In 1978, in the middle of a career spanning over fifty years, Eric Rohmer made Percival le Galloise (Perceval). Unlike anything he had made before, it became his first commercial failure since the success of La Collectioneuse (The Collector) in 1967. It would be over twenty years before he would return, with L’Anglaise et le Duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2000) to anything similar. In between, Rohmer continued to make the films for which he is most recognized, included the two series, Comedies et proverbs (Comedies and Proverbs) and Contes des quatres saisons (Tales of the Four Seasons), films that bare the “hallmarks” of a Rohmer work: the contemporary setting, the philosophical discussions, the intimate nature of the crisis of well off, self-absorbed characters. They seem to have little in common with the 11th Century French verse found in Percival le Galloise, nor its forests of metal trees. And yet Percival le Galloise is a film by Rohmer. American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it his best work, and positioned as it is, in the center of his oeuvre, it casts an important light. (1)
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Rohmer came to filmmaking relatively late. He was a teacher, journalist and writer (of fiction as well as cinema theory and criticism) before making his first short in 1950, and commercial success came seventeen years later. These biographical details are easily available, but beyond the framework of his achievements—filmography, written work—personal information about Rohmer is hard to find. He is notoriously private. The name with which he signs his films is his second pseudonym. This is not to say that he is reclusive. Various myths exist about his “eccentricities” but they are neither verifiable nor relevant. His own reason for not giving interviews or attending festivals is that he values the anonymity that allows him to shoot quickly and cheaply on the streets. (2) The comments of friends and collaborators (more than most directors, Rohmer continually works with the same people, sometimes following them from adolescence through to middle age) (3) reveal an active and much loved man whose only eccentricity was a passion for the environment before it was fashionable. (4) But it is not possible, as with some artists, to look to his life in order to gain a better understanding of his work.
This is not a problem. Running throughout his films is a powerful sense of the unknowable nature of people and their lives. Everyone has his reasons, as Renoir teaches, but in Rohmer’s world, we may never know exactly what they are. We never know, for instance, the true nature of Jeanne’s relationship with her absent boyfriend in Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990) Nor, despite her many attempts to explain it, can we really understand the need Louise, in Les Nuits de plein lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1984), has to live separately from her boyfriend—something that leads so inevitably to her own desolation. Rohmer’s fascination with the unknowable, and his ability to accept it, is integral to his work, and it is possible to mount a serious exploration of his oeuvre while offering him the same space he gives his characters. While his use of pseudonyms is undeniably intriguing, (5) perhaps their intriguing nature is more important than any explanation. It is not in details of his private life that lie the answers to questions raised in Rohmer’s films. It is in the work itself, and equally, it is through the work, in which as a creator he is so open, that he can be understood.
This sense of the unknowable emphasizes Rohmer’s understanding of the world as profoundly complicated. People are called upon to make choices whose consequences they cannot know. They have to deal not only with their own desires but also those of others. Desire is never simple. It is mixed with fear—often the fear of making the wrong choice. In Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale, 1996) Gaspard fails to choose from the three girls around him. Felicie, in Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale, 1992), tries to choose between two lovers but is unable to free herself of impossible desire for the man who was lost. There is a constant struggle between desire, and both the reality in which each character functions and the philosophical and moral concepts by which they try to live. The solution is never simple, even when it ought to be—Felicie should forget the past and in Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray/Summer, 1986) Delphine needs to stop moping and enter the world. What Rohmer understands is that people can’t just do what might be the correct solution. Gaspard can’t choose Margot, nor, in Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night with Maud, 1969) can Jean-Louis choose Maud, just because the audience wants them to. These people are who they are, and it is only within the parameters of who-you-are than anyone can struggle. You can’t make yourself happy, or not-unhappy. You can’t fall yourself in love, or out. Much of Rohmer’s work is a set of continuing variations on these themes.
