Today is 21 February, 2010. A lot of ink is going to be spilled, a lot of books will be written, a lot of films will be made after the death of “Le Grand Momo” (“Big Momo”) – as Chabrol called him (since “Maurice Schérer” was his given name). I am in Paris on an editing job, so I was invited to the homage to Rohmer organised at the Cinémathèque française on 8 February. The same week, I was able to read a text that hit home with me. With an introduction by film critic Hervé Aubron, Le Magazine littéraire republished a critical analysis written in 1949 by Rohmer for Les Temps modernes (1) about Claude-Edmonde Magny’s famous essay, L’âge du roman américain (The Age of the American Novel, Paris: Le Seuil, 1948), that discusses, in particular, William Faulkner’s work. (2)
In the text, Rohmer defines what characterises the evolution of modern art: “an increasingly manifest trend to subordinate the content to the form of expression.” Against the rather “backward” aspects of the art of the novel at the time, he sees a veritable “revelation” in what he calls “US literary modernity” and adds “what is interesting in Claude-Edmonde Magny’s latest book is that she focuses on issues of style and shows how they condition the other issues.” Indeed Magny talks about the emergence, “maybe unique in the world today, of a literature in which technique is really co-substantial with the material.” And Rohmer notes that Magny likes to quote a phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre, “every good technique carries metaphysics within itself.”
This is, indeed, quintessential Rohmer! At the Cinémathèque homage, the film selected was La collectionneuse (1967), a moving occurrence for me, for I had worked with Rohmer on the image- and sound-editing of this film. In addition to La collectionneuse, I was also involved in La boulangère de Monceau (1962), La carrière de Suzanne (1963), Nadja à Paris (1964), the episode “Place de l’Étoile” in Paris vu par… (1965), as well as on a lesser-known aspect of Rohmer’s career (it does not appear in his official filmography): a series of short films he made for “la Télévision Scolaire” (“educational television”), including Fermière à Monfaucon (1967, 13 min.), which is available as a bonus in the DVD for L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (1993).
Seven or eight years ago, I had asked him: but why did you hire me as an editor? I was so young at the time, I knew so little… He said “Very simply – first, because you were so open to my suggestions, and mostly because you were very skilful with your hands.” What I didn’t tell him at the time is that, yes, I was very skilful with my hands because I was sewing some of my own clothes. Both my parents were schoolteachers in the south of France, my father was a union man, so all these people from a certain Parisian intelligentsia impressed me, and I wanted to look “fashionable”, but I couldn’t afford expensive clothes. I was buying couture patterns, and cut and made some outfits to be stylish. Then I asked him: why did he keep me after the first film. He replied: “You had a very long neck, a magnificent neck, and I would stand behind you looking at it.” I said “Really?… is this what inspired you to make Le genou de Claire? (1970)”
Indeed, I knew very little at the time. I had edited some of the first animal documentaries made by François Bel with Gérard Vienne as DP and co-director and Michel Fano (3) as the sound engineer. In the same studio, LUMI FILM, Jacques Rozier was editing his films. Then I was hired by Jean-Daniel Pollet to work on the synchronisation and the sound editing of Méditerranée (1963). Barbet Schroeder, who had just founded his production company, Les Films du Losange in 1962, came to pay a visit to Pollet. At the time, meetings of the editorial board of Cahiers du cinéma (where Rohmer was the editor-in-chief from 1957 to 1963) would often take place in the LUMI FILM editing room. Shortly after, Barbet Schroeder and Eric Rohmer decided to hire me as an editor. We worked on the editing of La boulangère de Monceau and La carrière de Suzanne in the LUMI FILM Studios as well.
