Nothing is quite as simple as it seems in the films of Eric Rohmer. Nor, perhaps, as complicated. As John Ford was to Westerns, so Rohmer was to a genre of his own devising—droll comedies in which confused young people hack through the thicket of their (sometimes imagined) romantic entanglements, mainly by talking.
Just what is “the sign of Rohmer”—as the Walter Reade’s 17-day retro is called? Are his movies a sort of visual Perrier, palate-cleansing but insubstantial, name-brand fizz with a lemon twist? Is the filmmaker amusing or tiresome? Neoclassicist or repressed romantic? A Gallic blend of late Ozu and early John Hughes?
Although his creatures can be almost compulsively confessional, Rohmer, who died in January at the age of 89, was a man of many secrets. (Born Jean-Marie Schérer, he hid behind a pseudonym and once attended the New York Film Festival in a false mustache.) His serenely consistent oeuvre is roiled with contradictions. Rohmer’s movies are sensuous and ascetic, sex-obsessed but withholding, neatly symmetrical yet open-ended, humorous without being particularly funny. Individually modest, each was conceived as part of a large pattern. The six “Moral Tales” were followed by six “Comedies and Proverbs,” and a summarizing quartet, “Tales of the Four Seasons.”
Rohmer was the oldest member of the nouvelle vague and the last to make his reputation—he was nearly 50 when My Night at Maud’s rocked the 1969 New York Film Festival with its seeming rebuttal to ’60s permissiveness. Still his best-known movie, this highly original “moral tale” pivoted on a lengthy scene in which an unattached, devoutly Catholic man spends a snowy night resisting the charms of a beautiful and totally available woman because . . . well, you need to hear his explanation.
Regarded here as quintessentially French, Rohmer claimed that the American public sustained his career. Woody Allen is a fan, likewise Noah Baumbach—but so is Quentin Tarantino. Both the tendency formerly known as mumblecore and the middlebrow triumphs of the Miramax golden age seem equally predicated on Rohmer’s example. An instant critical success, My Night at Maud’s won awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and garnered an Oscar nomination; the follow-up Claire’s Knee (1970), which details a thirtysomething womanizer’s fixation on a teenage girl’s eponymous body part, was even more highly praised.
In Maud, ungratified desire functioned as a tangible absence, not unlike the negative space in a Franz Kline abstraction; in Claire, the act of seduction was comically trivialized to a pat on the knee while the seducer’s obsession raised the idea of seduction to cosmic heights. Andrew Sarris called it “indisputably great”; New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it “close to a perfect movie.” Sarris and Canby remained Rohmer’s champions. For others, judgment set in with Chloe in the Afternoon, Rohmer’s comedy of an annoyingly unconsummated extramarital affair that opened the 1972 NYFF.
Pauline Kael, who had enjoyed Claire as “a lovely film and an unusually civilized film,” dismissed Chloe “as forgettable as a movie can be,” and John Simon published an Arts & Leisure take-out characterizing Rohmer’s films as “a eunuch’s delight.” An even more memorable squelch appeared soon after in a Hollywood movie: “I saw a Rohmer movie once,” detective Gene Hackman opines in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves. “It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Yes, well . . .
Much as I admire certain Rohmers, not to mention the idea of Rohmer, it’s always with an ambivalence—doubtless exacerbated by the fact that ambivalence, lifelong and constant per Freud, is his great theme. Rohmer’s movies induce self-conscious introspection because that’s the zone in which his protagonists live. Eulogizing Rohmer in the Times, novelist André Aciman defined “Rohmerian” as the “impulse to dissect each nuance of desire and then turn around and confide it right away.” When the protagonist of A Tale of Springtime (1990) tells a new friend, “Maybe I think too much about my thoughts,” she speaks for all of Rohmer’s endlessly self-explanatory characters.
Rohmer’s movies are character-driven, and typically founded on the temporary formation of unstable social groupings; as viewers, we continually grapple with the degree to which we find these creatures fun to watch. Likeability is not the issue—the exasperating, wistfully depressed fuss-budget played by Marie Rivière animates Rohmer’s wonderful Summer (1986). Nor is attractiveness, although the crowd-pleasing Pauline at the Beach (1983) is immeasurably helped by the presence of a cast wearing next to nothing. Summer, also the season for Claire’s Knee, is Rohmer’s time—people on vacation, free to work on their personal lives.
However stylized, Rohmer’s movies have a strong interest in authenticity. He almost always shot in sequence and was fastidious about locations—taken as a whole, his movies provide a grand tour of France. Screenplays drew on taped conversations with his cast—often unknowns or non-actors. (The married couple in Chloe was a real married couple.)
Rohmer was faithful to reality—especially the reality of his concerns. Did he repeat himself? One of the prize conceits of Aciman’s lush, acerbic novel Eight White Nights—at once a celebration and satire of Rohmer—is that his potential lovers meet daily at an Upper West Side revival house holding a Rohmer fest. Rohmer did indeed produce a certain kind of date movie, although a surfeit would surely have yielded diminishing returns. Hence the significance of the alt-Rohmers—the five period pieces to which he applied his trademark discretion, volubility and idiosyncratic realism.
Rohmer’s German-language adaptation of von Kleist’s Marquise of O (1976), a dark comedy about a mysterious pregnancy, all but parodies the filmmaker’s tactful treatment of physical love. Even more self-conscious, Perceval le Gallois (1978), taken from a 12th-century epic poem, dramatizes the Christian ideals of fidelity in an abstract Middle Ages. The Lady and the Duke (2001), taken from the heroine’s memoir of the French Revolution, employs digital sets to create an irresistible magic lantern “talkie.” Triple Agent (2004), the most “normal” and hence the strangest of alt-Rohmers, is a thriller placing a quintessentially Rohmerian situation (possibly duplicitous husband, ambivalently suspicious wife, constant discussion) in Paris on the eve of World War II.
Rohmer’s swan song The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007) brought it all back home. Adapting a 17th-century pastoral romance set in an imagined fifth-century Gaul, Rohmer staged an open-air talkathon with contemporary-looking actors in togas and tunics. The movie is not only summery but summarizing. Capping his career-long concern with fidelity, misunderstanding, and youthful self-dramatization, the filmmaker posits that the Rohmerian is timeless.