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It is hard to separate the word, spoken and written, from Rohmer’s work. If he is known for one thing, it is the fact that in his films, people talk. The preeminence given to spoken text, as well as illuminating Rohmer’s cinematic vision, reaches back to his roots as a writer. In 1946 he published a novel, Elizabeth. The Contes moreaux (Moral Tales 1963-72) were originally written in novel form, but turned into films because, as the director stated: “I was not satisfied with them because I was unable to write them well enough.”(6) Despite this dissatisfaction, Rohmer continued to write, concentrating on criticism rather than fiction. He was one of the first contributors to Cahiers de cinéma and went on to be Editor that hugely influential journal from 1956 to 1963. His criticism, as well as reflecting his passion for cinema and his intelligence, shows a man who understands the use of language. While he realized his language was not the language of words, but of cinema, his cinema, though profoundly cinematic, is one that acknowledges, or rather, absorbs, text. (7)
In 1948, two years before making his first film, in a piece for Les Temps modernes, arguing “For a Talking Cinema” Rohmer writes:
If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element, which, though privileged as compared with others, is but of secondary importance as compared with the visual element. (8)
In this early article, Rohmer set out the manifesto he followed throughout his career. He sees speech as an integral part of both life and cinema. In his work the word is not used to impart information, (9) but rather as a revelation of world and character—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the image is used. The dialogue that fills Rohmer’s films—its banalities, intricacies and lies, reveal the interior of his characters as much as their silent glances and physical hesitations. Words are never forced—he writes for the specific voice of each actor—they are used cinematically rather than literally.
It is through writing that Rohmer’s films consistently question the nature of the cinematic. It is shocking sometimes to see these long conversations and not be bored by their simple, often static representation. How can so much talk be cinematic? But these conversations are more than just talk. This isn’t radio. Neither is it an interview or televised debate. This is talk visually represented. Word and image work together to create a third thing, cinema. But cinema is a vague term (silent films are, of course, cinema) bringing up the idea of moving images rather than this sound/image combination. Defending his Contes moreaux Rohmer writes:
…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior and gesture….I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak. (10)
The concept of total cinema is often seen as one of pure image, the meaning so completely contained within that image that words are unnecessary. In his quiet way—within what he describes as “self imposed limitations” (11)—Rohmer is one of the few directors who has managed to arrive at a cinema that is doubly total. His is a cinema where the word is more than a signal post in the plot or a neat catchphrase, but something integrated into the cinematic world. He writes, “a means must be found to integrate words not into the filmed world but into the film…” (12) His work is a concerted and successful attempt to do this.
While the Contes moreaux came from his own writings, after completing them Rohmer made two films based on the writings of others, Die Marquise von O (The Marquise of O, 1976), from the novella by Heinrich von Kleist, and Perceval le Galloise, from the 11th century epic poem by Chretien de Troyes. Rohmer filmed Die Marquise von O “book in hand” (13)—it is extraordinary how little difference there is between the two in terms of fact. But they are not the same. Rohmer writes in 1957 that he doesn’t hold with the view that filming great literature is good because it popularizes a book, and that the worse books that make the better films. (14) Certainly he made no attempt to film the books of Balzac and Hugo who he describes as “his” authors. (15) But Kleist is a great writer, and Die Marquise von O among his greatest works. Thus the film directly confronts the difference between cinema and literature.
The Kleist novella is austere in style. The film has a fleshiness and sensuality. The scene where the Count looks at the unconscious Marquise is a good demonstration of this difference. In the book, as in the film, the identity of the father of the Marquise’s child is not revealed until towards the end. But whereas the book uses a subtle trick (the inclusion of a dash) to indicate that something has happened, in the film we see the reality of a living body, abandoned in unconsciousness on a bed, and the gaze of a man surprised by it. While Rohmer stays true to the sprit off the book (in both one can guess but not be certain of the identity of the child’s father) what he creates is something else. These are real people being filmed, real faces, each different, real feelings, acted or true. There is real blood in the woman’s body, hers are real breasts, and there are real thoughts passing behind the eyes of the man who watches. While the book is controlled, the film, with all its characteristic attention to framing and construction, cannot quite contain the warmth and mess of human feeling and flesh. Film can’t, as books can, create for the viewer/reader an empty space they can fill with visualization and consideration of what they have read, and possibly re-read. (16) When Rohmer states he does not say but shows, he is articulating one of the most essential differences between written text and filmed image.
