Éric Rohmer Paints His Masterpiece


One of the flip insults eternally thrown at arthouse films is, indirectly, Éric Rohmer’s fault. In the cryptic thriller Night Moves (1975), Gene Hackman takes himself off to see the film which marked this French New Wave director’s breakthrough in the international market, My Night at Maud’s (1969). And what does this no-nonsense, all-American guy make of the experience? ‘It was like watching paint dry.’


What did Rohmer do to deserve this? Quite simply, his feature films, from The Sign of Leo (1959) to Triple Agent (2004), are short on plot – at least of the energetic, action-packed variety – and long on talk. In his days as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma magazine in the 1950s, Rohmer dared to suggest – in the face of the perennial notion that film is foremost a visual medium – that ‘if cinema opens upon a world of brilliant talkers, it is important that they be as talkative as possible.’


Rohmer-style talk has been much imitated by the likes of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, 1990) in USA and, more ingeniously, Hong Sang-soo in Korea. But even the best-written chatter falls flat on screen if the director lacks Rohmer’s skill in casting his performers and staging their interactions. Films such as Claire’s Knee (1971) and Autumn Tale (1998) almost transmute into documentaries on the actors within them, since Rohmer takes such care to incorporate their tastes, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies into the screenplay.


Rohmer’s films are sometimes mistaken for drawing room comedy. In fact, this director – who once declared that, rather than staging his mise en scène in the studio, he learnt to find it in the street – loves the outdoors. Domestic and workspace interiors often register as a geometric prison or hell in his movies, while rural holiday retreats or even humble city parks offer opportunities for fleeting ecstasy.


On a deeper level, all Rohmer’s films are about the games people play – their masks, seductions, ruses, evasions. Sometimes, the rondo of mutual misunderstandings results, against all odds, in a happy ending for all. At other times, it leads to disappointment and desolation (as in the haunting Full Moon in Paris, 1984), or even death (as in the labyrinthine, true-life political parable of Triple Agent).


No matter the outcome, giddy or tragic, a certain formality rules between Rohmer’s characters. The great British critic Raymond Durgnat detected the legacy of seventeenth and eighteenth century rationalism in these apparently lightweight tales where ‘people seek not so much to know one another’s real, deep emotions, but rather to negotiate and harmonise interests.’


It is impossible to form a single, clear biographical image of Rohmer. Like Terrence Malick, he kept himself away from the media spotlight. Indeed, his best-known name was an invention (he was born Maurice Scherer) designed to keep his family in the dark about his, by definition, disreputable career in movies. As well as being a prolific filmmaker, Rohmer was for many years a distinguished teacher at the Sorbonne, and has written books on Hitchcock, Murnau and (most recently) Beethoven that are models of detailed, scrupulous analysis.


But the widespread notion that Rohmer is an ascetic, serene, highly spiritual individual is belied by the glimpse we receive of him in the documentary François Truffaut: Stolen Portraits. There, his fast-talking, hyper-active, streetwise, sarcastic manner suggests a Gallic Scorsese rather than a country priest.


Rohmer’s work is full of rich paradoxes and contradictions. On the one hand he is a pre-eminent realist, but periodically he makes films that are blatantly artificial, shot on minimal sets (Perceval, 1978) or using digitally-generated backdrops (The Lady and the Duke, 2000). He tracks the banality of everyday life, but every so often infuses it with a magical aspect, as in his masterpiece The Green Ray (aka Summer, 1986).


Rohmer is revered as an old-fashioned classicist, and yet his fondest subject is the sparkling superficiality of teenagers and young adults, as in Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987). And he has stuck more doggedly than George Lucas to his serial plans – making first the Six Moral Tales, then the Comedies and Proverbs and finally the Tales of the Four Seasons – whilst remaining ever-ready to goof off and semi-improvise episodic entertainments such as The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1986) or Rendezvous in Paris (1995).


Rohmer’s films are often considered as expert comedies of manners, updates of a theatrical tradition that goes back to Marivaux. Certainly, there is no better guide to the brittle follies, pretensions and self-delusions of the privileged classes than Rohmer. But his films also give a peculiarly modern twist to this kind of light comedy.


In his splendid book on the director’s career, the acclaimed screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer describes each Rohmer plot as a kind of stratagem in which some key piece – something that a character has done or thought, seen or heard – is deliberately suppressed. This subtle hole punched in the narrative comes to spread doubt over the entire proceedings, resulting in a particularly contemporary form of moral relativism.


Those viewers and critics exasperated by Rohmer’s film often ask: does he really like the vacuous characters he presents, and is he truly asking us to like them as well? In fact, Rohmer is the master ironist of cinema. As far as one can make out, he neither celebrates nor condemns his characters. But the ability to take an ironic distance from life, to relativise all human transactions, is finally a deadly serious business in Rohmer’s world. As Durgnat remarked, ‘irony doesn’t subvert morality: morality is about choosing the lesser of two ironies.’


Like watching paint dry? To view, as the hero of Night Moves did, one Rohmer film in isolation might indeed prompt such a response. But this is a director who (as his producer, Margaret Ménégoz, once said) ‘digs in his own field’, patiently and studiously. And it is thus important to see his work in context, as an evolving whole.


To Rohmer fans, nothing in these films is ever boring. Rather, they are infinitely subtle, infinitely intriguing. Just like those games that people play.


MORE Rohmer: A Summer’s Tale


© Adrian Martin May 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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