The cinema of Eric Rohmer (born Maurice Scherer) has stayed uniformly, if not alarmingly, consistent. Whereas the obsessions and preoccupations of a Godard or a Chabrol have mutated over the years, Rohmer’s song has remained the same, from his earliest shorts to his latest “Tales of the Four Seasons” series: compact narratives keyed to a particular part of France at a particular time of year, centered on the moral/psychological quandaries of beautiful men and women at various stages of life. What has changed dramatically is the popular perception of his work, at least stateside. With the exception of Rivette, Rohmer was initially seen as the most rarefied of the new wavers, someone whose movies gave all but the most devoted art-house patrons a case of hives (as in Gene Hackman’s riposte to his wife in Night Moves, when she halfheartedly invites him to a Rohmer movie: “I’d rather watch paint dry”). These days, the eternally youthful auteur (he’s pushing 80, and experimenting with DV) has been anointed as the most profoundly, delightfully, dependably “French” of all filmmakers.
Even more than Truffaut or Chabrol, Rohmer has always believed in the power of stories and storytelling. In his early “Moral Tales,” the carefully calibrated narratives pushed his gallery of intellectuals toward a melancholy self-realization. As the director became more interested in young people at the beginning of the ’80s, his focus shifted to the spiritual. Like Rossellini, one of his role models, the devoutly Catholic Rohmer tends to leave his heroes and heroines in a state of grace, framed within the most ordinary circumstances and settings (it’s hard to imagine a more subtly enacted miracle than the climax of Tale of Winter). And, of course, they talk their way right up the spiritual ladder. Many people are driven around the bend by Rohmer’s “dialogue-heavy” movies, which supposedly approach cinematic danger level. But in his case, talk always equals action: a form of therapeutic inquiry for the heroes of My Night at Maud’s or Claire’s Knee, a restless search for clarity in Pauline at the Beach or Le Beau Mariage, a wayward path toward enlightenment in the latest films. Moreover, Rohmer’s talking cures are always firmly rooted in their settings: It’s the pre-Christmas snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand that keeps the skittish Jean-Louis Trintignant holed up with Françoise Fabian’s game divorcée in Maud’s, and it’s the golden, sunlit southern countryside that fills Marie Rivière with the knowledge of her own mature beauty in Autumn Tale.
With his three long series spanning six decades, broken up by excursions into documentaries, literary adaptations, and omnibus films, has Rohmer realized his ambition to be the Balzac of cinema? Maybe. It has to be said that his conservatism borders on nationalism: Unlike Pialat or Téchiné or even Rivette, he’s never risen to the challenge of portraying the racial diversity of modern France. But for all its neatness and moral self-containment, his is a remarkable (and often remarkably funny) body of work, rich in natural wonders, bewitching interactions, and emotional passages. Maud’s is still his meatiest film: Trintignant’s wary self-exposure is perfectly matched by Fabian’s seductive frankness, and Nestor Almendros never got a crisper black-and-white image. Depending on your tolerance for Jean-Claude Brialy, even at his least preening, Claire’s Knee remains an intricately suspenseful movie: The buildup to that nonlecherous caress is one of the neatest inventions of the ’70s. The “Comedies and Proverbs” of the ’80s are more diaphanous, with the soulful exceptions of The Aviator’s Wife and the largely improvised Summer. But even the insubstantial Full Moon in Paris vibrates with the delicate beauty of the late Pascale Ogier. Autumn and Winter (his most purely Christian film) are the most vaunted of the later movies. My personal favorite is the undervalued Tale of Springtime, which works up a lively romantic intrigue against a background of suburban greenery under overcast skies. Also not to be missed: the painterly adaptation of Kleist’s Marquise of O, with a devastating lead performance by the great Edith Clever; the early short The Baker of Monceau, the first of the moral tales, filled with new wave exuberance and featuring a young, handsome Barbet Schroeder; and the largely unknown feature debut, The Sign of Leo. A favorite of Fassbinder’s, this beautifully elaborated tall tale offers a wonderful portrait of Paris in the late ’50s. And, during a nicely detailed bohemian party scene, it features an unforgettable cameo. The 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, is none other than Rohmer’s opposite number, Jean-Luc Godard.