In Die Marquise von O Rohmer went to great lengths to maintain period accuracy, not accuracy of re-creation, but of creation. One of the reasons he gives for sticking so closely to the book’s text is that doing otherwise “would have meant playing with the natural speech of two centuries ago which was unknown to me and which I did not know how to manipulate.” (17) In the film that followed, Perceval le Galloise things become more complicated. There is less accurate data as to the reality of the 11th century than there is of the 18th (even painting, before the Renaissance discovery of perspective, was not conventionally realistic). How then can one find truth, and realism in representation? What Rohmer does, which is revolutionary, is turn into the subject matter itself, into the text he draws from. In effect, he uses the same techniques that he did in Die Marquise von O, but the two texts are radically different. In Perceval le Galloise, rather than re-create something unknown he creates something as mythical and seemingly un-real as the text itself.
Why does an arch-realist such as Rohmer use the profoundly non-naturalistic elements found in Perceval le Galloise? He could have gone to the remains of 11th century castles and towns in France, had he wanted. But he would have been filming the 1978 version of those places, and no doubt he considered that this was doubly false because it masqueraded under the banner of truth. By de-truthing fake truth, by being honestly fake, he makes a world that, while it is not fantasy, creates and sustains its own reality, a reality based in the poem that was written in the 11th century. It is not possible, in the 21st century, to know what the 11th looked or felt like. The formalization used in Perceval le Galloise, and the rigorous adhesion to the original text, not only acknowledges this, but brings us closer to the spirit—the essence—of that time than any other method of representation has managed. (18)
There is much that could be called fake in Perceval le Galloise. There is the chorus that sings a commentary as well as taking on various subsidiary roles, the forest of abstract metal trees, the castles made of painted wood. There are also characters that not only say their lines but describe their interior thoughts and exterior actions—an interesting extension of the habit Rohmer’s characters have of talking so much about themselves. It is no doubt this strangeness, along with an unusually long running time, that account for the film’s lack of commercial success. Perceval le Galloise is not an easy film to watch. But, as Rohmer argued in the early days of Cahiers du cinéma, cinema is an art, and thus shares art’s obligation not just to entertain but to challenge. (19) Perceval le Galloise certainly challenges. Unlike in Die Marquise von O, we are never allowed in to the human drama. There is no intimacy. Even the intimacies that are hinted, the mother’s love for her child, the love of men for women, are ritualized almost in order to exclude emotion. For all its power, and indeed, its importance, Perceval le Galloise is not seductive, as is much of Rohmer’s work. Its strangeness creates a distance that fascinates more than moves.
And yet, Perceval le Galloise is absolutely a Rohmer film. One of the many startling things about the film is that it has no real ending. None of its three separate stories, those of Perceval, Gawain and Christ, are brought to conventional conclusions. The film ends in the middle, with Perceval riding through landscape, the quest ongoing and almost unnamed. It is an abrupt and initially confusing ending, but also just. Stories and incidents exist, but endings rarely exist. While death can be seen as one definitive ending, it is only the ending for the individual involved. Life is a series of interconnected and overlapping stories and this is reflected in Rohmer’s films. While they frequently have the spirit of fairy tales, they never end as fairy tales do, with a full stop. The ending is always open, always part of another beginning, always touched with ambiguity. Because Rohmer insists on filming real people, moving and talking, he cannot allow himself to indicate that their lives stop with the film.
This open-ended-ness is seen in many Rohmer films. Who knows what will happen to Delphine and her carpenter after the end of Le Rayon vert, or what will become of Sabine and the young man in the train after that of Le Beau marriage (A Good Marriage, 1982). Nor is there any promise that the miraculous coming together of Charles and Felicie at the end of Conte d’hiver will lead to any kind of future, let alone a happy one. But perhaps the most perfect example is found in one of Rohmer’s more recent films, Conte d’automne (An Autumn’s Tale, 1998). Lonely Magali and Gerard, the man her friend Isabelle has found for her, have met, and connected. But the final image of the film is complex. Dancing happily at her daughters wedding, Isabelle’s face, in the final frames, registers not joy for her child, her friend or herself. Instead there is a deep and ambiguous sadness—one Rohmer considered so important that he wrote to cinemas requesting that they do not turn the lights of the auditorium up too soon. (20) Accompanying this image is a musician who sings of life as a journey, one that goes on and on. Like everything in his work, music in Rohmer’s films is never arbitrary. His films end with the acknowledgement that the passage of human life is not one of neat endings.
