PRINT March 2010


Eric Rohmer

Love desires nothing but itself.
—Lycidas, in Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon
(The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007)

IN HIS LATTER YEARS, the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer—who died on January 11, at the age of eighty-nine—took on the terse, attenuated air of a Jansenist abbot. Lean, austere, his eyes a cool, penetrating blue, Rohmer embodied the rationalism and restraint for which his cinematic style had become famous. The elder statesman of the Nouvelle Vague, born a decade before Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer also served as the New Wave’s sage, resisting aesthetic and political fashion to maintain his chastely ironic vision of amorous folly. Whether Rohmer’s fidelité to a modest theme and manner, stated early and slightly refined throughout a half-century-long career that seemed oblivious to worldly tumult, was resolute or reactionary, the art of a miniaturist master or of a trivial philosophe cautiously tending his square centimeter of bourgeois insight, depended on whether one felt, as Rohmer once claimed, that the artist’s role was to organize pleasure. From the hot August streets of his first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), to the radiant arcadia of fifth-century Gaul in his last, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s sun-flooded settings signaled his congenial approach, which was often mistaken for inconsequence. Paradoxically, the very constriction of the director’s regard, the intent limitation of his style and purview, resulted in plenitude, a gracious bounty of social perception and, indeed, of highly organized pleasure.

Less aggressive, confessional, and iconoclastic than his New Wave confreres, Rohmer did, however, share their voracious cinephilia. He made his mark first as a superb critic and later (from 1957 to 1963) as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, championing such directors as Murnau, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Preminger. (One wonders whether the bare-breasted, swinging Swede in Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert [Summer, 1986] is an homage to her amoral, sunburned antecedent in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse [1958].) Having come late to films—“Until I was sixteen I hadn’t seen a thing,” he confessed—Rohmer absorbed and exhibited influences in a manner subtler than did Godard, Truffaut, or Rivette. Rohmer’s Sign of Leo and Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), both first features and both tales of accelerating misfortune centered on an American exile in Paris and set in a series of bohemian garrets, differ greatly in tone. Rohmer and Rivette were each influenced by Fritz Lang, but Rohmer’s Seine-side comedy of unexpected inheritance owes far more to Renoir, especially Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), while Rivette’s self-regarding yarn of intensifying paranoia showboats its determinants in Langian compositions of stairwells and rooftops and in a clip of the Tower of Babel sequence from Metropolis (1927).

Like lovesick Puritans, the Nouvelle Vague directors praised their Hollywood gods in Cahiers but maintained an antagonistic, admonitory relationship with American cinema, hewing more to the ascetic lessons of Cahiers founder André Bazin and of Roberto Rossellini, to the “moral attitude,” as the latter called it, of Neorealism. Rohmer imbibed those lessons both as a spiritual guide—he shared his teachers’ Catholic beliefs—and as aesthetic instruction. However stylized or artificial his cinema would occasionally become, particularly in his historical films and literary adaptations (e.g., Die Marquise von O . . . [1976], Perceval le Gallois [1978], L’Anglaise et le duc [The Lady and the Duke, 2001], and Astrea and Celadon), Rohmer maintained an almost religious adherence to realism, to a simple, unmannered rendering of the world whose clarity, plain arrangement, and quiet precision bespoke the rationality of his thought. (He shared with Robert Bresson not only an intense privateness and Catholic, conservative bent but also a formal propensity for the 50-mm focal length, “which [most] closely resembles human vision,” according to Rohmer’s longtime cinematographer, Néstor Almendros.) This lucid and unobtrusive realism employed natural light and the long takes idealized by Bazin, rarely ruptured by shot-countershot or analytic cutting, depending instead on slow, discreet zooms that pinion Rohmer’s characters within the frame, where they are prodded to disclose their inner beings, which they falteringly, sometimes fatuously do, often unable to discern their true selves in the verbiage they expend on the task.

The charm and horror of Rohmer’s films derive from closely observing that “task,” akin to Jesuitical self-scrutiny but given a solipsistic gloss. Transforming erotic possibility into moral quandary, Rohmer set out, in a semisystematic series of thematic cycles, including “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Four Seasons,” a modern version of the quest narrative. (Despite his frequent reliance on antique or archaic forms—Marivauxian badinage, the Neoclassicism of Poussin, fêtes champêtres and French farce, Racinian drama and German Romanticism, eighteenth-century engravings—Rohmer’s films feel miraculously fresh, contemporary, lightly sprung.) His characters search for happiness, truth, self-knowledge, but mostly they seek love, and for all the cool classicism of Rohmer’s mise-en-scène, they frequently desire an all-consuming, engulfing love, or one that “burns,” as Marion muses in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983). In the process, they fall prey to self-deception and disappointment. Unlike Jacques Demy’s ill-fated lovers, who smilingly settle for second best, Rohmer’s create their own unhappiness, following infatuations into folly until the surety of their world seems threatened, at which point they take refuge in what appears to be rectitude but is really self-preservation. Rohmer’s first and most famous cycle, the “Six Moral Tales,” established a narrative template—a formal manifestation of Jansenist predetermination?—in which a man who is betrothed, married, or otherwise committed finds himself tempted by another woman, usually more alluring or dangerous (and darker) than the first. After arduous equivocation, at the brink of misdemeanor, he scurries for safety to the stability of his first relationship. In the inaugural work of the series, La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963), a twenty-three-minute film shot in 16 mm in the streets of Paris—that is, pure Nouvelle Vague—a young law student has mentally devoted himself to the blond and artistic Sylvie but falls for Jacqueline, the shopgirl of the title, who is dark, fleshy, and sensual in contrast to the fair one’s ethereal delicacy. The cruelty with which he courts then unceremoniously dumps Jacqueline would become ritualized in later Rohmer, all the more vicious in its rigorous application.

Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) feels in its grace and maturity worlds away from Boulangère, much as it repeats that film’s motifs of dark and light, the unnamed hero also fastening on a barely glimpsed blond angel to be his wife before being tempted by a sexy brunette. Maud departs from most Rohmer films in its black-and-white cinematography and wintry, nocturnal setting; mountains are close, the sea distant—water is a central motif of Rohmer’s cinema—and night outlasts day. (Rohmer’s world is mostly effulgent. Though he called a film Les Nuits de la pleine lune [Full Moon in Paris, 1984], night portends less magic and infatuation in his cinema than confusion, disorder: “We need daylight to pick our way out of here,” sighs the exasperated guide of a band of pilgrims lost in the dark near the end of Astrea and Celadon.) That the director waited a year to shoot at the exact time indicated by Maud’s script (Christmas) and to be able to use his actor of choice (Jean-Louis Trintignant) signals the precision of his method, the fiercely won nature of his realism; Rohmer would similarly wait many months to capture the elusive solar ray for the final, transcendent moment of Summer. The leftist professor in My Night at Maud’s—gently mocked at the time Godard was heading into his Dziga Vertov period, Cahiers du Cinéma into Althusserian analysis—was played by an actual Marxist, Antoine Vitez, who collaborated with Rohmer on his “speech.” And speech, while not everything in Rohmer’s cinema, is its defining feature.

“A wagging tongue bites itself.” The Chrétien de Troyes apothegm that introduces Pauline at the Beach wittily suggests the logorrhea of Rohmer’s characters—their wagging tongues never tire—and their infinite capacity for linguistic snares. Captives in the realm of the senses, they attempt to reason their way out of it. In Rohmer, talk is a tonic and a turn-on, deferring desire while stoking it to distraction, as in My Night at Maud’s, where an early dialogue between the engineer (Trintignant) and the professor about the former’s Catholic faith and belief in Pascal’s wager serves as philosophical foreplay for the nightlong discussion between the engineer and the seductive divorcée Maud, a nonpracticing Protestant. She uses words to entice him, while he employs them for prevarication and postponement, as if caught in a horror film or an Arabian Nights tale where everything will be OK if only he can make it until daylight. In Rohmer, sex is more in the chat than in the sack, intercourse yielding to discourse, philosophical thrust and parry replacing the carnal kind, the tension between Maud’s determination and the engineer’s wavering resistance—should he be good, just in case (Pascal)?—generating considerable suspense, as do the central dilemmas in Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and L’Amour l’aprèsmidi (Chloe in the Afternoon, 1972): Will Jérôme get to touch Claire’s knee? Will Frédéric give in to Chloé’s flirtation? Rohmer coauthored a book on Hitchcock, after all, and shared his theme of dangerous misrecognition.

The protagonist of Claire’s Knee is as resolute about temptation as Trintignant’s engineer is: “I don’t look at the ladies anymore,” Jérôme proclaims. “I’m getting married.” His scruples founder on fixation. After glimpsing the knee of a teenage girl, in a shot that portends Nabokovian obsession, the smug, self-deluded man conspires with an old friend, the novelist Aurore, so that he can touch the tantalizing joint before safely decamping to Sweden and imminent matrimony. Aurore, played by an author of the same name, indicates Rohmer’s literary roots—the “Moral Tales” first existed as short stories—and as she explores the possible outcomes of Jérôme’s dilemma, the film occasionally veers toward metanarrative. Rohmer’s epigrammatic dialogue has frequently been compared to that of such writers as Marivaux, Musset, and Proust, but it is Laclos who comes to mind in Claire’s Knee, as the corrupt elders manipulate the emotions (and bodies) of the young and unformed for their own pleasure and delectation, heedless of the damage done. “There are no innocents today,” Aurore blithely declares, so Jérôme, whose vocation, terrifyingly enough, is as an international diplomat, can feel guiltless about fondling his prize, won by means of surveillance, deceit, and affective devastation.

