No More Moral Tales, No More Proverbs
One particular idea of French Cinema owes a great deal to the sublime work of Eric Rohmer: the pretentious bourgeois drama, filled with beautiful women and endless talk. Only such a limiting description does not begin to do Rohmer justice, for here was one of Cinema's great humanists, one of Cinema's great writers of dialogue, and most importantly one of Cinema's most consistent and intelligent Directors.
His films are generally bourgeois dramas (altough there are some excellent period excursions in his oeuvre, too), but there is not an ounce of pretension to the films themselves. Rohmer tells simple stories centred resolutely around people, and he loves his people and feels endless curiosity about them. They might be pretentious, shallow, facile or selfish but Rohmer's investigations into them never are. Instead he is sympathetic, and often amused by them and their romantic entanglements, the way they justify themselves, their moral and philosophical struggles. All of this portrayed with perfect and unostentatious elegance; Rohmer's camera never intrusive as it observes his characters flirting and debating and consoling. And yet, like Ozu and Howard Hawks, even, his camera placement always feels just right - he puts it in the perfect place. His editing is equally faultless. All of this done on consistently modest budgets and never reaping any great popular success. Rohmer has been an inspiration to individual artistic filmmakers the world over because he showed a viable model. He made his deeply personal, totally distinctive films for five decades without ever selling his soul, without ever doing "one for them", to borrow Graham Greene's phrase.
He is also one of the great Feminists in modern Cinema. Considering that one of his key and repeated themes is the urge to wander felt by men in long-term relationships, Rohmer has created some stunningly well-rounded women in his work. His women are real people, with quirks, complexities and flaws - always individuals, always utterly believable. From Delphine in The Green Ray (1986) who refuses to allow her awkward habits and beliefs to halt her bid to end her solitude but also refuses to play by the conventional rules, to Laura, sister of the title character in Claire's Knee (1970), battered by her love for an older man yet articulate and funny and blazingly passionate about that love. Rohmer's men, meanwhile, are often deluded and self-serving, searching for easy ways out, for permission to cheat on their wives, for instance.
The best example of this in Rohmer's Cinema, and my favourite of his films, is Love In the Afternoon (1972). Perhaps Rohmer's funniest film, it is also moving and clear-eyed in its view of relationships as it tells the story of Frederic, a happily married young Executive who obsesses over his desire for other women until the reappearance of an old flame, the beautiful, slightly unbalanced Chloe, in his life gives him an opportunity to act upon his desire. Alongside the traditional pleasures associated with Rohmer - that great dialogue, fine performances - this is the Rohmer film to show to anyone who questions how "cinematic" his work is. The lovely cinematography is courtesy of the legendary Nestor Almendros, and this is a fine and fluid portrait of Paris and its vivacity, especially in its long passage of Frederic's wandering among the beautiful women he sees everywhere in the boulevards of the city.
He was, quite simply, irreplaceable. RIP.
ERIC ROHMER 1920 - 2010