Cecil summed up the difference between him and his brother, William DeMille, like this: “I show a thousand camels and you show one camel and you psychoanalyze it.” Eric Rohmer is a lot more like William than Cecil, minus Freud.
What is fascinating, foremost, in his work is his obstinacy to not go beyond his only or main subject, often summed up, in a somewhat misleading way, by its title: Béatrice Romand wants a good marriage, or, at least, to help her friend have one (A Tale of Autumn), Brialy wants to caress Claire’s Knee (meaning, to be sure that she is practically consenting), Lucchini, the mayor, wants to make a médiathèque where the tree is, and Marie Rivière goes looking for the Green Ray. To escape monotony, Bernard Verley realizes that he need only, with his wife, make love in the afternoon. Jean-Marie Rouzière doesn’t stop crossing the Place de l’Etoile. Trintingnant thinks mainly of finding the girl with the bicycle, the first title of My Night at Maud’s. The entire plot of his latest film is based on the fact that Serge Renko is a triple agent, which, if it hadn’t been for this title, would only have been known an hour into the film. Most often there is a main character and there is always a desire, a goal, that is trivial or modest in appearance: it isn’t about saving mankind or finding the treasure of Bermuda. Viewers are reassured. They know where they are going. The what is determined at the start, only the how matters. To add a little variety, there’s a drawn out film: a lot of time is needed to meet the aviator’s wife.
There is one way of proceeding: from the novel Elisabeth (1944) to A Tale of Autumn (1998), Rohmer’s world does not vary one iota. It is, moreover, symptomatic that in Elisabeth he writes: “Claire’s knee made…a small, dark and brilliant triangle” (p. 196). Claire’s Knee was shot twenty-six years later and the name Claire returns again in his project La Roserie (1951). This is not surprising since, after all, the first draft of Claire’s Knee must have been done not long after Elisabeth. One might suspect that a Claire was the object of the future Eric’s first heartbreak, like a certain Louise whose name returns from one film to the next. Rohmer’s opus transcends many different periods: the so-called “glorious” thirty, the supposed less glorious thirty(1) before May ’68 and after May ‘68, before and after Mitterand – nothing interferes with its course. Elisabeth has no references to the “events,” though its author claims to have written it in July and August 1944 at a time when most French people had other things to do than write a novel. Anyway, I tend to think that Elisabeth was not written exactly during those months and that this is a provocation.
Rohmer is accustomed to provocations: “Western, on the contrary, in its image, the cinema up to now remains Western in spirit. I don’t contest the rights of India or Japan to make films, but I believe that the traditions to which these people remain attached are less fertile than our own.”(2) And again, “the fact of considering the cinematic value of a work as equivalent to the violence of a certain social demand appears to me…like a pleasant joke.”(3, 4) That provocation is confirmed in The Lady and the Duke and its politically (and deliciously) incorrect irony in regards to the Republic and the revolutionaries. One can’t be more repugnant.
The question that viewers ask themselves, enchanted by Rohmer’s prowess, is “how is he going to sustain an hour and a half on such frail material?” He looks at this material from every angle. There can be thirty or forty consecutives lines on the same, futile subject. Still, Rohmer has somewhat reined in the rambling remarks of the beginning of his career: “Her name, it is her, she is it, she is not an ugly woman, but this ugly air, she doesn’t have the right to have it. She takes it on because she wants to, because she wants it to belong to her, but she doesn’t have the right to have it. She doesn’t have the right to have it because it belongs too much to her and what I hate about her is what belongs to her the most. I hate what she has the most of, I hate it; she is not an ugly woman but I hate this air she has, I hate it. Right now, I love any woman more than her. I hate her, I love all women and I hate her. Right now, any woman is more beautiful” (Elisabeth, p. 69). This is childish sophistry, modeled on a pedantic search for difficult words: “Le zig zouiller du crampadouille, dit Moulet”(5) (also from Elisabeth, at the very beginning).
Rohmer’s minimalism isn’t as pronounced as my own, which is often focused on objects and beings without souls – coke, slag heaps, badlands, bananas, cockroaches, dogs, steak (Rohmer’s steak in his short film Charlotte and Her Steak is less important than the steak in my An Overdone Steak). Rohmer’s focus is human beings, even if objects – an oil can (Elisabeth), a vase (The Collector), a bank note (Suzanne’s Career), a hat (Full Moon in Paris) – have a lead role, and a revelatory one at that.
