The great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who died today in Paris at the age of 89, made more than 50 movies, most of them about people for whom talk was life, as natural and necessary an activity as breathing. A member of that remarkable mid-20th-century group of influential critics and filmmakers known as the French New Wave (with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette among its legendary members), Rohmer was the one whose movies stood still-est, while characters debated whether to act on their desires; as often as not, Rohmer’s citizens ended up not doing but examining what they might have done. To some, such restraint was frustrating, static, as the filmmaker let a scene play out in long takes without soundtrack or eye-catching close-ups. To this Rohmer-lover, the result was thrilling, a record of interesting, flawed men and women coming to terms with their human-ness while engaged in everyday activities in settings of natural light and simple design.
Perhaps Rohmer (a secretive man who wasn’t even born Eric Rohmer — most biographers cite his birth name as Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer) loved words because he was a novelist and literature teacher before he switched mediums. But the philosophical range of his characters’ interests and ethical concerns also suggests that the filmmaker loved the novelistic opportunities that arise out of stories about free will; to him, discussion of options (stop or go? do or don’t?) were as much of a turn-on as the acts themselves. In his first big success, My Night At Maud’s (1969), a devout Catholic (and Marxist) engineer spends an evening with his friend’s divorced mistress, talking in her bedroom.
In Claire’s Knee (1970), a 35-year-old diplomat wants to touch a teenaged girl’s knee (left)– just that. Not for nothing did Rohmer link six of his films into a cycle he called Six Moral Tales.
He linked another six as Comedies and Proverbs, and still another quartet as Tales of the Four Seasons, adapting aspects of love to each time of year. In this movie age of simplistic snacks like It’s Complicated served as full-course meals, adult women and the men in their lives are urged to see Rohmer’s sublime, mature 1998 love story Autumn Tale. May I suggest adding Sideways as a double feature — a natural pairing, both golden and wine-soaked. And then may I urge a toast to Monsieur Rohmer, in honor of the many distinguished, deep, and quietly beguiling films he made in his long and admirable life.
Image credit: Everett Collection