ROHMER’S DOUBLE LIFE: TEACHER AND ARTIST

Éric Rohmer, the father of the French New Wave.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TYRONE DUKES

GLENN KENNY, ROGEREBERT.COM

Despite the fact that his work has garnered spectacular hosannas from American and British film critics since the 1970s, Éric Rohmer remains, I believe, a largely misunderstood filmmaker in the English-speaking world. In his 1995 book “Flickers,” the astute Gilbert Adair cocked a snoot at a “typical chorus of satisfied [Rohmer] customers: ‘Such a civilized director…’ and ‘Such intelligent characters…’ and, especially, ‘What a pleasure to hear such good talk in the cinema…’” “Aside from the fact that equating a film’s intelligence with the intelligence of its spoken dialogue is to beg a number of crucial questions,” Adair continues, “I would suggest, finally, that Rohmer’s characters are among the most foolish, ineffectual, and pathetic milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen.

{And that is the case against Rohmer. Read on for a dismantling of these false charges.–Esco]

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, EMILIE BICKERTON

Rohmer’s way of elevating the ordinary to reveal both its comedy and its tragedy, without resorting to filmic clichés – zooms, jerky cameras or rapid jumps in pace – has inspired subsequent generations of directors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first film,The City Tramp (1966), was a homage to the lonely, errant protagonist in Rohmer’s The Sign of Leo (1962). The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo has said that Rohmer was his guide for his chronicles of the lives and loves – and the heavy drinking sessions – of young people in Seoul. Romania’s Cristi Puiu said he was inspired by Rohmer for The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a film based on an old man’s long journey from his rundown flat in Bucharest to hospital after a heart attack.

RICHARD BRODY, NEW YORKER

Such celebrated films as “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee,” “Summer,” and “A Tale of Springtime” have made Rohmer (as his biographers note) the inventor of a genre unto himself. Namely, the Éric Rohmer film, in which people talk to each other with dialectical precision, intellectual flair, and a stylish offhandedness, on location in striking settings (usually a comfortably tamed nature and architecturally distinctive urban locales), about their emotions and their ideas in pursuit of love and sex, not always with the same person—and do so filmed in images that are both fluid and taut, relaxed and precise. The action meanders but seems held together with a relentlessly unifying purity of cinematic style and idealistic intentions.

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, EMILIE BICKERTON

Rohmer avoided political and topical issues or anything that could be polemical; he usually concentrated on couples in agony or friends arguing over some moral dilemma or philosophical problem. Even so Rohmer has developed a following over the years. He has loyal audiences in Japan, Scandinavia, England and, of course, America.

 

At the start of Eric Rohmer: Biographie  by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe (which appeared in French in 2014 and is now published in English from Columbia University Press, in a translation by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), we are told not to expect any shocking revelations. Rohmer told one big lie about his identity but behind it is a disappointing lack of drama. His mother died in 1970 believing her son was a literature teacher at a secondary school who went by his birth name Maurice Schérer. Rohmer avoided the cameras and public appearances to keep this myth alive; his wife, Thérèse Schérer, fuelled the lie with fictitious letters over many years updating Rohmer’s mother with news about Maurice and his stories from the classroom. If she had discovered the truth, Thérèse  says without humour, ‘it would have killed her.’ Rohmer also kept his wife and children away from his work, not wanting anything from home to mix with it. Thérèse knew what he did every day but he never invited her to his office, never introduced her to his colleagues and only once took his two sons to see one of his films. Sometimes the family would come on holiday with him when he was shooting but they weren’t allowed on set. According to de Baecque and Herpe, his family life provides ‘next to no interest for the biographer’. It was ‘simple, serene, reassuring and happy’. Long walks, visits to museums, classical music playing at home in the evening, early nights.

Rohmer was born in 1920 in Tulle and grew up in a middle-class Catholic family. His father was a civil servant; his mother looked after her two boys and worried above all about the importance of a good education. The younger brother, Réné, was a brilliant pupil but Maurice’s shyness and stammer held him back. He failed the oral exam for the Ecole Normale Supérieure three times and, after serving without fighting for a year during the war, went in 1941 to study in Clermont-Ferrand, the future snow-covered setting of My Night at Maud’s. Two years later he moved to Occupied Paris and in a tiny apartment in the fifth arrondissement dedicated himself to becoming a novelist. As Allied troops battled their way through the city, Rohmer shut his windows and finished Elisabeth, a novel dealing, unironically, with a group of young people on holiday. Rohmer  would never modify his insularity, he kept current events out of nearly all of his films.

