailing wife Arsinoé (Katerina Didaskalou), as the political world collapses around them, and they struggle to maintain their personal lives in an increasingly hostile landscape.

As I’m sure many others in this special section of Senses of Cinema will note, for many people, Rohmer’s films are a distinctly acquired taste. If one expects spectacle, even in The Lady and the Duke, one will be disappointed, for Rohmer is always more interested in the relationship between his protagonists, whether young or old, than in any superficial drama. This requires for some a great deal of patience in the viewing process, something that I myself have never found difficult in the least.

Rather than watching a genre film with a conventional story arc, with a Rohmer film, one knows that any of his films will be an intensely personal viewing experience, with a great deal of conversation and contemplation as the centerpieces of the production. They also retain an air of mystery; by the end of each of his works, we feel that we know more, and yet paradoxically less, about both the main characters and their feelings for each other, as well as the mysteries of the human heart.

Rohmer’s death at age 89 has robbed us of one of the cinema’s most gifted and idiosyncratic talents, and of one of the last surviving members of the New Wave (Agnès Varda keeps cranking along, thankfully, but she, too, is clearly in her valedictory days; Claude Chabrol seems similarly unstoppable, making films in a much darker hue, yet is also at the end of his career). Godard is all but retired, Truffaut died long ago, and the precepts that guided the birth of the movement have long since been relegated to cinema history.

But of all of the members of this disparate band, Rohmer is at once the most cerebral, the most humanistic, and the most compassionate of the entire group, even if he views the human condition from a calculated distance. He never deals in stereotypical characterisations, and often makes his protagonists deliberately off-putting. His work is intensely personal, both for himself, and for his actors. He demands from his audience devotion and patience, and for those willing to make the effort, the rewards are considerable. Rohmer’s cinema is at length one of humanity in conflict with itself, delving into its most interior and unknowable regions. In life, and in death, his films, and the maker himself, remain glorious mysteries.

Endnotes

  1. David Kehr. “Eric Rohmer, a Leading Filmmaker of the French New Wave, Dies at 89,” The New York Times January 11, 2009, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/12/movies/12rohmer.html>. Accessed January 20, 2010.
  2. Kehr, ibid.
  3. Kehr, ibid.
  4. Kent Jones. “Eric Rohmer’s Talking Cures,”, The Village Voice, February 6, 2001. Accessed January 21, 2010.
  5. Kehr, op cit.
  6. The Criterion Collection. Accessed January 20, 2010.