Remembering Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010

Sly, romantic French New Wave director is dead at 89 -- filmmakers and critics remember an unclassifiable legend

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published January 12, 2010 2:12AM (EST)
A still from "Pauline at the Beach"
A still from "Pauline at the Beach"

One of the great dramatists, moralists and ironists of the European tradition was lost to us on Monday with the news that Eric Rohmer had died in Paris at age 89. You will notice that I did not use the word "filmmaker." I am certainly not suggesting that the director of "My Night at Maud's," "Claire's Knee" and "Pauline at the Beach" did not make wonderful films. But Rohmer's work had a clarity, a simplicity and an emotional transparency that made it stand apart from contemporary cinema and made it feel more like live theater, or overheard café conversation, or one's own life.

Throughout his career, Rohmer was criminally underappreciated as a crafter of beautiful, uncluttered images. Critics who didn't like him tended to call him "literary," as if that were savage -- what about those of us who like literature? But Rohmer's almost invisible technique was never the point of his movies; it was a tool designed to bring us closer to his self-conscious, compulsive characters and their awkward, tentative, achingly familiar struggles with love and lust, family and friendship. As a young critic Rohmer had championed the technical bravura of directors like Alfred Hitchcock. But in his directing career he increasingly turned his back on the cinema Hitchcock and his acolytes had spawned, which conflated style and substance, or simply substituted the former for the latter.

Here's what I wrote when reviewing what turned out to be Rohmer's final film, "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon," which like many of his later works was barely and briefly released in the United States:

If Eric Rohmer has really made his last film, then I guess it's no surprise that it's an eccentric and delightful confection, balanced partway between masterwork and triviality and supremely unconcerned with the world around it. Since the emergence of the French New Wave in the late '50s, Rohmer has been making sly, observant social-romantic comedies ("Claire's Knee," "My Night at Maud's," "Pauline at the Beach") that are easy to watch but a lot less easy to categorize. You can read "Astrea and Celadon" as not merely a farewell to one individual's filmmaking career but a farewell to cinema itself and to the modern society that produced it. It's barely getting a theatrical look-see, which is too bad, but I can only conclude that if Rohmer gave a damn about the marketplace at this point he'd have made something else.

As I observed later in the article, "Astrea and Celadon" had virtually nothing to do with the storytelling or cinematic conventions of 21st-century film. If movies had existed 400 years ago, they'd have looked pretty much like this:

I can't think of another director who would even have tried to make this mythic wonderland come alive, with its impossibly beautiful actors, lush, bucolic scenery and not even the slightest concession to contemporary notions of realism. Here's a dissertation topic for someone: Ingmar Bergman's last film ("Saraband") stared aging and mortality right in the face, while Rohmer's last, if it is his last, offers a romantic vision of eternal youth. Is Rohmer declaring that all the stories he's told us about the foibles of contemporary love, from "My Night at Maud's" onward, are in their own way as ritualistic as this one? Do they all take place in this unchanging sylvan glade where two lovers become estranged, break each other's hearts and reunite in tears of ecstasy, over and over again?

Rohmer was always a poet of young love, both as a younger filmmaker and an older one. He was unmatched, in fact, in his rueful, unsentimental but fundamentally empathetic view of youthful romance -- and of the complicated ways we learn to mask its uncomfortable yearnings with social politesse as we grow older. Certainly some viewers were put off by the pervy undertones of a film like "Claire's Knee," which purports to be about a 35-year-old man possessed by an almost uncontrollable desire to touch a teenage girl's knee. But Rohmer's moonstruck characters, whether young or old, are too self-doubting, too concerned with mores and appearances, to be threatening.

Every Rohmer fan will have certain favorites shared by nearly no one else on the planet. After his brief period of international renown in the '60s and '70s, the director became a hermetic phenomenon unto himself, with small cadres of admirers around the globe and an aesthetic that grew more and more detached from contemporary fashion and sensibility. (As Quentin Tarantino, implausibly enough, once observed, you have to see a Rohmer film to find out whether you like them, and if you like them you'll want to see a bunch more.) I have a special fondness for the Rohmer "Comedies and Proverbs" films set among the young Parisians of the '80s, probably because I saw them, one after another, at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, when I was a young person in that foggy city wrestling with semi-requited passions and other all-consuming personal dramas: "Full Moon in Paris," "Summer" (aka "The Green Ray"), "Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle," "Boyfriends and Girlfriends."

Rohmer was born Jean-Marie Schérer in 1920 in the eastern French city of Nancy, near the German border. (For his nom du cinéma, he borrowed his first name from Erich von Stroheim and his surname from pulp-fiction author Sax Rohmer.) Like many other directors of the French New Wave, he had an academic and journalistic background, teaching English and German and writing influential reviews for Cahiers du Cinéma. Although IMDB lists more than 50 films under Rohmer's name, he will always be best known for a modest handful, made between 1969 and 1983, that found general release in the U.S. and around the world. With his death, the population of French New Wave survivors has dwindled down to a precious few: Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard (youngest of the three at 79).

There's much more to say about Rohmer, his films and the movement that brought him to international attention. But here are the first few remembrances from Film Salon's contributors. I'll publish more as they come in. Please also check out critic Glenn Kenny's wonderful blog entry -- just a quote from Rohmer and three beautiful images -- which I can't do any justice to by summarizing or excerpting.

Nicole Holofcener, director of "Friends With Money," "Lovely & Amazing" and the forthcoming "Please Give": People often compared my movies to Eric Rohmer's and I was always incredibly flattered, even if they didn't mean it as a compliment! I loved his work and I'm sure I was influenced by it. Sad to hear he's gone.

Jeff Lipsky, director of "Flannel Pajamas" and the forthcoming "Twelve Thirty": The art of writing great dialogue for film took a major knee to the groin today. Too bad there won't be any "B" roll of the inevitable reunion dinner between Mr. Rohmer and Mr. Chayefsky.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader critic and author of "Movies as Politics": Some of the Rohmer films that I treasure the most -- in particular, his remarkable medieval musical, "Perceval le Gallois" (1978) -- are among the least well known and appreciated, and the same thing could be said for his groundbreaking film criticism of the '50s, much of it collected in "The Taste for Beauty." I've just tried to sum up much of what I thought (and think) about his work by reposting my review of "Autumn Tale" on my Web site.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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