Gallimard published his novel in 1946 but it made no waves. He was 24 and had seen no more than half a dozen films in his life. So what drew him down into the dark auditoriums of the Latin Quarter to watch Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang and Keaton? “It was the silent films that attracted me most. Murnau was the great revelation. In those days he wasn’t so highly thought of.” Rohmer was also impressed by the smart and fearless young critic Alexandre Astruc, who was writing for a lot of magazines and journals at the time.

 

keyframedaily:
“ F.W. Murnau, December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931.
”

Murnau

RICHARD BRODY, NEW YORKER

He introduced himself to the flamboyant journalist and film critic, and soon-to-be filmmaker, who befriended Schérer and introduced him to his milieu (which included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir). Shortly thereafter, Schérer took a sudden interest in the movies, frequenting some of the film clubs that were proliferating at the time, as well as the crucial and primordial center of cinephilia, the Cinémathèque, founded and run by Henri Langlois. Movies caused something like spontaneous combustion in Schérer’s active but frustrated mind. Within months, de Baecque and Herpe note, he began to write highly theoretical articles about film, and Astruc helped to get them published. The first of them, “Cinema, the Art of Space,” appeared in 1948; Jean-Luc Godard later called it “the first article of what was for us the takeover of modern cinema.” Through his activities at the most prestigious film club, Objectif 49, and another, the Ciné-Club of the Latin Quarter, which one of his students founded and he ran, Schérer got to know the precocious adolescents Godard, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol.



Image result for Jean-Luc Godard

Godard

[In the cafés of postwar Paris, they met people who would reorient and influence their thinking, in particular the strange and seductive con man and dandy Paul Gégauff, who fascinated them with his detachment from any sense of obligation, his liking for controversy and his success with women. (Gegauff was ultimately a successful writer and scenarist; he co-wrote six films with Chabrol as well as playing the lead role in one,  Une Partie de plaisir (1975) For more on Gegauff cf Film Reference. In the movie, his character is sentenced to seven years in prison for beating his wife to death. In 1983, Gegauff was stabbed to death by his wife who was sentenced to seven years for the crime.–Esco)

 

Image result for Paul Gégauff,

Paul Gegauff

Rohmer had his young friends write for his startup journal La Gazette du Cinéma. The name ‘Eric Rohmer’ appeared for the first time on its masthead….a combination of Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu. The Gazette ran for just five issues but it raised his profile, and soon he was friends with Jean Cocteau and Henri Langlois.– BICKERTON]

And then, when Cahiers du Cinéma was founded, in 1951, he became an editor and brought them in anew to advance there the radical lines of thought and the distinctive taste they shared.

The taste was for such Hollywood filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, and such European ones as Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini. The idea involved the blend of documentary and fictional elements, both taken at their most radical extremes—drastic and conspicuous theatricality and stylization alongside scrupulous attention to real locations and space itself, with an emphasis on actors’ presence (even alongside nonprofessional actors), gestures, vocal inflections, and personal idiosyncrasies that connected the characters to them rather than submerging the actor in the role. The underlying principle was that directors are artists whose unifying vision reveals their own distinctive and personal worldview by making it appear as a thing emerging on its own in the world around them.

Rohmer married in 1957. In 1958, he had taken over at the increasingly influential Cahiers du cinéma after its editor, André Bazin, died unexpectedly. In 1959, now a father and thirty-nine years old, made his first feature, “The Sign of Leo.” Its subject was a talented but unrecognized musician nearing forty, living alone and nearly penniless in a garret, for whom things quickly go from bad to worse.

 

thefilmstage:
“ R.I.P. Jacques Rivette, who has passed away at the age of 87.
”

Rivette

LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, EMILIE BICKERTON


So it was for Rohmer as well. He could only watch as Godard and Truffaut triumphed while his own film sat in the cutting room: he had to fight for his version of the final edit, which didn’t reach cinemas until 1962 – when it sank without trace. Shortly afterwards Rohmer suffered another humiliation, this time inside the Cahiers offices. Since the start of the decade there had been rumblings of discontent over his leadership and his modest policy of not giving too much coverage to New Wave films on the grounds that it might seem incestuous. Jacques Rivette, who had recently started making his own features, was leading the charge. He gathered support from within the office and prepared a parallel issue which he used to kick Rohmer out and take charge himself. In his campaign for control Rivette stressed the need for film critics to pay closer attention to politics, and to the intellectual and artistic currents of the day, from psychoanalysis to structuralism….Rivette’s position was strategic and it was the one in vogue in the spring of 1963.’