There is no neatness either in Rohmer’s characters, who frequently contradict themselves, both with words and actions as they circle endlessly around their private predicaments and desires. Rohmer is frequently criticized for making films about the machinations of the lives of self-obsessed people. It is certainly true that in the majority of his films the characters spend much of their time discussing themselves. This leads to further accusations that the films are banal—or rather, that they celebrate banality. Unlike many of the films of Rohmer’s Nouvelle Vague comrades, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and Rivette, there is rarely any high drama in his work. The only films that contain such drama are the three based on the books of others. He has no cops and robbers, no killers or pimps or thwarted lovers. Even his adulterer in L’Amour l’apres-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon/Love in the Afternoon, 1972) doesn’t actually commit adultery- he barely even kisses the woman who tempts him. (21)
Rohmer’s films reveal what it is to be alive without narrative fireworks—or rather, what it is when the fireworks of ones life are as small and simple as finding a companion for the summer holidays (Le Rayon vert, Conte d’été) or feeling desire for someone other than your chosen partner (Contes moreaux). The majority of people live lives without car chases. What may seem like banality becomes, when looked at with Rohmer’s compassionate yet distanced eye, a revelation, through the quotidian, of the profound. He looks inside the intimate action of movement, train rides, car journeys, walks by the sea, intimate conversations about “me”, “my thoughts,”, “my desires” and uses these things as a conduit to reach the soul. He sees through what may strike some as petty, banal, even annoying, (Delphine’s endless crying in Le Rayon Vert, Gaspard with his silly song in Conte d’été) to the living person underneath, whose pain is real, and thus always worthy of pity—whose struggles, however small, are real, and thus always worthy of our attention. You never sense that he is mocking his characters, no matter how ridiculous their behavior. It is his refusal to fall into such cheap stratagems that give his films depth, and lift what may otherwise seem like the self obsessed traumas of the young and middle class into something more important.
Accusations of banality also ignore something critical in all Rohmer’s work—the moral and philosophical element. Morality is central to Rohmer; his first film series was, after all, the Contes moreaux. This forces a critic to consider the nature of Rohmer’s moral universe, of exactly where, if at all, one finds the boundaries of right and wrong. There seems to be a certain element of moral judgment in many of the films. Louise is punished for her infidelity in Le Nuits de plein lune and Sabine’s humiliation with Edmond in Le Beau Marriage seems like a punishment, both for her affair with a married man, but more for her disdain for the importance of marriage.
Rohmer was an admirer (and in his writing, a champion) of Bresson, whose films represent a world permeated by Catholicism, where good and evil are a clear presence. Though Rohmer’s films are profoundly different, it is possible to discern in them elements of similar religious morality. In Ma Nuit chez Maud the Catholicism of the protagonist, Jean-Louis, is central. It provokes all moral and philosophical debates of the film. His representation is interesting because though he seems initially cold, when he relaxes, first with Maud and then with Françoise, he becomes charming, warm and attractive. While the audience may long for him to choose the beautiful and intelligent Maud over the reserved and somewhat less alive (but Catholic) Françoise, the film’s coda shows the married couple as a functioning, happy unit while freethinking Maud is alone, as unhappy, it seems, in a second marriage as she was in her first. The frequent lengthy scenes in church, the sermons and recitations, all underline the importance of the Catholic position. Other films also contain important scenes in church: Sabine praying in Le Beau marriage and Felicie’s moment of illumination in the church in Nevers in Conte d’hiver. Perceval le Galloise has even stronger elements of faith—not only the religious universe of the film but, crucially, its ending, which presents an extraordinary depiction of the passion of Christ. Even his book (with Claude Chabrol) on Hitchcock describes a universe ordered by religious belief:
Each being has the need of the mirror of somebody else’s conscience; but in this universe where salvation shines only when illuminated by the light of Grace, he sees in that mirror only his own deformed and exposed image. (22)
