In 1993 I had the chance and the good fortune to attend classes given by Eric Rohmer on the origins of cinematic language. He was seventy-three years old, his seventeenth feature film, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (The Tree, the Mayor and the Médiathèque, 1993) was about to come out, yet he still was able to give up several evenings for the benefit of a handful of passionate cinephiles who had come to hear him talk about Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This will to explain, to teach and to transmit seems to have its roots in Rohmer’s singular trajectory. Remember that he began in the 1940s as a teacher of literature and that his work as a critic and animator of ciné-clubs, alongside André Bazin, was simply the realignment of his pedagogical commitment towards another object, the cinema. Several of his articles from the 1950s manifest a clear didactic tendency: ‘Cinema, the Art of Space’, ‘A Technical Study of Rope’, ‘Celluloid and Marble’… Hence we can understand why, in the 1960s, Rohmer devoted so much time to the making of films for educational television.
Indeed, though we could find ‘pedagogical’ films in the work of Jean-Luc Godard (France tour détour deux enfants, 1979) or François Truffaut (L’Enfant sauvage/The Wild Child, 1969), Rohmer was the first of the New Wave filmmakers in that line, directing between 1963 and 1970 more than twenty programs for what at the time was called ‘Radio-Télevision-Scolaire’. Working on a study of the films of this period, I was able to view together these works (which regrettably have not yet been given a DVD release). (1) It is fascinating to find in them, beneath the somewhat austere presentations that frequently revealed a dry sense of humour, the starting point of work to come: L’ère industrielle: métamorphoses du paysage (1964) is about the new towns, Marne-la-Vallée and Cergy-Pontoise, that would be the backdrop for, respectively, Les nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1984) and L’ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 1987); Les caractères de La Bruyère (1965) necessarily makes us think of the characterisation of various Rohmerian heroes (the artist in La collectionneuse (1967), the Catholic woman in Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969), the bourgeois man in L’amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972), etc.), and the Entretien sur Pascal (1965) offers philosophical speculations very similar to those that inform certain memorable scenes of My Night at Maud’s or of the Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990). But it is certainly the short film Perceval ou le conte du Graal, made in 1964, that turns out to be the most fascinating: Rohmer shows there a respect for the text and a sense of visual illustration that he will exploit in his faithful film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s work in Perceval le Gallois (Perceval, 1978). Later, following the ‘Comédies et proverbes’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs’, 1980-1987) and the ‘Contes des quatre saisons’ (‘Tales of the Four Seasons’, 1990-1998), the last films of Eric Rohmer manifest a return to this quasi-pedagogical desire to make of cinema the visual commentary of a pre-existing literary work.
Rohmer shares this idea that a film might communicate knowledge, might teach history, might reflect on literature, with Roberto Rossellini, who also saw in this confrontation of image and text or archive the possibility of a reinvention of cinema. We know now, with the death of Eric Rohmer, that the work of his last period strangely resembles that of the author of La prise du pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, 1966) and that, similarly, it comes to a close with a didactic preoccupation, a ‘gai savoir’, that of Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007), which will long continue to ask us the question: ‘What is cinema?’.