What was Eric Rohmer?

Maurice Schérer, born in either Tulle or Nancy, a former schoolteacher, a gaunt face with an odd lip. A notoriously private man who was in his late 40s before he found any sort of success, and then under a pseudonym. The obituaries say Eric Rohmer has died; that's not really true. Schérer was a real man whom very few people knew well, and yes, he really did die on Monday, aged 89. "Rohmer," who made his first short film in 1950, when Schérer was almost 30, and formally retired from filmmaking 57 years later, can best be described as the product of Schérer's intellect. An Ellery Queen, or maybe an Émile Ajar. Schérer's body is barely cold, and yet it's already necessary, in a certain respect, to defend his Rohmer. The obituaries have a tinge of faint condescension. It's almost as though some other man, who made "sophisticated" and "talky" "low-key" films "about young people" and also worked under the name Eric Rohmer, had died. That person is neither Eric Rohmer nor Maurice Schérer.

"Eric Rohmer" is what we call the only director who could film two people sitting down and talking and mean every second of it. His characters blurt out their ideas and feelings, however trivial, as if they're lifelong secrets. He understood the spoken word; so did Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Abraham Polonsky. But I prefer Rohmer to Mankiewicz and Polonsky because Rohmer understood silence just as well. The gap between sentences is the nighttime, when the subconcious comes to the foreground. In that respect, Mankiewicz was afraid of the dark, while Rohmer loved it the same way he loved air, wind, water.

If it's possible to say anything with certainity, it's that nothing is half-assed in an Eric Rohmer film. "Subtlety" denies the nature of his editing — "cutting" is more like it. His framings in every feature after The Sign of Leo—whether it's The Aviator's Wife or Triple Agent—are as precise as Straub-Huillet or Pedro Costa and not one-tenth as rigid. If the fabled "literary" quality that Rohmer's films supposedly have actually exists, it's in composition: as every word on a page matters, every element of the image matters. When Eisenstein shows his massed armies, we know it's their shape that matters more than the individual members; when Rohmer shows a young woman sitting down on the beach, we know that every grain of sand is being depicted.

"You've seen one Rohmer film, you've seen them all," says the man who's only seen one Rohmer film. The Rohmer style, supposedly unwavering in its consistency, never existed. What existed was the Rohmer scrutiny and the Rohmer intelligence, which could be applied to any approach. It's hard to think of two films more different in terms of technique than Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle and The Lady and the Duke, and yet they are clearly the work of the same close attention. Rohmer was moral, not moralistic. He was serious enough about living to see the irony in life. The moralistic route is an easy way out; few things require less time than judgement, and few more work than presenting the evidence. The moral value of Rohmer lies in the fact that every aspect of a film can be taken seriously; even if a director does something on a whim, they must have total faith in it.

Responses

7 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • b g

    Easily the best piece written about “Eric Rohmer” in the past week.

  • Ben Robinson

    I agree.

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    Thanks, Ben(jamin)s.

  • Ray Davis

    Composition: exactly.

  • Lilyrosewater

    “Rohmer was moral, not moralistic.” Great description.

  • ar sh

    Lots of stuff to chew here. Very thought provoking, Ignatiy. Thanks!

    “The gap between sentences is the nighttime, when the subconcious comes to the foreground. In that respect, Mankiewicz was afraid of the dark, while Rohmer loved it the same way he loved air, wind, water.”

    ""Subtlety" denies the nature of his editing — “cutting” is more like it. His framings in every feature after The Sign of Leo—whether it’s The Aviator’s Wife or Triple Agent—are as precise as Straub-Huillet or Pedro Costa and not one-tenth as rigid."

    “Rohmer was moral, not moralistic.” – I think some other critic has said the same about him earlier too. I forget who.

    “even if a director does something on a whim, they must have total faith in it.” Word.

  • Jesús

    Fantastic piece of writing about Rohmer. Thanks.

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