David Woods on Eric Rohmer, the forgotten man of the French New Wave…
It occurred to me after gorging my cinephilic appetite on Mark Cousins’ exemplary document of love to movies, The Story Of Film, that one thing surprised me. Though the coverage of the French New Wave was fabulously rich and immersive, I found myself rather disappointed that one of my all-time favourite filmmakers had not been mentioned even once in passing. That filmmaker was Eric Rohmer.
I feel I should say that Rohmer hasn’t been ‘forgotten’ in a historical sense: his place in cinema is well established. Nor am I criticising the wonderful Story Of Film which for me is a film lover’s dream come true. It just seemed to me that film audiences are in danger of ignoring the legacy of this truly gifted and astute director and are missing out on an influence that can shape both personal tastes and interpretation of intelligent cinematic language.
Language is a good word to use when discussing Rohmer. Aside from his grammar with the camera (which is as good as Godard, Truffaut or any of the other respected auteurs of the day), his films are known for being intellectually contemplative and dialectic. Emphasising dialogue with a naturalistic rhythm, it’s like being dipped in a pot of sophistication which coats your mind with discursive. The debates on Pascal in his superb My Night At Maud’s (also my personal favourite of Rohmer’s) may seem to be high-minded to the uninitiated but open the doorway to fundamental human feeling.
Rohmer may not be as aesthetically provocative as Godard or Truffaut, nor as artistically exacting as Robert Bresson, but he has the rigour of all great artists. And I think Rohmer is indeed a true artist. In composing this piece, it was the perfect excuse for me to go back and re-visit Rohmer’s shooting style, to observe his frames and choice of shots to better understand what motivates him.
Rohmer perfectly understands how to blend his eloquent dialogue with his realist visual methods. He frequently opts for medium and long shots (framing his actors so that the full length or upper parts of the body are constantly on view) which is a technique that allows the conversational nature of his films to flow fully. It provides the audience with an observatory for the word games and innuendos Rohmer’s characters indulge in, as their sexual and emotional passions break through their rigid, upper-middle class veneer. When Rohmer goes in for a close-up, you know he means business (think of Claire’s titular knee when Jean-Claude Brialy just has to let his chinos loosen a little).
This technique has another effect too: it allows Rohmer to ‘paint’ with his actors. Watching Rendezvous In Paris recently, I became enthralled with Rohmer’s movement of Clara Bellar’s Esther in the opening segment ‘The 7 p.m. Rendezvous’. One particular scene where Bellar is with her boyfriend’s unwitting lover in her apartment, keeps her central to the frame and her body movements (playful, coquettish) both show her considerable sensuality and her growing amusement at the realisation her boyfriend is cheating on her. In the final segment, Rohmer again works his actor within a wider frame (slightly tighter this time), to show Michael Kraft’s painter’s innate awkwardness, which some lesser directors might miss in a character with an outward swagger.
It is Rohmer’s use of film grammar that encourages me to believe he is just as an important part of the French New Wave as any other director in that collective. Equally as poignant, he also offers a unique vision that he owns completely. I have often wondered if his preference for location shooting, natural light and unaffected performances has had any bearing on the Dogme 95 movement (I can’t find any evidence that he did but the comparisons are compelling) and this for me adds a thrilling frisson to his work.
Rohmer’s uniqueness could well stem from his academic background as a professor of literature, which gives his work their scholarly dialogues and philosophical musings. There is also a pleasing tendency to allow his films to speak for themselves, rejecting most interviews and public appearances. This gave him an enigma that made his work the most discernible way of accessing the filmmaker’s thoughts and concerns and followed even through his name (a pseudonym concocted from legendary Hollywood director Erich von Stroheim and novelist Sax Rohmer). But I think the deceptively gentle palate Rohmer favours makes him appear dry and demure to some. True, he does not have the command of mise-en-scene Godard had nor the hyper-driven fluidity of Truffaut. The beauty and the appeal lie in his words, his eye for people and the collision of mind and body.
On a purely personal level, I have always most warmed to the Six Moral Tales series which I feel was his most invigorating and expressive. While there were certainly late-career flourishes in A Winter’s Tale (incidentally my first Rohmer) and the Comedies and Proverbs sequence, it was the moral conflict in the face of sexuality and social responsibility that pulled me firmly in. After the admittedly perfunctory shorts Girl At The Monceau Bakery and Suzanne’s Career, which now seem to be little more than test runs for ideas that would grow in stature and form, Rohmer produced La Collectioneuse a.k.a The Collector. Against a picture postcard setting, Rohmer set two preening misogynists off against each other as they toy with the affections of a hedonistic young woman. Its condemnation of masculine brutality is a nice underlying theme to create the dilemma for forbidden attraction.
The crowning jewel in the series is of course My Night At Maud’s where devout Catholic Jean-Louis (the magnificent Jean-Louis Trintignant who is currently enjoying deserved late-career accolades in Michael Haneke’s Amour) sets out to woo a fellow church-goer but finds himself sidelined by the alluring divorcee Maud: a performance of incredible range and feeling by Francoise Fabian. Rohmer’s clear warmth for his female characters is best presented here: Maud is a complex person who desires love and attention but is also scared and lost, just as we all are. Just as Lean-Louis is. As mentioned, Pascal’s notion of gambling on the one thing that could be the most important against all that is expected, safe and simple sets the tone for a deliciously shot and realised exploration of the choices we make in life and the direction we set for ourselves. Ultimately, it’s a film about fate and isolation (referring back to the brilliant opening scene where Jean-Louis stands alone on a balcony, caught in a desperately lonely projection from the lens). Claire’s Knee and Love In The Afternoon were accomplished follow-ups, the latter being a good example of Rohmer developing one of his signature shots of a man wandering the streets, contemplating his dilemma. The confident sexuality of Rohmer is also showcased well in these films.
Rohmer experimented late in his career with relatively minimal success. During the noughties, he made the period drama The Lady and The Duke, spy thriller Triple Agent and the mythical love story The Romance of Astrea and Celadon which was to be his last film in 2007. He died in 2010, aged 89, in Paris. He leaves behind a legacy that I believe has only just started to be re-discovered and enriched the talents of rising filmmakers: British director Joanna Hogg has cited Rohmer as a big influence on her style and his literacy on the human condition has something we can all learn from, both as filmmakers and fans. Eric Rohmer has made films that have spoken to me very profoundly, have made me examine the aspects of my life and loves and have thoroughly entertained me. I own the Six Moral Tales box set and it’s a jewel in my expansive DVD collection. Rohmer himself once said, “We have to show what lies beyond behaviour, while knowing we can’t show anything but behaviour.” The crux of this statement should be the height of all great art and, above all, fascinating storytelling.