Their relationships, their jobs (the postman’s in The Aviator’s Wife, the baker from Montceau, etc.), the houses they spend their lives in, are very important in the lives of human beings. Rohmer remains the filmmaker who has best shown us the importance of a home where one is at ease (A Tale of Spring, A Tale of Winter, Full Moon in Paris) or that one doesn’t have (The Sign of Leo), the city where one lives (from Talloires to Cergy, and including Clermont Ferrand, Nevers, Valréas, Saint Tropez, la Vendée, Granville and Marne la Vallée: a panorama of France worthy of Balzac), in short, the essential problems of life for everybody, deceptively trivial in relation to traditional film paraphernalia (no stunts or flashiness in Rohmer’s films).
This minimalism is linked to the simplicity of Rohmer’s own life. He doesn’t drive, prefers to walk, and is not worldly in the least. I’ve seen him turn down lunch invitations that would have been normal, and even desirable, for an editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma to accept, when it involved a counterpart or a foreign critic.
Success came to him very late (when he was 49, with My Night at Maud’s). He had to be patient for many long years and to be content with little. The putsch that kicked him out of the Cahiers in 1963 – where his layout design and work looking for articles was excessively minimalist (the summary each month was on a piece of onionskin paper pinned to the wall with four articles and three pieces of criticism, and we were off) – was dramatic for him economically and fortunately forced him to devote himself to directing. His cinematic technique stems from this way of life: an ultra-classic découpage, no high or low angle shots or soft-focus, very few flashbacks, cross-dissolves, or steadycam shots, and a discreet, unaggressive minimalism. His production structure also stems from this: he manages his business like a good family man, with a bit of an Old France-side, without ever running the risk of going bankrupt (like Vecchiali, Truffaut, Godard, and myself).
His films have a very simple and clean presentation of actions, often in fixed shot-sequences, a very smooth image, to the point of perfection, with harmonious colors (without being flaunted, however, like Visconti’s) which completely correspond to the rigor of his black and white documentary films. But the visual objectivity of his films is contradicted by their deep subjectivity: Rohmer’s viewpoint is sometimes opposed to the viewpoint of the narrators and each of the characters. Often, the viewer knows more than them (Pauline at the Beach) or less than them (My Night at Maud’s). One of Rohmer’s great strengths resides in this constant dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity, and between the clarity of the images and the obscurity of the feelings and actions that avoids any redundancy between “form” and “content.”
The risk of becoming repetitive is, it’s true, very present in a body of work as identical from one end to the other as Eric’s. But the repetition from one film to the next, from one scene to the next, is also a source of interest. It can create a gag, of the slow burn variety (except in Rendezvous in Paris where the reprisal of the same system three times over different stories is aggravating: it's déjà vu. Also, never see two Rohmer films in a row). The audience expects what it is going to see across various subjects. It’s reassuring. It is not surprising that the least commercial Rohmer films are often his most expensive productions or ones outside of his norm. The Sign of Leo, with its Sartrian overtones and relegation of women to the background, Perceval, based a bit too much on the visual and decorative work and a bit esoteric(6), The Lady and the Duke, its dubious special effects with their inaccurate scale between the sets and the human beings, and Triple Agent, which substitutes the emotional plot with a police and spy plot – the 84 year old filmmaker’s first genre film, what courage he must have had! But, after all, at this age, Rohmer is maybe less interested in sexual conflicts. And his taste for plotting (one person’s work – in opposition to the conspiracy, the collective plotting preferred by Rivette) is stronger than his taste for the motives that determine the plot and his taste for the alternations of the human heart with which he was perhaps identified with too early. With Fabrice Lucchini, Feodor Atkine and Serge Renko, it is the plot in itself that interests him primarily, with its path as complex as the states of the lovers’ souls in his films.
The problem can be outlined like this: have the outside-the-norm Rohmer films been less commercial because they corresponded less to what the filmmaker is known for, or because they have not been as good? I’ll clarify: less good because more expensive and thus harder to master.
The plotting – which reached its peak in the scene of mistaken identity in the bathroom (Pauline at the Beach), which was very vaudeville-esque but that nevertheless needed endless talking – seems to only be the way of keeping the secret, even if the construction of the deceptions seems to be what Rohmer is most interested in.
