In terms of consistency of both the content and form of his films, Eric Rohmer is without a doubt one of the most distinctive auteurs in the history of cinema. As with Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, within minutes—seconds, even—of starting to watch one of his movies, it’s clear who made it. Not that his visual style is even remotely flashy; like Howard Hawks—one of the Hollywood directors Rohmer greatly admired when he was critic and editor, in the 1950s and early ’60s, for Cahiers du cinéma—Rohmer prefers to keep technology and technique invisible. Indeed, so deceptively simple and straightforward is his work that some dismiss it as “talking heads.” Such an assessment is right (but not particularly bright) to point to his love of conversation, and accurate insofar as it alludes—accidentally—to his fascination and skill in terms of exploring feelings, opinions, and thoughts, rather than depicting the kinds of actions (catching crooks, killing enemies, saving the world, seeing the light) favored by most directors. But it fatally ignores the remarkable emotional, intellectual, and dramaturgic subtlety of his work. A Rohmer movie is not simply a drama or a comedy, a love story or an exercise in suspense, a psychological study or a philosophical disquisition; it’s all these and considerably more. Whether an original piece or an adaptation, be it set in the present or the past, the city or the country, it’s always first and foremost a Rohmer film. In essence, he invented his own genre.
With the benefit of hindsight, that clearly applies even to his underrated first feature, Le signe du Lion, but it’s more obviously apparent in the case of the Six Moral Tales, made over the next decade. The first two films—The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962) and Suzanne’s Career (1963)—were shorts, cheaply made on 16mm, and for all their astute intelligence and charm, they look (especially when compared with the marvels that followed) like minor apprentice works. But in their basic subject matter—a young man already attracted to one woman is distracted by another—and focus on the endless emotional shifts and self-deluding rationalizations that the wholly unromanticized protagonists put themselves through, they set the tone for the whole series. Rohmer had decided to embark upon a series as a means both of securing financing and of helping viewers to get used to his unusually genre-lite and unfashionably literary narratives. But the strategy also allowed him to create a wonderfully imaginative series of variations on a single but rich theme and to bring his own idiosyncratic style to mature fruition in a remarkably short time.
La collectionneuse (1967), about two holidaying young men perversely determined not to be seduced by a promiscuous young beauty they’re both obsessed with, found Rohmer not only sharpening his deft flair for irony but displaying, in his use of Côte d’Azur colors, a way with composition as elegant, eloquent, and evocative as that found in a fine impressionist painting. Then came his first outright masterpiece, though who would have expected My Night at Maud’s (1969)—a black-and-white film set in wintry Clermont-Ferrand and mainly comprised of one-on-one conversations, inspired in part by the wager of the philosopher Blaise Pascal—to be an Oscar-nominated hit? It was here, after all, that Rohmer first revealed his genius for illuminating abstract ideas and complex inner emotions not only through words (which, of course, may or may not express the truth) but through the nuanced minutiae of glances and gestures. Thus, the doubts underlying a Catholic engineer’s faith in God and his oft-stated determination to remain true to himself (or, more accurately, his self-image) are made manifest in his awkward movements as he lies atop a bed, vainly trying to ignore the proximity of a sleeping, beautiful, and naked divorcée. The metaphysical, in short, is made gloriously physical.
In this and his two subsequent films—Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972)—Rohmer confirmed both his expertise and originality as a witty, unsentimental, yet profoundly humane investigator of human desire and anxiety. As his admirably chatty characters—usually played by relatively unknown actors, and very often by people (painters, novelists, Marxists) practicing the same profession in life as on-screen—ponder and discuss love, beauty, happiness, work, ambition, ethics, and so forth, Rohmer shows his respect and sympathy by paying proper attention to what they say and do, even as he slowly but surely exposes the gulf between what’s said and what’s done, what’s felt and what’s thought, between rationality and impulse, appearance and reality.
Rohmer’s is a philosophical cinema, then, but—crucially—one firmly rooted in the rhythms and rhymes of everyday life: he isn’t interested in big dramas, but he devotes enormous attention to getting things like time, place, light, and sound just right. (He postponed shooting My Night at Maud’s by a year because he was determined not only to have Jean-Louis Trintignant as his lead but also to film in Clermont-Ferrand—Pascal’s birthplace—in winter.) By concentrating on evocative specifics—even The Bakery Girl of Monceau begins by carefully mapping out the Parisian streets in which the “action” will take place—Rohmer manages to make his uncommonly articulate and allusive films feel absolutely authentic as exquisitely intimist studies in human behavior, desire, need, and motivation. Thanks to his quietly poetic cinematic genius, the artifice involved in the creation of his films remains invisible, but the generous humanity—the endless fascination with individuals, in all their faintly absurd, self-deluding vanity and undiminished dignity—is evident for all to see.
Geoff Andrew is head of film programming at London’s National Film Theatre and contributing editor to Time Out London. He has written and edited numerous books on film, including studies of the films of Nicholas Ray, Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and U.S. indie cinema of the eighties and nineties.