And yet, this quote talks of Hitchcock’s universe, not Rohmer’s—whose personal beliefs are as unknown as his private life. As frequently as he is accused of being banal, Rohmer is accused of being conservative. Such comments can only be based on a surface reading of the films. (23) Rohmer insists that his work is the product of his imagination, and the ideas contained within them are not drawn from his life. (24) By doing so he places its importance out of the realm of personal experience and into something wider. Morality is a central issue, but what the films reveal is not an intention to define morality, to make clear the boundary between right and wrong, but an exploration of the nature of morality itself. You never get the sense that any of Rohmer’s characters are evil, in the way a Bressonian character can be. Rohmer doesn’tcondemn his characters, though they frequently lie to both others and themselves, and sometimes, as in La Boulangère de Monceau (The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, 1963) use other people quite cruelly. The films do not make moral judgments, neither on the characters nor on the issues that face them. Their concern is the exploration of the dilemma, and what it reveals of the human. The only accurate comment that can be made on Rohmer’s own morality is his consistent refusal to judge his characters. Just as he never makes fun of them when they are foolish, so he never damns or lauds their choices. It is this that makes his films so deeply humane. It is also what makes them adult. The respect Rohmer shows his characters extends to his viewers, whose intelligence, perception and patience are generously presumed upon. He places himself, not above, as the author, but alongside. The audience does any judgment that takes place, though one would hope that the films might encourage them to do otherwise. As Rohmer writes, in the Hitchcock book: “It is not the tragic poet’s business to judge his characters, not any man’s business to judge his fellows.” (25)
The complexity of Rohmer’s work constantly brings the viewer up against such ongoing contradictions. He seems a traditionalist with his simple camera angles and constant reworking of themes, yet he has consistently embraced new technologies. Along with other Nouvelle Vague directors, he was enthusiastic about the introduction of 16mm. More recently, in L’Anglaise et le Duc, he embraces digital technologies in a way more radical than George Lucas could ever imagine. And so, after acknowledging elements of conservatism in his work, one is confronted with a scene in Die Marquise von O which shocks in the powerful and overt nature of its social commentary, and which is described in detail to make clear how inaccurate and misleading many of the accusations against Rohmer have been.
In order to trick her into revealing that she does know the name of the man who made her pregnant, the Marquise’s mother tells her that it is Leopardo, the servant. Rohmer himself has made a similar indication with the shot of Leopardo watching the Marquise in the cellar, but this is balanced by the more powerful shot of the Count watching the Marquise sleep. Her innocence proved by this trick, the Marquise and her mother go home, and as they do, they joke about the idea of Leopardo really being the father. “He’s quite good looking.” they giggle. This sequence begins with a point of view shot of Leopardo’s back as he drives, and includes a return to this shot with Leopardo turning around. It is clear that he hears this talk—talk that is both insulting and insensitive to him. There can be no doubt in this short sequence that Rohmer is underlining the cruelties of the servant/master relationship. The characters treat Leopardo like a thing that can be joked about and made fun of in his hearing. Conversely, the filmmaker shows Leopardo to be human and unworthy of such treatment. Such a comment is startlingly overt for a Rohmer film, and more surprising coming as it does directly after such a moving scene of mother/daughter reconciliation. (26)
One of the reasons why Rohmer is often accused of things that on deeper investigation seem unjustified, is because, like his characters, he is in permanent transit. While his themes remain similar his attitudes are more fluid. In an interview with Jean Narboni that forms the introduction to a collection of his critical writing, he says:
My theory…was that film’s classical period was not behind us but ahead. Now, I’m not so sure. What I’m saying now might be just as open to criticism as what I said then. (27)
Rohmer’s ability to continue exploring, changing his mind as times change and thought develops, is part of his work as a filmmaker. No doubt it is one of the things that keep him so young. (28) Just as his characters talk in prolonged dialogues, so his films are an ongoing dialogue that needs never end because its purpose is not the revelation of a solution. The problems of living, which is really what all of the films are about, are problems without end. In order to really know ourselves we have to be ready to change our minds and reconsider, to remain open to whatever time and experience can show. Later in the interview, Rohmer says “Well, I’ve changed, and then again I haven’t changed.” (29) Perhaps the only way to know ourselves is to also know that we know nothing.
It is in the quest of trying to know ourselves that Rohmer’s characters are engaged, a quest less dramatic but no less difficult than that of the knights in Perceval le Galloise. His characters think of themselves as free, but they frequently seem otherwise. They make what are obviously wrong choices for reasons that are evidently weak. They seem hemmed in by what they want, what they think they want, what they expect and what others expect from them. At times it seems that these articulate people are the prisoners of their own voices, their inability to stop thinking and verbalizing those thoughts. This chatter hems them in. In moments of silence they collapse into themselves. These moments of aloneness, of silence, are crucial: the sudden revelation of the real self, naked and mysterious—Delphine crying alone in a country lane, Jeanne unable to stay in her boyfriend’s apartment, trying to clear up but paralyzed by something that remains unexplained. These things are touching because what they show is the vulnerability we all carry at our core.
