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Notebook Primer: Éric Rohmer

While dramatizing the nuanced behavior of the individual, the films of Éric Rohmer maintained consistent themes and passionate interests.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Éric Rohmer was notoriously secretive about his personal life, giving alternate birth names, birth cities, and birth dates (supposedly, his mother died never knowing her son was, in fact, an acclaimed filmmaker). But according to biographers Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Rohmer was actually born Maurice Joseph Henri Schérer, in Tulle, on March 21, 1920. Whatever the truth, such resolute devotion to privacy reflected the exclusive and rigorous nature of Rohmer’s working life as well. Often going against the grain of his early French New Wave contemporaries, and from there enjoying a similar autonomy and singularity within the sphere of international cinema, Rohmer directed distinctive films most aligned—emphatically and productively—with his own filmography. Maintaining a remarkable dedication to consistent themes, dramatic interests, and, in nearly all cases, a comparable formal approach, Rohmer placed the nuanced behavior of the individual at the fore of all his work.
Above: Le Signe du lion
Steeped in studies of history, literature, and philosophy, Rohmer arrived at his burgeoning cinephile comparatively late. But when he did, it was a genesis similar to that of his French colleagues: attending screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, writing reviews for various publications, co-founding the short-lived La Gazette du Cinéma, authoring, with Claude Chabrol, a groundbreaking study on Alfred Hitchcock, and contributing to Cahiers du cinéma, which he would subsequently edit for about seven years. He then tried his hand at filmmaking itself, with the short films Journal d'un scélérat (1950), Bérénice (1954), La sonate à Kreutzer (1956), Veronica and Her Dunce (1958), and Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak (1960), followed by his feature directorial debut, 1959’s Le Signe du lion, which told the story of a wayward American waiting on his inheritance and slowly falling into a life of impoverished drifting. Although the film was not a commercial success, its release was delayed, and the final print was later recut against his wishes, it is nevertheless emblematic of Rohmer’s fondness for location shooting.
In 1962, Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder co-founded a production company, Les Films du Losange, which produced all his succeeding work, save for his final three films. A year later, he directed the first of what would become his Six Moral Tales, the 26-minute The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963). It too displays a canny knack for scenic placement and contains many of the hallmarks of the New Wave, including jump cuts, first-person narration, and verbal digressions. This was followed by Suzanne's Career, a playful 54-minute film about chance encounters and psychological scrutiny. While these two productions were by no means Rohmer’s first films, as scholar Ginette Vincendeau points out, the shorts do “provide an essential blueprint for Rohmer’s fantastically prolific and brilliant oeuvre… .” Not incidentally, Vincendeau adds, “they also inaugurate Rohmer’s trademark series ... cerebral yet humorous variations on the theme of love and deception in which male narrators are faced with the ethical dilemma of having to choose between women.”
Above: Claire’s Knee
The later Moral Tales indeed followed suit. After participating in the 1965 omnibus film Six in Paris, where his Place de l'Étoileagain further exemplified his commitment to French locales, and after making several shorts for television between 1964 and 1966, Rohmer directed La Collectionneuse in 1967, his first color film and the winner of the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival. This sprightly tale of sexual liberation and fickle relationships was followed by My Night at Maud’s (1969), where Rohmer continued to cultivate his concentration on the (over)analysis of romantic attraction and communal codes of conduct. Starring New Wave icon Jean-Claude Brialy, Claire’s Knee (1970) was widely applauded and is another picturesque feature about temptation, obsession, and defiance, while 1972’s Love in the Afternoon (released in the United States as Chloe in the Afternoon) is an anxious and occasionally comic dissection of flirtations and fantasies. The stories comprising the Six Moral Tales were originally written by Rohmer as short novels, and his adaptations, while criticized for being excessively literary, benefit from long passages of reflective dialogue and little in the way of ostensible action, exploring moral ambiguities in a restrained and rational manner generally void of the stylistic flourishes and sociopolitical statements in vogue at the time.
Above: Perceval
Before turning to another loosely linked series of contemporary features, Rohmer directed two period dramas based not on his own literary endeavors but on preexisting texts. The Marquise of O (1976), from the novella by Heinrich von Kleist, is a methodically composed and enacted film about passion and pretense, while Perceval (1978), based on a 12th century manuscript by Chrétien de Troyes, is a theatrical rendering of its Holy Grail legend presented with mannered, rhythmic speech and set against sparse, overtly fabricated backdrops. Then, more in tune with his prior work, Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series launched in 1981 with The Aviator’s Wife, followed by A Good Marriage (1982), Pauline at the Beach (1983), Full Moon in Paris (1984), The Green Ray (1986), and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987). Based on traditional quotations (and one of Rohmer’s own making), these eclectic features hinge on the romantic entanglements of young people and display an exceptional degree of light humor merged with the subtle emotional resonance typical to Rohmer’s work. Looking for love and overcoming infidelities, life’s obstacles, miscommunications, and missed opportunities, the characters in this succession of features embody the compassionate portrayal of an individual’s very real shortcomings. And yet, like most of Rohmer’s output, they are, as noted by the Harvard Film Archive, “primarily comedies grounded in the sympathetic observation of human foibles, particularly the prickly connection, or lack thereof, between professed beliefs and behavior.”