So, it was Barbet who introduced me to Rohmer, and, at the Cinémathèque, after the screening of La collectionneuse, he made a very eloquent speech. “La collectionneuse is one of the “Six Contes Moraux” which I produced. I had adored Le signe du lion (1959), and this is what made me want to produce Eric Rohmer’s films. His earlier work, including La collectionneuse, belongs to what can be called his ‘silent period’.” What he meant is that, due to lack of money to hire a sound engineer on the set, Rohmer’s films at the time were all shot without direct sound. There was just a scratch track so you wouldn’t lose the dialogues, but everything was done in post-production. This presented a singular challenge at the moment of the editing…
We edited the image of La collectionneuse in a week. For Rohmer was very thrifty, and he shot very few images. At the suggestion of American film critic Eliott Stein, Nestor Almendros, the DP, had visited an exhibition of Velasquez’s work at the Musée du Jeu de Paume prior to the shooting, and he told Stein that this had inspired him for the visual composition and the framing of the film. In La collectionneuse Rohmer ordered him to shoot only one take of each shot; it was not so much due to money issues, but mostly because Rohmer believed that the actors are much better in the first take (after intensive rehearsals before the shooting itself started). There are only two instances of shots that required two takes, partly due to a technical problem; if my memory serves me right, it’s the breakfast scene with Daniel, Patrick, Haydée and Denis Berry… Lack of money, however, did play a role in the production. As producer, Barbet Schroeder had to be very resourceful to find ways to feed the small cast (Daniel Pommereulle, Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff) and crew (Nestor Almendros and the cameraman Jean-Marie Estève, and maybe three or four gaffers). The film was shot near Saint-Tropez, and one day Barbet found a woman who was picking up peaches in a field, and asked her if she would agree, for a small fee, to cook for the cast and crew. And every night, she would make the same thing, pasta sciutta (pasta in sauce), the traditional Italian meal, to the growing despair of the people on the set, fed up with eating always the same thing!
When it came to the editing of the sound, it took months! Rohmer was thrifty, but he was not sparing of his time. A year before the shoot, he would go to the exact location, and start recording all the ambient sounds – birds, dogs, cars, etc… – at the exact month and even week that the shooting was supposed to take place. This is why the sound editing took so long, for the Master was a real stickler about accuracy. You couldn’t put the recording of a summer fly taken in June on the soundtrack of a film shot in July and August. You had to find the exact recording of the flies buzzing through the landscapes in July and August! In those days, apart from Michel Fano and Antoine Bonfanti, film professionals had not yet constituted sound effect libraries – but you had private sound collectors, regular people (often doctors…) who recorded the sound of animals, birds, flies, dogs etc… All day long, in the editing room, I was splicing these little bits of magnetic tapes – and there were so many of them! It was really like the delicate, minute work of a seamstress, or a lacemaker. Meanwhile Rohmer was on the phone calling doctors in Rouen or Poitiers to inquire if they had sounds of this specific fly, or of this chaffinch that would sing only between two and five…
Finally, we were ready for the mixing – and the great sound engineer Antoine Bonfanti (we’d call him “BonBon”) (4) came to the rescue. He had already supervised the ADR for some of the actors, and then worked on the mixing of the film for several weeks. The first thing he said was “What’s this bloody mess? There are sounds everywhere, sounds that you can hardly hear!” At the time, we, the crew, used to say, “this sound, once transferred from magnetic tape to optical track, nobody will be able to hear it…” And Rohmer would reply, “But I adore sounds that you can’t hear.” And eventually, these sounds – of a dog barking far away, for example – you hear them very well on the soundtrack.
That night at the Cinémathèque Barbet Schroeder’s speech was superb. There were many other beautiful moments: actors brought memories, Arielle Dombasle (5) sung a religious hymn, Serge Toubiana and Frédéric Miterrand (6) spoke, Godard sent a short video, really sublime, with red letters over a beautiful photographic portrait of Rohmer: LOYAL MAN, HITCHOCKIAN MAN. And at the end, Godard’s own, guttural voice uttering “Goodbye, Maurice Schérer!…”
Claude Chabrol didn’t speak on the stage, but Jean Douchet (7) had interviewed him by video in his home. He was very emotional, expressing himself in short sentences, with beautiful silences. He talked about the time Rohmer was at Cahiers du cinéma. He was really their intellectual leader then. “We hated the same things… His position was more Hitchcocko-Hawksian.(8) We both had an infinite admiration for Murnau.” (9) And when he says this, one can recognise Murnau’s death mask. There was, of course, tension within Cahiers’ editorial team, and Rohmer had to leave the position of editor at about the time I started to work with him. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut imposed the creation an editorial committee and Rivette replaced Rohmer as the editor. (10) The Cahiers writers were all high-level cinephiles, they had seen everything. I had not, I was a bit like an unskilled factory worker. Little by little, I was becoming a cinephile myself, going to screenings at La Cinémathèque with Louis Skorecki, Serge Daney and Patrick Deval.
All this time, Rohmer never tried to impress or belittle me. He was patient, modest and caring, a simple, accessible man, yet, a part of him remained out of reach. I adored him because he was always very generous with my suggestions. I contributed to more than the editing, we were like a family. In La boulangère de Monceau, I am doing the bakerwoman’s voice; for La carrière de Suzanne, I was going to pick the rushes from the lab with Barbet. Rohmer had these lovely idiosyncrasies: he would jog all the way from his apartment in rue Monge to our editing room on the Champs Elysées, across Avenue Georges-V – it’s about 5 kilometres, and at the time, nobody in Paris was doing this! He was always super-nice to me. He lent me money when I was broke. I stopped working with him as he was completing Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), to make my own film, Deux fois. I will always remember our parting. We both had tears in our eyes.