It is worthwhile to recall Rohmer’s love for question marks. Look at the first major articles in the Cahiers. How many question marks were there?
There is 1 in Rivette’s (on Hawks);
2 in Chabrol’s (on Hitchcock);
3 in Godard’s (on classical découpage);
8 in Truffaut’s (on the tradition of quality);
16 in Schérer-Rohmer’s (Such Vanity is Painting)(7).
Rohmer succeeded in pulverizing this record: 31 in the first part of Celluloid and Marble(8), made in February 1955 and still holding the record half a century later!
This is basically a tactic: rather than lobbing his truths, like the others, he presents them as options to his problems, whose solution he knows very well, under the cover of a rather hypocritical mask. He thus gently affirms and doesn’t offend his reader, letting it be believed that his eventual conclusion is the result of the research underway. Sometimes even the title bears this sign (Whose Fault?, n°39) or the article ends with one (cf. his article on Isou).
Like all good college students, he overuses “one,” which refers either to the adversary or himself, and “we,” and rarely uses “I,” limiting it to more risky assertions. This way, the reader gets the impression that the “we” corresponds to an objective truth, and the “I” with a subjective truth, even though “we” already expresses subjectivity, though masked by this device.
It is therefore not surprising to find new questions at the end of My Night at Maud’s and, notably, in Triple Agent – works as troubled as their images are clean.
In this last film (maybe the one Rohmer has put the most of himself into), Renko, the spy, goes so far that he doesn’t even know who he is. He has to think about it to be sure. The thing is that Rohmer has always lived under and above a mask with his six names: Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer, Maurice Henri Joseph Schérer (according to him), Anthony Barrier (the supposed director of the film supposedly called A Villain’s Journal), Gilbert Cordier (author of Elisabeth), Dirk Peters (author of Bérénice ) and I don’t know them all. What a mess, a cat wouldn’t be able to find its own litter there. The best is the credits for Les Cabinets de physique : la vie de société au XVIIIe siècle: a Maurice Schérer presentation directed by Eric Rohmer (imagine the conflicts between these two men) or the Anthony Barrier interview by Maurice Schérer. That’s his adolescent side.
If he is going to receive the Delluc Prize, it will be while wearing a fake moustache. He completely separates his private, Left Bank life with his professional, Right Bank life, where he has a mental harem. Rue d’Ulm and Avenue Pierre the First, like the two houses in Full Moon in Paris. He lies about his birth date (1920 in Tulle, and 1928 in Nancy according to the Bellour Dictionary of Cinema). Was he alive before 1946? No one knows. His future biographers have their work cut out for them. He doesn’t even go to present his films at festivals, or, if he does go, he stays holed up in his room. I was lucky that he agreed to act in Brigitte and Brigitte, my first film (and also that he taught me to write somewhat properly). He was afraid that worldliness and compliments would kill his inspiration (like they killed Fleischmann’s creativity). He’s the only person who uses the formal vous (you) with all his friends, except for Gégauff. And I found a certain pleasure in saying “vous” to him while calling him Momo.(9)
This intellectual king is, at the same time, really into sports, a regular at the Cross du Figaro(10) and a distinguished boxer: in 1950, I witnessed him use his excellent right hand on Froeschel, the director of the Latin Quarter Ciné-Club.
Maybe it is his lost youth that sparked his love for provocation.
Rohmer always misleads. He deliberately begins his wonderful A Tale of Winter with a very bad sequence, something out of a banal, lousy amateur film.
A devout Catholic converted from Existentialism, he became the most libertine of French filmmakers. More specifically, his is a mental libertinism. It is, as a matter of fact, in the work of filmmakers who are deeply marked by Christianity that the most libertine and sexually perverse qualities are found: see DeMille, McCarey, Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Rossellini.
His Catholicism seems to me above all another form of provocation. He told me he respects the Pope and that he goes to church every Sunday. But I went to his parish several times and it was all for nothing: I never saw him there. That, after May ’68, they’re talking unendingly about God on a bed (My Night at Maud’s) is obviously a provocation, just like his refusal of money from the Loi d’Aide(11) (The Tree, the Mayor…) in order to not make false contracts – everyone does it – just like the challenge of releasing this same improvised film in a single theater without advertising and without a PR agent (audacity that strongly attracted the press and public’s attention), or the challenge on films conceived especially in a minimalist view (The Green Ray, The Lady and the Duke) of spending crazy amounts of money for models or furtive, or almost invisible effects. Or, again, his vehement and free denunciation of the sacrilegious policy of developing the Forez lands (the first title card in Astrée and Céladon).