Such vulnerability is a thing of mystery. Just as Jeanne can never explain why she can’t be alone at her lover’s house, it is impossible to really understand how Felicie could give the wrong address to her lover. This is the secret heart of us. This is the mystery, Perceval’s holy grail, whose importance we sense but whose reality it is impossible to truly understand. Rohmer’s films are seeped in such mystery, which manifests itself in the lies people tell, to each other and themselves, and in the always-present absences in his films. So often there is a missing person- Jeanne’s boyfriend, Jerome’s fiancée, the absent Charles, the aviator’s wife. Characters also choose to absent themselves, Jeanne in Natasha’s house, Delphine in her constant attempts at a holiday, Louise from almost everybody as she searches a solitude she can’t negotiate. In the light of this sense of absence, this mysterious center that no one can describe, all the talk in the films takes on a new light. While it is, of course, part of the realism of Rohmer’s word, revealing so much, it is also, suddenly, a form of whistling in the dark, a desperate attempt to create enough noise to drown the silence, and the darkness at its core.
Such complex and difficult concepts work in Rohmer’s films because they are so rooted in realism. Their physicality grounds them, and it is not surprising that ground- place and space- are important in his work. Many of his silences take place in moments of transit, Gaspard’s wanderings in the opening sequence of Conte d’été are an obvious example. Driving is central is Ma Nuit chez Maud, and Conte d’hiver, train journeys are found in Le Beau marriage and L’Amour l’apres-midi, the bus in La Femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1980), the speedboat in Le Genou de Claire (1971). Movement is so important in Perceval le Galloise that it constitutes the final image and words of the film: “The knight rode on through the forest.” Traveling does more than give a space for the characters to be silent. It shows us the space in which life is lived. So much of life is taken up in the simple necessary movement from one place to another. Instead of dispensing with these moments Rohmer underlines them. He tells of people that move and speak; and movement, the passage through space in which nothing seems to happen, but in which we still breath and think, is given its just importance.
The relationship between people and the places they inhabit is also important. In order to achieve the more complex and at time metaphysical elements in his films, it is imperative that what we see is real. This is why all the films (bar those based on the writings of others) are set in the time in which they were filmed, and space is, of course, equally important as time. In Conte d’automne, Magali talks about the land on which she grows her vines and her relationship with it. In L’Amour l’apres-midi the narrator talks of his passion for the city. In Les Nuit de pleine lune the separation of the city from the suburbs is crucial, as is the separation of Paris from Le Mans in Le Beau marriage. In La Boulangère de Monceau the narrator (and the director) go to great pains to make clear the physical geography in which the story takes place, naming each road and corner. Because there is nothing arbitrary in a Rohmer film, one is obliged to consider the importance of the location on the character. Scenes take place in both public and private places, people tell the truth or they lie, they are alone or with others. Each one of these variables affects every other one, in the films as in life. Rohmer himself placed great importance on the exact nature of the spaces in which he filmed each scene. In his book A Man with a Camera, Rohmer’s frequent collaborator Nestor Almendros tells how Rohmer went a year in advance to the locations of Le Genou de Claire and planted the roses he wanted in the scenes he envisaged. The roses duly bloomed on time.
When talking about Ma Nuit chez Maud, Almendros writes:
Some people think Rohmer is in league with the devil. Months before, he had scheduled the exact date for shooting the scene where it snows; that day, right on time, it snowed, and the snow lasted all day long, not just a few minutes….But it is not just a question of luck; the key lies in Rohmer’s detailed preparation, which he sometimes completes two years before shooting the film… (30)
Such rigorous preparation is more than a reaction to the low budgets within which Rohmer tends to work. (31) His habit of long rehearsal and very few takes (often no more than one) reflects a man who knows exactly what he wants. Rohmer’s late start, especially after years of writing about film, can perhaps account for this. While his films are sometimes radical (though quietly so) they are not experiments. They are the product of someone who has thought long and thoroughly about what he wants to say and how to say it. All his films, even the historical ones, share a similar shooting style, one that is pared down to the essentials. There are rarely impressive or dramatic camera moves. Framing is direct, and movement always has a reason behind it—and typically for Rohmer, a human reason. In Ma Nuit chez Maud, for instance, Rohmer uses a close up only once, when Maud relates the story of her lover’s death. And even this shot is a close up in which, by leaning forward, the movement inwards is on the part of the actress, not the camera. It is impossible when writing about Rohmer to not continually find oneself returning to his own definition of his work: “I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak.”