That night, at the Cinémathèque, I finally met Thérèse Schérer, his wife. He kept his private life and his cinematic activities completely separate (which is why he had so many pseudonyms), so I had never seen her, even though I had gone once to his apartment building when we were recording some ambient sound. She looks like him – not as tall, but very slim, with an aristocratic, graceful, non-showy elegance. I told her how happy I was to meet her, and how young I was when Rohmer had hired me as an editor. She said “You know, that’s the way [my husband] was. It’s probably because you had a lot of intuition…”
In the Magazine littéraire tribute, there is a quote by Rohmer under a picture of him: “What fascinates me is what frees me from an obsession, i.e. justifies it by establishing a relationship between this obsession and me, and me and the world – a relationship whose necessity can only be revealed by a feeling for beauty.” (11)
- Before writing for Cahiers du cinéma, Eric Rohmer wrote a novel, Elizabeth (Paris: Gallimard, 1946), under the pen name of Gilbert Cordier, as well as a number of critical essays under his real name of Maurice Schérer for publications such as La Revue du cinéma, Les Temps modernes, Combat, Arts, La Nouvelle Revue Française, Cahiers Renaud-Barrault, Gazette du cinéma, Cinéma.
- “Homage: Le Roman américain selon Eric Rohmer” (“Homage: The American Novel by Eric Rohmer”), Le Magazine littéraire n.o. 494, 10 February 2010, pp. 16-18.
- Born in 1929, Michel Fano is a composer, writer and filmmaker who studied at the Paris Conservatory with Olivier Messiaen. He collaborated extensively with Alain Robbe-Grillet, first for the film he wrote for Alain Resnais (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961) then for the film directed by the novelist, from L’immortelle (1963) on. Fano collaborated and even co-directed a series of groundbreaking films about animals with Gérard Vienne and François Bel. He also opened his own studio to pursue a career as a sound engineer and sound editor, and work with filmmakers such as Pierre Kast, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Pierre Mocky and Jean Rouch. He made several film and television series about contemporary music.
- Corsican-born Antoine Bonfanti (1929-2006) worked as a sound engineer and sound mixer on more than 130 films, working with directors such Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, René Clément, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Cavalier, André Delvaux, Agnès Varda, Jean Eustache, Paul Vecchiali, Marcel Carné, William Klein, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Philippe Garrel, René Vautier, Bernardo Bertolucci, Guy Debord, François Truffaut, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Claude Biette, Med Hondo, Raul Ruiz, Amos Gitai, Michel Khleifi, André Téchiné, etc… According to Jackie Raynal, the list of credits as they were laid on the exhibition prints of French films at the time were “minimal” – so Bonfanti’s name does not even appear. Raynal and Nestor Almendros are simply listed as “collaborators” – not as editor and DP, respectively. The name of the camera operator, Jean-Marie Estèeve, who was also a first-rate professional, is not mentioned either.
- Arielle Dombasle was one of the stars of Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983) and also appears in Le beau mariage (1982) and L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (1993).
- Respectively, former co-editor of Cahiers du cinéma with Serge Daney from 1973 to 1979, and then editor in the 1980s and currently director of the Cinémathèque française; and cinephile, filmmaker, film exhibitor, TV personality and currently Minister of Culture.
- Born 1929, Jean Douchet was a critic for Cahiers in the 1950s and 1960s, where he became a close friend of Rohmer. He made a number of films, including a portrait of Eric Rohmer for André S. Labarthe’s series “Cinéastes de notre temps” in 1994. He is the author of important critical works on Murnau, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Godard, Pollet, etc.
- This is an allusion to the groundbreaking article published in Cahiers du cinéma (February 1955 – Tome VIII – N° 44) by André Bazin, that discussed the critical position defined by the young writers of the magazine, the future New Wave directors, who singled out Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as the greatest film directors working in the US.
- Rohmer is the author of a remarkable book on Murnau, L’organisation de l’espace dans le “Faust” de Murnau (“The Organisation of Space in Murnau’s Faust”), republished, Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2000.
- See Antoine de Baeque, Cahiers du cinéma – Histoire d’une revue – Vol II, Paris : Cahiers du cinéma, 1991, p. 85 ; pp. 354-5.
- Magazine littéraire, op. cit., p. 17.