Aside from The Sign of Leo, whose protagonists were of the same generation, we could say that, like Bresson, the older he gets, the younger his actors get (at least up to A Tale of Autumn). It’s as if he too wants to regain a lost youth: married at 37, first film (and major flop) at 39 after an incomplete first feature.
Like a lot of directors who are Germanophiles and close to Germany (Straub, Godard, Bergman), he puts a lot of emphasis on the text. It’s normal since in that cold country life in the home, and thus life centered on dialogue, is very important. He’s been reproached for the predominance of the text.(12) Carné, when he was on the Cannes selection committee, was scandalized by the choice of My Night at Maud’s for competition. For him, it was lowly “filmed theater.” Today the battle is over. It’s worth noting that Truffaut, Rivette, and Chabrol – more Anglophonic, more Western – make less use of speech.
The eruption of culture in Rohmer’s opus – in a context that is not proper to it – is always brought up. This includes Kant (A Tale of Spring), Dostoyevsky (The Green Ray, the unshot film A Gentle Woman), Pascal and Marx (My Night at Maud’s), as well as Tolstoy (The Kreutzer Sonata), Poe (Berenice), and Kleist (The Marquise d’O, Catherine of Heilbronn). It is either a foreign culture or, if it is French, something unknown or forgotten: Chrétien de Troyes (Perceval), D’Urfé (Astrée), the Countess of Ségur (The Little Model Girls).
Bergman’s influence is obvious: as in his work, characters are revealed not so much by their behavior, but by their reflections on themselves. The difference being that there is more formal coherence in Bergman’s work. Well, to be more precise, the formal coherence in Bergman is active (the work on the contrasts, notably), while it is more passive in Rohmer’s films, submitted to the demands of the locations that he changes very little, mainly for financial reasons. Rohmer, who made himself known with an article on the “cinema, art of space,” and whose last major study is about composition inside the frame in Murnau’s films, has always considered the major filmmakers to be the ones who offered a very developed work on forms. He said to me, “Moullet, I know why you like Buñuel. It’s because you’re both slackers.” An unintended compliment that gave me a lot of pleasure. He meant that we weren’t true filmmakers because we didn’t have a developed formal, plastic, decorative universe and coherent framing, like Murnau and Eisenstein. But the same could be said for Rohmer, whose projects consisted uniquely of lists of dialogue. I’d add that those who present a coherent formal universe in today’s cinema are disappointing filmmakers: Greenaway, Kounen, Gilliam, and Medem seem like frauds to me.
To tell the truth, the primacy of the text makes sense for someone like him, who has alot of experience as a critic. Let us specify that his written work on movies and art functions more on the rich nobility of his sentences(13) than on the content. For example, his review of The Big Sky (Cahiers, no. 29) that he very well could have written without seeing the film. Only four of the two hundred lines specifically evoke Hawks’ western. Rohmer is a generalist who nicely compliments Truffaut, the specialist.
It is Bergman’s influence, as I was saying, as well as certain French classicists like Marivaux and Musset, etc… But the influence Rohmer exercised remains even more considerable. If he discovered no filmmaker with his pen (unlike Truffaut), except Buster Keaton, whom he at least helped to rediscover (cf. La Revue du cinema, no. 14), he did directly help Brisseau a lot. He actually gave him his start. His presence is also felt in the films of Woody Allen, Hal Hartley, Lilliane Dreyfus, Arielle Dombasle, Jérôme Bonnell (Olga’s Chignon), and Vincent Dietschy (Julie is in Love). Guiguet sweared by him.
Plotting also consists in the elaboration of very specific dialogues, often written or conceived thirty years ahead of time. Such rigor, such premeditation needs as a counterpart (Rohmer, a fan of Renoir, well knows) uncontrollable elements, either during the shoot or in the world of the story. This is either the unexpected that is expected (the fortune that falls from the sky into Jess Hahn’s lap in The Sign of Leo, the arrival of the full moon, the stupid confusion between Courbevoie and Levallois in A Tale of Winter) or the unexpected that is unexpected (the search for the blue hour in Reinette and Mirabelle or for the green ray). There is always the role of God.
Translation by Ted Fendt.