French director Eric Rohmer, who died this week at the age of 89, told Barbet Schroeder in a 2006 interview, "In many films, people never discuss ideas, be they moral or political. And when those kinds of discussions are introduced, it often sounds false. What I've tried to do—and this is what I'm happiest with in my films—[is to] show people discussing morality, whatever that might mean, in a completely natural way." Sometimes these discussions are abstract and philosophical (Jean-Louis Trintignant, his prospective mistress, and a friend debating Pascal over dinner in My Night at Maud's) and sometimes they're distinctly earthbound (the two dandies in La Collectionneuse taunting the indifferent object of their desire by calling her a slut). But it only takes a minute of hearing and seeing one of these conversations to know you're in Rohmer-world, an enchanted and yet peculiarly unsentimental place in which both words and actions, minds and bodies, matter absolutely.
Philosopher Gerard Legrand wrote that "Rohmer is constantly inviting you to be intelligent …. In fact, more intelligent than his characters." The first part of that statement is impeccably observed: A Rohmer movie doesn't clobber you with its smarts; it generously furnishes you a space in which to think for yourself. But Legrand's suggestion that, as part of this transaction, the viewer is invited to feel smarter than the characters seems to me imprecise and insufficiently appreciative of Rohmer's artistry. As we watch Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), the self-deluded hero of Claire's Knee, place his impending marriage in peril by blundering into all manner of erotic monkeyshines, we feel no smarter than he is. We don't regard him with contempt or pity. We may feel wiser than Jerome, by moments, and certainly we laugh at his subterfuges, but we know all the while that our sense of superiority is itself a delusion—that the minute we leave the theater, we're liable to lay eyes on an enticing knee that provokes us to behave just as foolishly. To find other artists besides Rohmer who can see this deeply into a character's humanity and make us love him anyway—that is to say, who can ironize with this degree of gentleness—you have to reach up to a pretty high shelf: Shakespeare? Tolstoy?
Rohmer, a Jesuit-educated Catholic who claimed to have had a conversion experience while watching Rossellini's Stromboli, made films that were innovative but not iconoclastic—and never "revolutionary" in the Marxist sense of early Godard. They belong to a tradition of French philosophy and literature going back to Pascal, Marivaux, and Stendhal, in which free-thinking, solitude-loving heroes and heroines are caught in conflicts between the exigencies of law and reason and the demands of the heart. Rohmer was a professor of French and German literature and a writer of fiction before he became a filmmaker, and he often grouped his movies into themed series that were like (and were sometimes based on) short-story collections—"Moral Tales," "Comedies and Proverbs," "Tales of the Four Seasons."
But this emphasis on Rohmer as a literate and literary director, the academic dean of the Nouvelle Vague, risks making him sound like a born writer who just happened, through some accident of generational affiliation, to end up making movies. My friend Stephen Metcalf, in his lovely appreciation of the "Moral Tales" series, makes this mistake, I think, when he says that Rohmer's love for people and ideas "exceeded any affection he may or may not have for the monomaniacal cult known as 'cinema.' "
It's true that Rohmer was indifferent to many of the cinematic obsessions of his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries: American genre film, and popular culture in general, seemed barely to exist for him. (Nor did contemporary political events, which laid him open to the charge, among the Cahiers crowd and others, of being a reactionary classicist.) But he was far from indifferent to which medium he was working in.
If Rohmer sometimes said, "Action" before he said, "Camera," it wasn't because he cared more about what the actors were doing than the fact they were being filmed. It was because he was trying to achieve a precise cinematic effect, that heightened not-quite-naturalism all his own; not a documentary-style "slice of life" but a privileged form of eavesdropping.
In Rohmer-world, events that seem random and quotidian suddenly coalesce into pristinely constructed stories. It's only in the last few minutes of The Aviator's Wifethat we realize how every turn of the plot (in which a semi-spurned lover lurks around Paris spying on his rival) has been necessary for the final twists to make sense. Rohmer characters are often flâneurs, wanderers, time-wasters, but the films they meander through never waste a moment. And though his use of conventional cinematic frills—showy camera moves, non-diegetic music—is sparing, no one could call his movies austere. They take pleasure in everything: in nature, weather, language, color, light, and above all the varieties of female beauty. Has any director ever had better taste in women?
The beautiful people in Rohmer movies may be entranced with the sound of their own and one another's voices, but they also speak with their bodies: Fabrice Luchini awkwardly navigating the dance floor in Full Moon in Paris, the principals of Pauline at the Beach using windsurfing lessons as a courtship ritual, and of course the protagonist in Claire's Knee groping for that irresistible kneecap. The character's movements and gestures are every bit as important as what they say, and as often as not, the gestures undo the words. "The reason I don't like a close-up," Rohmer explains in an interview that can be found in the extras of this excellent box set, "is because it excludes. It doesn't add, it takes away. It suppresses the relationship of the character to the set." Rohmer didn't draw any metaphorical conclusions about the significance of his preference for long shots over close-ups, but I'll permit myself the liberty of hazarding one: If he preferred to keep his camera at a distance, it was because, physically as well as spiritually, he saw his characters as irreducibly whole.
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