“What I call a conte moral is not a tale with a moral,” Rohmer cautioned, “but a story that deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it. A cinema of thoughts rather than actions.” To that Bressonian end—giving cinema an interior movement—Rohmer’s visual style, which many commentators treat as transparent well nigh to invisibility, relies on artless means and immense suggestiveness. The bracing plein air plan of Claire, for example, employs circumspect pans and mid-distance shots to establish a pristine landscape of lake, mountain, and trees, a bucolic backdrop for the courtly stratagems of the Laclosian older couple. The compositions, often in flat, Cézannesque planes, and in face-to-face, rather than traditional over-the-shoulder, shots, appear inconspicuous but divulge a great deal. With his simple semiotics, Rohmer emphasizes the vulnerable exposure of the youths in their bronze déshabillé—nascent star Fabrice Luchini turns up as a teen, blond and boneless in a bathing suit—and the conniving natures of Aurore and Jérôme in literal cover-up, she in a succession of flowered dresses and shawls, he in full beard, sweater, and straw hat, their physical insulation implying moral imperviousness.

“The color picture is ugly, I agree,” Rohmer wrote in an early essay, a comment as ironic as this most loquacious of directors’ persistent yearning for the silent era. (He considered Murnau the greatest director in the history of cinema.) For few directors equaled Rohmer’s expressive use of color, with Mondrian-style primaries deployed to hint at complexities of character. The color-coding of Claire’s Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon associates assertive women with red—the brash and mannish Chloé bursts into Frédéric’s life in scarlet turtleneck and coat—complacent, self-justifying men with conservative blue. Told that green is her lucky color, the dithery Delphine of Summer wears anything but—the closest she comes is a tealy beret—a subtle signifier of her determination to refuse good fortune. Intractable in her unhappiness, Delphine incarnates the director’s ars poetica, stated by Aurore in Claire’s Knee: “Insignificant characters can inspire good stories.” Rohmer, not only the great paysagiste of the New Wave but also its most incisive social portraitist, often fastened on “insignificant” characters, variously misconstrued by critics as idle, rich, or disengaged. Shopgirls, secretaries, artists, and students figure more frequently than roués in Rohmer’s world, and though often en vacances, they are hardly idle. Or rich: The grandfather in Summer never saw the sea until he was sixty because he was a hardworking cabdriver.

The phrase toute seule—“all alone”—echoes throughout Summer, as Delphine, desperately searching for a companion to share her summer vacation, shuttles weepily between Paris and Cherbourg, its Demy-haunted harbor now inhabited by oil rigs and ghastly marinas; a mountain resort she immediately abandons; a crowded beach at Biarritz. Rohmer’s authorial omniscience, at once aloof and empathic, captures with stinging acuity the anguish of the unattached in a culture centered on le couple. Largely improvised and shot in grainy 16 mm, Summer features a classic Rohmer type: a bit of a pill, thin with a frizzy nimbus of hair, oblivious and self-defeating in her pursuit of love and awareness. When Delphine attempts to explain her vegetarianism at an alfresco table piled with roast pork—“I like to aerate myself,” she exclaims to her balking hosts—Rohmer’s intent camera yields her no leeway as she expounds on her kinship with lettuce. The tone could be merciless, but under Rohmer’s ironic, affectionate gaze, Delphine achieves a kind of neurotic splendor.

The radical rationalist of the Nouvelle Vague, Rohmer was always identified with the Age of Reason, but Summer, with its host of omens and superstitions and the numinous phenomenon that gives the film its name (translated literally, it would be The Green Ray), looks back to the gothic séance with the spirit of Don Juan in La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963) and reminds one that the subject of Rohmer’s dissertation was Murnau’s phantasmal Faust (1926). Rohmer’s supposedly apolitical nature also proved suspect. The left-baiting of L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque, 1993) and The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s revanchiste account of the French Revolution, which treats slavering Jacobins and lumpen revolutionaries with less delicacy than Christ’s tormentors in Bosch, made explicit the director’s profoundly conservative vision, as suspicious of the vagrant and changeable as was his beloved Hitchcock. The itinerant Chloé, who bounces from Spain to the United States to Paris, from job to job, man to man, apartment to apartment; the nomadic, deracinated ethnologist Henri in Pauline at the Beach, who wants life light and instantly “movable”; the youth-seducing Romanian novelist Aurore, with her heavy accent, hooded looks, and manipulative ways—all reflect Rohmer’s mistrust of unfettered freedom, which he equates with instability. In the emotional codas of Chloe in the Afternoon and My Night at Maud’s, which evoke the anguished marital reconciliation at the end of Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1954), the ceaselessly smiling wife of the former succumbs to tears, secretly grateful for her errant husband’s capitulation to security, while the dismayed épouse of the latter registers her man’s lingering regret during a chance encounter with Maud (the film finally having reached the Rohmerian sea, far from landlocked Clermont-Ferrand). The rootless seducers (Maud, Chloé), associated with night or drift, are left abandoned. For the uncommitted, love might desire nothing but itself, and thus end in desolation.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.