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Rohmer has been described as a director who is loved or hated. He has been accused of various crimes from celebrating banality to being an arch conservative. It seems initially odd that such gentle work as Rohmer’s can excite these strong reactions. But these accusations are less surprising the deeper one explores the work. The loneliness and vulnerability of his characters, the detailed scrutiny of moral issues of the everyday while refraining from making a moral conclusion, and the refusal to provide neat or conclusive endings all force the viewer to both work with the film, and look inwards. This can be uncomfortable, and when done while watching such urbane and beautifully put together works, very disconcerting. And yet, if I had to find one word to sum up Rohmer’s work, the word would be generous. Generosity in the way he treats his characters and the way he treats his audience, and generosity which extends even to the size of his oeuvre. (32) At 82, he continues to work. Like Perceval, he continues in search of an un-findable mystery, casting light through the act of searching.
Journal d’un scélérat (1950) short
Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak (1951) short
Les Petites filles modèles (1952) short
Bérénice (1954) short
La Sonate à Kreutzer (1956) short
Véronique et son cancre (1958) short
Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo) (1959)
La Carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career) (1963) short
La Boulangère de Monceau (The Girl at the Monceau Bakery) (1963) short
Nadja à Paris (1964) short
Le Celluloid et la marbre (1965) television
Carl Dreyer (1965) television
Place de l’Étoile (1965) sketch in Paris vu par… (Six in Paris)
Une Étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1966) short
Fermière à Montfauçon (1967) short
La Collectionneuse (The Collector) (1967)
Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night with Maud) (1969)
Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee) (1971)
L’Amour l’après-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon, Love in the Afternoon) (1972)
Die Marquise von O… (The Marquise of O) (1976)
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
La Femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife) (1980)
Le Beau mariage (A Good Marriage) (1982)
Loup y es-tu? (1983)
Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach) (1983)
Les Nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris) (1984)
Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray) (1986)
Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle) (1987)
L’Ami de mon amie (Boyfriends and Girlfriends) (1987)
Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime) (1990)
Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale) (1992)
L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque (The Tree, The Mayor and the Mediatheque) (1993)
Les Rendez-vous de Paris (Rendezvous in Paris) (1995)
Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale) (1996)
Conte d’automne (Autumn Tale) (1998)
L’Anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke) (2000)
Triple Agent (2004)
Le canapé rouge (2005) short
Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) (2007)
Nestor Almendros, A Man with a Camera, translated by Rachel Philips Belash, Noonday Press, 1986
Pascal Bonitzer, Eric Rohmer, Paris, Editions de l’Etoile, Diffusion, Seuil, 1991
Eric Rohmer, Comedies et Proverbs, volumes 1 and 2, Petite bibliothèque de Cahiers du cinéma, 1999
Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, translated by Carol Volk, Cambridge University Press, 1989
Eric Rohmer, De Mozart en Beethoven, essai sur la notion de profondeur en musique, Acte sud, 1996
Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock, the first forty-four films, translated by Stanley Hochman, New York, Frederick Ungar, 1979
Michel Serceau, Eric Rohmer, les jeux de l’amour, du hazard st du discours, Paris, Éditions du cerf, 2000
Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O, 1807
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Interview with Mary Stephen by Bill Mousoulis
Magic Realism in Conte d’automne by Fiona A. Villella
Interview with Eric Rohmer by Aurélien Ferenzi
Entretien Avec Eric Rohmer by Aurélien Ferenzi (in French)
The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle by Aaron Goldberg
Claire’s Knee by Daniel Hayes
The Grace of Suffering: Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris by Alexander C. Ives
My Night at Maud’s by Rahul Hamid
Place de l’Etoile by Steven Rybin
A Tale of Springtime by Dan Harper
La Collectionneuse (Éric Rohmer, 1967) by Maura Edmond
Adieu, Eric Rohmer by Rolando Caputo and Michelle Carey
New Interview with Eric Rohmer by Pascal Bonitzer
Eric Rohmer’s Place de l’Étoile by Luc Moullet
Secrets and Lies: Three Documentaries About Eric Rohmer by Bruce Perkins
Eric Rohmer, Educator by Alain Hertay
Cinema and the Classroom: Education in the Work of Eric Rohmer by Darragh O’Donoghue
Choice and Chance: A Dialectic of Morality and Romance in Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s by Constantine Santas
The Complete Rohmer by Bruce Perkins
Cinémathèque Annotations on Film
Triple Agent (Éric Rohmer, 2004) By Lee Hill
Die Marquise von O… (La Marquise d’O…, The Marquise of O, Éric Rohmer, 1976) by Darragh O’Donoghue
Scenes from a Revolution: Éric Rohmer’s L’Anglaise et le Duc(The Lady and The Duke, 2001) by Wheeler Winston Dixon
Games of Passion: Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends by Adam Bingham
Compiled by author and Albert Fung
A French Rohmer site.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to several online articles here.