Rivette was right to say that Cahiers under Rohmer would always avoid politics. He rarely got involved in any kind of activism.  After Rivette’s coup, Rohmer hit a wall: he had failed as a director, been humiliated as an editor, and his novel and short stories were ignored. But with hindsight the forced exit from Cahiers precipitated his becoming a full-time film-maker. It was at this point that Rohmer turned to his drawer of short stories, put there after Gallimard had turned down his collection Moral Tales ten years earlier. Now the material struck Rohmer as gold dust for films. All his friends had to hunt tirelessly for a decent novel to adapt or a writer to come up with something interesting. But Rohmer already had ideas. In 1963 he began planning a cycle of six films with the same title as his collection. (He found working in cycles congenial and others would follow: the six films grouped as ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ in the 1980s; the four features in the 1990s known as the ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’.) He set up a production company with his friend Barbet Schroeder, who sold one of his mother’s Emil Nolde paintings to finance the venture. Les Films du Losange was launched out of an old maid’s quarters in an apartment in the 16th arrondissement and had one project: The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, a 22-minute film which was quickly followed by Suzanne’s Career. These first two instalments of the ‘Moral Tales’ were bought by French television, earning Rohmer enough money to invest in the third. Rohmer would go on to follow this policy of investing the profits from one film into the next project religiously.

heavenhillgirl:
“ La collectionneuse (1967), Eric Rohmer
”

La Collectioneuse 

La Collectioneuse in 1967 proved to be the breakthrough film. Rohmer was 46.Viewers were enamoured by the strange, idyllic seaside setting where a young muse and two male friends spend their summer in an abandoned house: a trio living in paradise yet not satisfied by its pleasures and instead searching confusedly for something beyond the immediate and sensual. The radical visual style of the film contributed to the impression it made. Rohmer’s cinematographer was the young and untested Néstor Almendros, who had escaped Castro’s Cuba and was therefore shunned by many left-wing intellectuals when he arrived in Paris. Rohmer, though, made friends with him and they went on to collaborate for decades. For La Collectioneuse  Almendros used a lighting technique that depended on mirrors and natural light. He filmed the body parts of the protagonists in close-up – a tanned leg, a torso, a head of ruffled hair – and then cut away to show the location: the pebbles on the beach, the sea, the wild grass around the old house.

Rohmer had also begun working for the Radio-Télévision Scolaire, an ambitious new channel aimed at schoolchildren. His first episode, in 1963, was on 18th-century physics. Over the next half-dozen years he made some twenty documentaries, on Victor Hugo, Pascal, Louis Lumière, Edgar Allan Poe, urban architecture, the evolution of the French language and a weirdly captivating programme on cement. It helped that Rohmer was always curious: Big Ears was one of his nicknames, for the enjoyment he took in listening to people, whatever their ideas.

[The rest is film and artistic history. The remaining Moral Tales were made into movie masterpieces. My Night at Mauds ( 1969 ), Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon  (1972) placed Rohmer in the pantheon of great film directors. Among his subsequent filmography are such superb movies as Marquis of O ( 1976), Pauline at the Beach (1983), The Green Ray ( 1986 ), Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987), A Tale of Springtime (1990),  A Tale of Winter (1992 ) and A Tale of Summer ( 1996) Esco ]

Neither was Rohmer’s academic career a failure: he taught a popular weekly class on cinema for twenty years and in 1971 successfully defended his thesis on Murnau’s use of space in Faust.

 


movies-across-time-and-space:
“ Faust | 1926 | F.W. Murnau | Germany
You just could gif every frame of this movie.
”movies-across-time-and-space:
“ Faust | 1926 | F.W. Murnau | Germany
You just could gif every frame of this movie.
”

Faust (1926)

[Rohmer was a practicing Catholic; he was a longtime subscriber to a neo-royalist publication and was a longtime friend of several far-right thinkers. In 1965, he asserted, “I don’t know if I am on the Right, but in any case, one thing is certain: I’m not on the Left.”–BRODY,]

His economic model for film-making was constructed specifically to give him the freedom not to be popular. If he kept costs low and generally made what he liked to call ‘amateur’ films, he would never need large audiences to make back the money he had spent shooting. And when he did take on a comparative mega-production, such as The Lady and the Duke (2000) towards the end of his career, the scale obviously flustered rather than thrilled him. Arriving for the first day on set he took one look at the crew of more than a hundred and ran out of the studio. His producer and long-time collaborator Françoise Etchegaray remembers Rohmer telling her he was sure half the people in there were useless; he spent the rest of the first day working out who he could do without.

It was only during his final days in hospital that Etchegaray, with whom he had worked daily for thirty years, finally met his wife. His two lives came briefly together at last. At his funeral the Schérers and the Rohmers came together again and by all accounts had nothing to say to each other.The safety of home seemed to protect him from the moral ambiguity that so troubled his protagonists – this girl or that one, two homes or one, touch her knee or walk away? Perhaps he feared that if he opened himself up to such hesitations, he would take the path leading to the unpredictable and mysterious Maud, rather than the faithful and consistent girl sitting in church.