Above: The Lady and the Duke
Following 1987’s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, an episodic film about contrasting young women and their misadventures, and with the charming Rendezvous in Paris (1995) sandwiched between, Rohmer directed a third series in the 1990s. His Tales of the Four Seasons, consisting of A Tale of Springtime (1990), A Tale of Winter (1992), A Summer’s Tale (1996), and An Autumn Tale (1998), correspond with their associative climate while honing in on central characters undergoing assorted emotional crises. Here, the stress on a scenic interpretation—mirroring and impacting sundry loves and losses with charity and optimism—supports Rohmer’s partiality for precise and prescient natural environments, where desired pictorial conditions amplify the representational depiction of happenstance and furtive motivations. In 2001, Rohmer was honored with a Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but the unyielding filmmaker, well into his eighties, remained prolific. He directed the period piece The Lady and the Duke (2001), the wartime spy film Triple Agent (2004), a taut drama about the duplicities of a White Russian Army general, and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), his final film, a lush and delicate picture as assured as any of his prior accomplishments.
Above: The Green Ray
In good times and bad, Rohmer’s characters negotiate their lives with candid self-reflection and intense passion. The dramas unfold as the situations dictate, unpretentiously granting a naturalism abetted by his progressive penchant for exploratory rehearsals, improvisation, non-professional actors, and a minimal crew. Noting the authenticity born from this convergence, critic David Parkinson states that “the focus invariably fell on the sensation of being alive rather than melodramatic contrivance,” and consequently, “emotionally vulnerable individuals are required to make momentous decisions about love affairs, careers and vacations and they fret, make mistakes, regret and reach conclusions, as desire collides with reality, morality, caprice and common sense.” In other words, Parkinson adds, “Rohmer made films about human beings not movie characters.”
Above: My Night at Maud’s
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • My Night at Maud’s (1969): The ethical quandary faced by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s religious engineer epitomizes the overarching theme of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; it’s arguably the series’ most deliberate study of complex questions concerning choice and romantic engagement. Co-starring Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, and Antoine Vitez, My Nights at Maud’s is, for critic Colin Fitzgerald, “among the most sophisticated of the Six Moral Tales, not only for its rich philosophical influence but also for its filmic quality, particularly in the casting of stars Trintignant and Fabian, whose verbal clashes feel all the more engaging due to the actors’ experience and palpable chemistry.” This film about standards of comportment, temptation, weakness, and willpower struck an internal chord as well, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Film.
  • The Marquise of O (1976): The austerity of the Kleist source novella is adapted by Rohmer in a painstaking, captivatingly sensual style, with befittingly disarming performances by Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz. Set in 1799, the scandal at the heart of the film (an inflammatory pregnancy and an overzealous admirer) engenders a complex lacing of emotional and physical responses and a range of social transgressions, without any manifest condemnation. Like much of Rohmer’s work, then, The Marquise of O, winner of the Grand July Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, evinces an equivalent beauty in that there is little in the way of sanctimonious judgement, as Fitzgerald recognizes: “They are slice-of-life portraits of an everyday reality that, like it or not, reflect real social patterns.”
  • Pauline at the Beach (1983): Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival and regarded as one of Rohmer’s most accessible films, this sunny interweaving of amorous assignation is also a leisurely look at moral divergence. Featuring young Amanda Langlet in the title role, alongside Arielle Dombasle, Pascal Greggory, Féodor Atkine, and Simon de la Brosse, the comedy of romantic manners is a roundtable of (often conflicting) perspectives on sex and love. It’s additionally indicative of how Rohmer’s three cycles develop what critic A.O. Scott describes as “self-contained narratives around themes, ideas and suggestive anecdotes,” which “don’t make arguments so much as offer slightly different views of similar problems.”
  • The Green Ray (1986): Also known as Summer, this enigmatic Rohmer film is one of his most unique. He assembled his cast for a lengthy rehearsal but then permitted extensive improvisation, which largely carried over to the film itself as the performers invented their own dialogue and acted with willing impulsiveness. The film was shot chronologically, utilizing an unobtrusive 16mm camera to permit the favored realism. Premiering on television and going on to win four prizes at the 1986 Venice Film Festival, including one for actress Marie Rivière, a Rohmer regular, The Green Ray is a fascinating fusion of documentary, symbolism, melancholia, and comedy, and it’s among Rohmer’s more representative presentations of loneliness and the quest for human connectivity.
