With this week’s death of Eric Rohmer, conservatives lose the one indisputable member of the film directors’ pantheon who was one of us. But he expressed his views mostly through soulcraft, meaning he was widely loved among left-liberal critics too. Rohmer made only a few explicitly political films — most successfully, the anti–French Revolution The Lady and the Duke, with its royalist heroine a escaping bloodthirsty Parisian mob brandishing heads on sticks (I wrote about it for NRO here). He also made period pieces (Astrea and Celadon and Perceval) that unapologetically re-create their eras without Merchant-Ivory “identification” figures transplanted from our more enlightened time. His excellent The Marquise of O is absurd unless you take seriously notions about adultery, duty, and honor that are seriously out of fashion today.
But mostly, Rohmer made apolitical films in the vein that gave him his public reputation — the chatty romance, often featuring a young French ingénue on August vacances. Rohmer described his “Six Moral Tales” movies as “not a tale with a moral, but a story which deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it.” Such films as Claire’s Knee, Pauline at the Beach, Chloe in the Afternoon, An Autumn Tale, and Summer/The Green Ray are deeply ironic tales about literate, articulate, and self-possessed (if rarely “wise”) people who discourse about life, love, and the arts while trying to shape their lives and romances as dramas of their own devising. But their plots never come out as their authors expect, thanks to their own flaws.
For example, in La Collectioneuse, narrator Adrien is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the title character, Haydee. But the copious voice-over makes clear that this is mostly because of his own self-analytic narcissism, his projection of his stratagems into her behavior, and (possibly . . . the film is deliberately as ambivalent as the narrator) Haydee’s actual stratagems. Or else they sort of work out — for reasons unbeknownst to the characters involved, as if the world really were a story, but with an unseen Author.
Rohmer is one of the few directors (Whit Stillman is another) who make films about how being “a free spirit” or “following your heart” might not be good ideas; that some things matter more than your desires. Chloe in the Afternoon is a kind of Gallic Brief Encounter, and the comparison speaks volumes about differing attitudes toward adultery, especially since Rohmer’s film doesn’t adopt the latitudinarian wink of the easy French stereotype. Indeed, the whole drama relies on the tension between Chloe’s frank attempts to seduce the married hero Frederic and his willingness to be wooed because he doesn’t want to be thought of as a prude. Rohmer’s greatest film, My Night With Maud, is also the one where religion is most obviously present and relevant. It starts with a lengthy scene at a Mass, hero Jean-Louis is unambiguously identified as a devout Catholic, and both of these are presented as normal. Jean-Louis and the divorced Maud wind up spending the night, but he insists on accommodations against the occasion of sin. That don’t work . . . exactly . . .
– Victor Morton is a Washington-area cinephile who intermittently blogs at Right Wing Film Geek.