Photo by Robin Holland

 

RICHARD BRODY, NEW YORKER

 The characters Rohmer was, above all, interested in developing in a quasi-documentary fashion were those of young women. From the mid-sixties through the very end of his life, Rohmer surrounded himself with young women, actresses or non-actresses, teen-agers and young adults, whom he met for tea, joined on walks, at movies, in museums, and in conversations—which he’d often record. They played music together, they wrote each other letters, their emotional bonds often grew very close; most of the actresses in his movies, throughout his career, began as acquaintances, friends, intimates. He derived his characters and plots from their real lives, based his dialogue on what they told him, filmed in their apartments, took them to scout other locations, imbued himself with their very existence even as he became something of a mentor to them as well.

Rohmer divulged to another interviewer the bedrock principle that enabled him to work so closely with the women whose presence, whose inner and outer life, had become so much the stuff of his own life and art: “To someone who asked him: ‘But how do you manage to have tea every day with these magnificent girls?,’ he replied: ‘My secret is absolute chastity.’ ”

 

iwanttobelikearollingstone:
“Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray
”

The Green Ray ( 1986)

Though Rohmer’s actresses (and often his actors, too) were put in the position of fusing their personal lives with their onscreen identities, Rohmer himself—even when his films had strongly autobiographical elements—sustained a complete division of his home life and his work life. He maintained both an unshakable fidelity to his wife and an equally unshakable fidelity to the demands of his work.

Rohmer’s entire career is centered on one simple idea. Almost all his films have the same underlying structure, the temptation and rejection of a false love while waiting for a true one. It’s the story of his life. His life is the story of one true love—a marriage—and the snares of desire that both put it in danger and fuel the imagination. But, in order to tell the story that he wanted to tell, he had to live it repeatedly.

 

Image result for A Tale of Winter

  A Tale of Winter (1992 )

That’s also why Rohmer’s films are deceptive in their smooth surfaces and refined intellectualism—and why his lesser imitators (such as Richard Linklater, in the “Before” trilogy) fall far short of his achievements. Rohmer’s films are the embodiment of terrifyingly strong passions and of equally terrifying, and slightly stronger, repression.

Rohmer’s cinematic methods were similarly extreme and similarly contradictory. He wrote his scripts carefully and spent months or more scouting locations and planning décor. The director and producer Barbet Schroeder reports that, for a scene in “Claire’s Knee” involving a rose, “a year earlier, Rohmer had planted the rose at the spot where it was supposed to bloom, calculating the date when it would open, which was written down in the work plan.” He filmed with a fanatical attentiveness to geographical and architectural accuracy.

[ ….But when it came to shooting he abandoned himself to the moment. In 24 feature films made over half a century he rarely did two takes of a scene, despite hesitations, distracting gestures or wayward extras peering into the camera.

He never left things to chance, but as shown above, he did make use of the unexpected. It’s a paradox we find a lot in his films, and something he practiced daily in the double life he lived for more than seventy years.–Bickerton ]


Rohmer’s films are intensely personal fusions of firsthand observation and vast cultural sophistication. In order to make films on his one subject, he needed to present the inner conflict within his protagonist. The tension between authority and freedom, between self-restraint and liberation, between conflicting desires in seeming contradiction, between chance and necessity; this is the subject of Rohmer’s life and of his art. Rohmer put himself and his art sorely to the test, repeatedly and constantly. …That’s why, for all his films’ instantly recognizable substance and style, they’re inimitable.

 

whitemystere:
“ “ My Night At Maud’s/Ma Nuit Chez Maud - Eric Rohmer, 1969.
”
Charmant ! This is the best feeling.
”

My Night at Mauds ( 1969 ),



——

GLENN KENNY, ROGEREBERT.COM

Although rendered in a clear, straightforward style, the book is not undemanding. Rohmer’s thought and work were complex, and it’s this fact in part that determines the book’s form, which follows the chronology of Rohmer’s life but also concentrates, in particular chapters on specific modes of activity or thought, and here the authors will hopscotch around the timeline to serve the larger thematic concerns. The book also, as is only fit, treats Rohmer as a French artist, one working within several French traditions, and the reader conversant with those traditions will have an easier time with the book, specifically when a passage like this one comes up: “In the end, ‘Loup, y es-tu?’ started looking like a play by Feydeau, with its cuckolding and mistaken identities, with its sexcapades that people try to minimize by lying. But it is a Feydeau that dreams of Marivaux or Racine.”