  • The Lady and the Duke (2001): Employing innovative digital technology to render the 18th century in etched, illustrated settings, this late career entry from Rohmer tells the true story of an English noblewoman who remained loyal to King Louis XVI during the French Revolution and suffered the consequences of her allegiance. It’s a meticulous historical drama and a tense thriller, a film about outcasts, decorum, and personal liberty, with an absorbing dose of political intrigue added for good measure. Certainly one of Rohmer’s most visually impressive features, The Lady and the Duke stars Jean-Claude Dreyfus and Lucy Russell and was the subject of considerable controversy upon its release, with detractors decrying its portrayal of a violent, radically contentious era.
Above: Pauline at the Beach
RECOMMENDED READING
  • “Éric Rohmer: A Biography,” by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe: Published by Columbia University Press, this brilliant biography sheds welcome light on Rohmer’s generally concealed personal life and his unique working methods. Making use of archives and interviews, the text delves into Rohmer’s varied interests and discloses his stance on everything from politics and cinema to art and religion. As stated in Chris Fujiwara’s Cineaste review, “The great theme of this monumental book is the cunning collusion between cinema and reality that manifests itself in a rigorous and exemplary way throughout Éric Rohmer’s work.” Applying tact and “psychological penetration to the mystery of Rohmer’s relationships with the numerous desirable women who populate his cinema,” the authors provide “abundant information about the production and reception of each of Rohmer’s films” as well as “intelligent critical commentary.”
  • Six Moral Tales: When the Criterion Collection released Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, the lavish package included a booklet of essays by critics Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Phillip Lopate, Kent Jones, Molly Haskell, and Armond White. The assembly results in a noteworthy array of analysis, providing historical detail and insightful commentary. Described by Criterion as a “near genre unto itself,” the Six Moral Tales “unleashed on the film world a new voice, one that was at once sexy, philosophical, modern, daring, nonjudgmental, and liberating.” And to further illuminate these films, the accompanying booklet also contains excerpts from cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s 1980 autobiography, Rohmer’s 1948 essay “For a Talking Cinema,” and an English translation of Six Moral Tales, the book of stories by Rohmer on which the films are based. It’s perhaps the most exhaustive compilation of texts about Rohmer’s defining series of films.
  • Eric Rohmer,” by Bill Georgaris: Alongside a selected filmography and a survey of his key collaborators, this introduction to critical writing on Rohmer links to a variety of essays and articles about the director, citing some of the key observations made by the represented authors. For example, Dave Kehr observes that “In opposition both to the intensely personal, confessional tone of much of the work of [François] Truffaut and to the politically provocative films of [Jean-Luc] Godard, Mr. Rohmer remained true to a restrained, rationalist aesthetic, close to the principles of the 18th-century thinkers whose words he frequently cited in his movies.” And from Roland Caputo and Michelle Carey, writing for Senses of Cinema (which also published a fantastic Great Directors profile of Rohmer by Tamara Tracz): “We can hardly fail to recognise when we are in the presence of a Rohmer film–characters, dialogue, locales would be tangible evidence enough of that Rohmerian world, however, it is in the manner of how he makes us perceive things, what he asks of our gaze (and our intelligence), that gives his films their singularity.”
  • Patient Virtue: Eric Rohmer remembered,” by Andrew Sarris: Written for Film Comment by no less an authority than Andrew Sarris, this memorial tribute hits on much of what made Rohmer such an interesting filmmaker. “The buzzwords for Rohmerian cinema,” Sarris writes, “were tact and restraint, thought before action, and discussion over impulse. These are certainly not the conventional or, let us say, ‘commercial’ choices of most filmmakers. Still, Rohmer varied his narratives, casts, and locales sufficiently to avoid the curse of repetitiveness.” Recognizing the variety of actors he worked with and his “fresh” stories, Sarris argues that while some Rohmerians “preferred his early groupings to the later ones,” in all his films, “his characters are endowed with seemingly endless curiosity about each other’s elective affinities and their own as well. Yet his works all end decisively with some new insight, for those of us forever under his spell, to savor.”
  • Eric Rohmer - father of the New Wave,” by Kaleem Aftab: Leading with the bold assertion that Rohmer was the “father of the New Wave,” this piece was written just prior to the release of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. In it, Aftab converses with Rohmer about his contemporaries, his views on film festivals, and his own approach to filmmaking. “Myself,” Rohmer comments, “I keep the same idea of cinema and at the same time I always do films in my own little way: films that are not too expensive. I like shooting, even when I’m in a studio, I like shooting nature, and I give an importance to the poetry of cinematography. It’s very much still following the theories that I expounded in my early articles.” Rohmer also defends the similarities in his pictures. “It is better to see all my films together as a collection,” he states. “There is a relationship between all the films and that is where the interest lies.”

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