French Class

Reading and lounging and watching.
Aug. 29 2006 7:34 AM

French Class

The casual, moral genius of Eric Rohmer.

Director Eric Rohmer 
Click image to expand.
Director Eric Rohmer

Back in the mid-'90s, when I still lay, self-entombed, in grad school, I began to notice a curiously inverted correlation. As the status of the English department declined, its claims on behalf of English poetry inflated. The poets themselves, in the famously provocative phrase of Auden, had always known they make nothing happen. But as interest in literature withered, and along with it interest in literary theory, the two defining camps of lit professors began to aggrandize on poetry's behalf, often wildly. The theorists attached poetry to worldly power by proclaiming its complicity in the structures of social domination. (Unlike some, I take the argument seriously, enough at least to re-read John Guillory's Cultural Capital every three or four years, scanning it for chinks in its gleaming armature.) But the humanists went even further. It was no longer enough for Harold Bloom to proclaim, as he once had, that Shakespeare invented the English language—no, Shakespeare had invented "the human" itself! Ay, caramba. What a relief it has been, over the years, to exit the smithy of Harold Bloom's soul. And what a related pleasure this past week to reacquaint myself with a poetic filmmaker who revolutionized nothing; who invented nothing; and who never announced his own genius, implicitly or otherwise.

Eric Rohmer has become my favorite filmmaker in just the way that Eric Rohmer would prefer—without my even noticing. Can total unobtrusiveness be a style? Rohmer's films are only barely films. "I went to the head of television at the time," Barbet Schroeder, Rohmer's first producer (now an eminent director in his own right) says in an interview accompanying the new Rohmer box set. "He threw the screenplay on the ground and said, 'You pick it up. I'm sorry, but this is filmed theater.'" Rohmer was a decade senior to Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and the other filmmakers associated with Cahiers du cinéma and the New Wave in France, and he remained unimpressed by the film-cultish emphasis on camera or editing technique. Rohmer's movies are the founding documents of a school of cinema that, but for a stray film (My Dinner With Andre, You Can Count on Me) or filmmaker (Henry Jaglom, Neil LaBute), has never come into existence—a talking cinema. "Film took more than thirty years to learn to manage without speech," Rohmer wrote in 1948, "and so it's not surprising that after eighteen years it still has not learned to use it." Apprehensive over its status as a new art form, film had generated its own vocabulary, inward and semi-mystical, of mise en scene, a vocabulary that cut itself off from other cultural antecedents. Rohmer re-sutured it to Pascal and Balzac and Melville and Kant and Moliére, to the writers from the literary and philosophical past he cared for, on the one hand, and to conversation, to simple human speech, on the other. Thus my favorite line of Rohmer dialogue: "Pursuing girls does not estrange one from God," says Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's, "any more than pursuing mathematics, for example."

I have made Rohmer sound grand without intending to. Everything about his genius is, after all, self-effacing and cumulative. No single scene announces his enduring talent, and no lone film (with the possible exception of My Night at Maud's) is an unalloyed masterpiece. To do him some justice, Criterion has released a handsome box set of his early work, the six films that comprise what Rohmer called the "Six Moral Tales." The cycle covers Rohmer's evolution from the all-hands-on-deck guerilla filmmaker of The Baker's Girl of Monceau to the internationally acclaimed director of Claire's Knee and Love in the Afternoon. The early films feature three types of people: callow young men from privileged backgrounds who, though forced to make their own way in the professions (they are in law or med school) still have enough of the fils a papa in them to affect the libertine; an elegant woman they idealize; and a semi-anonymous woman from a lower social rung whom they victimize. In The Baker's Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career, Rohmer sets up the theme that will structure the whole series: A man is tempted away from his beau ideal by an ostensibly inadequate substitute. In this, Rohmer effected a series of sly reversals of the familiar romantic tropes. To Rohmer's hero, the exalted woman is largely an abstraction, and thus to the audience something of a bore. The scorned woman, the abandoned woman, is in every way more compelling to us—more present, more lifelike, more engaging, only superficially less desirable—even as the hero abuses her, or talks himself out of loving her. In each moral tale, then, we enter into the interior life of the male protagonist, an elaborate house of bullshit constructed to keep life, in the form of a tempting woman, at bay.

Parallel to Rohmer's evolution as a filmmaker, the Moral Tales chart the development of Rohmer's tempting women, from the lumpen girl-victims of the earliest films, through the amorous brinksmanship of Francois Fabien of My Night at Maud's, and finally to the ambiguously man-eating Zouzou, all mandible and lips, of Love in the Afternoon. Along the way, no actual sex is had, until the unheard-of conclusion of Love in the Afternoon, when a man has sex with (cover your eyes) … his wife. Along the way, though, every cranny of the theology of sex is discussed. The most pleasant surprise of the set is La Collectionneuse, which Rohmer filmed on the cheap in the Côte d'Azure while waiting for Jean-Louis Trintignant to free up his schedule. The film is Rohmer's sun-kissed flip-off to all the Roger Vadim clichés: a young unattainable goddess pursued by a tormented man, and all the Which is worse, capturing her or not capturing her? blah blah that accompanies the genre. Instead, Rohmer gives us Haydée, a terrifically sexy gamine who is rather too easily had. What irritates her would-be pursuers, two art-world poseurs, to the point of outright contempt is that she hasn't cultivated herself as a mysterious object of enchantment. Having deprived them of this story line, they turn on her and call her a "collector"—that is, they project onto her their own worst qualities as dandies.

The default state of mankind is bullshitting, or the foisting of our self-deceptions onto others. For Rohmer, film was a uniquely apt way of putting this fact before an audience, though he did so without a tincture of contempt, either for the elaborate evasions themselves, some of which, such as Trintignant's obsession with Pascal, are quite beautiful, or for the animal need being evaded by all the persiflage. Rohmer, a late bloomer, had started out a teacher and a critic, and by the time he ceded his life to making movies, he was well into his 40s. He once described his method this way: "When filming, it's usually: 'Camera,' then 'Clapper,' then 'Action.' I did the opposite. First I said, 'Action!' Then if it was going well I tapped the cameraman and he started filming." He is still a vigorous presence in international film at the age of 86, thanks to a very Rohmerian contradiction: His love of people and ideas has always exceeded any affection he may or may not have for the monomaniacal cult known as "cinema."

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.