‘I saw a Rohmer film once,” Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves famously declared. “It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
Those two lines, in a movie directed by the acclaimed Arthur Penn, might have dissuaded an entire generation of film fans from investigating the work of Eric Rohmer. It’s too bad. When Rohmer died on January 11 in Paris, at age 89, the world lost the man who might have been its greatest living director.
In many ways, he was a stereotypically French filmmaker: His elegant films are filled with wine drinking and cigarette smoking in moody cafés and cramped apartments. As Hackman’s character noticed, Rohmer’s characters don’t seem to do much; no Protestant work ethic keeps them from philosophizing late into the night. Sometimes they don’t even do so much as talk — a longish scene in Full Moon in Paris (1984) simply shows modish men and women dancing to mediocre French pop in a 1980s nightclub.
But, despite the familiar European-art-film elements, Rohmer was a filmmaker unlike any other. In the 1950s, before the French New Wave Rohmer helped launch had even been conceived, he told fellow critic and would-be director Jacques Rivette that there were two novelists every filmmaker must read: Honoré de Balzac and Fyodor Dostoevsky. You won’t find many other French directors — let alone directors, period — closely studying these two giants. But a fondness for one of literature’s founding realists, and for its greatest psychologist and moralist, sums up Rohmer’s approach to his art.
Don’t let these influences — or the fact that Rohmer was also a schoolteacher, a novelist, and a critic — lead you to think he’s simply a highbrow writer who set his words to celluloid. In fact, a lot goes on in Rohmer’s films, though much of the drama is internal. Every one of his movies contains action of the highest type: A character (usually a man) is faced with temptation and must make a moral decision. That decision, though pondered with the right amount of angst, might seem to be a momentary one, but it turns out to be momentous. A yes or a no can damn a man for eternity.
Rohmer was almost forced to become a success. From 1957 to 1963, he was editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, the stunningly influential film journal whose writers included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Rivette. These men would put down their pens and pick up cameras, ushering in a new era of formalism in film with the French New Wave. Rohmer would become one of its leading lights, but, though a decade older than most of his colleagues, he was the last to find fame. It was only when he was ousted from his editorship that he threw himself into the sort of artistry he’d been championing.
He was overthrown because the tide had turned. Cahiers had been founded in protest of a French film criticism that blindly celebrated the mediocre work coming out of France, while criticizing the revolutionary work coming out of America. “We should love America,” Rohmer wrote, because Hollywood was turning an entertainment into an art form. They extolled Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, much to the consternation of the establishment. That adoration of America would eventually lead to the labeling of the group — and particularly Rohmer — as too conservative. (Years later, his 2001 film The Lady and the Duke would be controversial in France for showing the terror of the French Revolution.) But they weren’t particularly political. The Cahiers crowd resolutely stood for art for art’s sake over any ideological agendas.
They upset the elite because they were no elitists. As Emilie Bickerton notes in the recently released A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma, the original French avant-garde wanted their work to be seen by as many people as possible. “In similar spirit,” she writes, “Cahiers first championed the films it believed were the best of the art, with the aim to bring a deeper understanding of their value to the wider public, whom it believed perfectly capable of grasping them.”
#page#And film, Rohmer soon realized, could reach far more people than any other art form. It was also the one best suited to his high-minded mission. “Perhaps of all the arts, film is the only one today that knows how to walk without faltering on those high summits and with all the magnificence required, the only one that still leaves room for the aesthetic category of the sublime, elsewhere discarded because of an excusable sense of modesty,” he wrote in a Cahiers essay collected in his book The Taste for Beauty. Filmmakers were the only artists who needed not fear mockery for exploring the divine. “Since Victor Hugo’s voice was silenced, what writer would dare not banish the words magnificent, terrifying, or grandiose from his pen?”
Nowhere was his mastery of the moral more evident than in the early films that established his reputation: the “Six Moral Tales.” This linked series of films, two shorts and four features, that he made between 1963 and 1972 all have the same plot: A man in love with one woman is tempted by another. It’s a seemingly small idea, but one that Rohmer’s genius turned in elegant variations.
From the first two black-and-white shorts of 1963 — The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career — Rohmer’s distinctive tone was set. Style doesn’t make way for substance; it complements it. That’s why his movies aren’t full of things. The focus, instead, is on his characters. His visual style bears the influence of Balzac, with a determined, even heightened, realism. He emphasizes the enclosed spaces of Paris apartments and cafés, and even his outdoor shots feel somehow claustrophobic — these men and women are forced to confront one another, and themselves. There are no melodramatic soundtracks that tell the audience what to feel. Rohmer’s films are obsessed with morals but don’t offer an easy moral.
It was the third film in the series that saw the most success in America. My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for the Academy Awards for best screenplay and best foreign film. It was a major accomplishment for a foreign, talky film in which the main characters, in between flirtations, debate Pascal’s Wager. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the protagonist, has decided to marry the beautiful and devout Françoise, but his commitment to both her and his Catholic religion is tested when he spends a night with the charming divorcée of the title.
Rohmer’s characters never seem ready to settle into domestic bliss — even if they recognize it as such. Jean-Louis isn’t the only one in love not so much with a woman, as with a sense of possibility. “The prospect of happiness opening indefinitely before me sobers me. I find myself missing that time, not too long ago, when I could experience the pangs of anticipation,” says Frédéric in Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). The feeling isn’t limited to men. Haydée, the title character in La collectionneuse (1967), declares, “Unmitigated happiness bores me.”
Rohmer’s self-centered men are thus infuriatingly — but somewhat understandably — indecisive. Jean-Louis stays up all night wondering whether he’ll betray Françoise with Maud, while Frédéric is unsure whether he’ll cheat on his wife with the compelling Chloe until the last possible moment. The women are always impossibly beautiful, their sweet smiles sometimes innocent, sometimes enticing. That might be why Rohmer’s men often fall in love simply by sight — and then spend the rest of the movie trying to decide what to do about it. Rohmer’s films aren’t action flicks, no. But they’re not about people who just sit around and talk. “People who are always thinking don’t exist. Look at Dalí’s Melted Watch, for example,” Daniel wryly says in La collectionneuse. Rohmer’s films are intellectual dramas whose action takes place inside the men whose morals are conflicted, but must be resolved in a single decision.
Rohmer left his mark not just on the people who watched his films, but on the people who were driven by their beauty to make films of their own. His influence can be seen in everything from Whit Stillman’s talky pictures that stress exploring psychology over developing plot, to Quentin Tarantino’s violent movies whose characters often have Rohmer-like philosophical conversations. Rohmer was our greatest filmmaker-moralist, but his banner is kept flying by serious filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Neil LaBute, who show the same concern for our moral lives.
Rohmer once wrote, “The cinema is a privileged art form because it most faithfully transcribes the beauty of the real world. Art can never improve on reality.” That might be true. But in showing us how deadly important a seemingly small decision can be — a decision a character can take two hours of stylish film time to make — Rohmer might have improved our conception of the reality of moral choice.
– Kelly Jane Torrance is a writer living in Washington, D.C.