Guardian Unlimited Film
Interview with Rohmer.
My Night at Rohmers
A site dedicated to Rohmer.
- In his study, with Claude Chabrol, of the works of Hitchcock, Rohmer writes of the moments when Hitchcock abandoned the suspense form for which he is best know, and how each time, though the films he made were groundbreaking, commercial failure led to a return to what was expected. The importance that he ascribes to these “aberrations” in one great filmmaker’s work also need to be applied to his own. See Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock, the first forty four films, Translated by Stanley Hochman, New York, Frederick Ungar, 1979.
- Bill Mousoulis, “Interview with Mary Stephen”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 5, April 2000, http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/5/stephen.html
- Beatrice Romand, for instance, played the teenage Laura in Le Genou de Claire, then went on to play Sabine in Le Beau marriage, then appeared in Le Rayon vert and Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle before playing middle aged Magali in Conte d’automne. Marie Riviere, Rosette and Fabrice Lucini are among other actors who appear regularly in Rohmer’s work. He has a similar fidelity to his collaborators. Nestor Almendros worked on eight of his films, and Marguerite Menendez has produced the majority of his films. He has been working with his current collaborators, Diane Baratier on camera, Pascal Ribier on sound and Mary Stephen as editor on many of the recent films.
- Nestor Almendros, in his book A Man with a Camera, comments on a number of occasions on Rohmer’s “ecological principles”. See Nestor Almendros, A Man with a Camera, trans. Rachel Philips Belash, Noonday Press, 1986
- Certain of Rohmer’s critical writings were signed ‘Maurice Scherer’, others ‘Eric Rohmer’, and his novel was published under the name Gilbert Cordier.
- Eric Rohmer, “Letter to a critic (concerning my Contes moreaux)”, La Nouvelle Revue Française, 219, March 1971. Translated by Carol Volk.
- It is interesting to look at the published versions of Rohmer’s films. Unlike most film scripts, where the text is centred and the directions run the full page, in Rohmer’s work the text runs the full page. Directions are brief and italicised to differentiate them, and often contain fragments of dialogue in description that do appear in the film, but are obviously not considered to be important enough to be written as such.
- Eric Rohmer, “For a talking cinema”, Les Temps Modernes, September 1948. Translated by Carol Volk.
- The plots of Rohmer’s films tend to be extremely simple. Some films (Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle/Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle  for example) barely seem to have a plot, and even those more intricately plotted films such as Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983) and Conte d’hiver do not rely heavily on twists in action. When one sees a written summary of the “story” of a Rohmer film, it invariably seems tedious and uninteresting. The films are made up of the lives of their individual characters—words and actions.
- Rohmer, “Letter to a critic”
- Rohmer, “For a talking cinema”
- Eric Rohmer, “Film and the three levels of discourse: indirect, direct and hyperdirect”, Cahiers Renauld-Barraoul, 96, October 1977. Translated by Carol Volk.
- Eric Rohmer, “Lessons of a Failure: Moby Dick by John Huston”, Cahiers du cinéma, 67, January 1957. Translated by Carol Volk.
- Interview with Jean Narboni, 1983 in Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, translated by Carol Volk, Cambridge University Press, 1989
- Rohmer, in the interview with Jean Narboni (cited above), states that, with some exceptions, he believes that the first viewing of the film is the most important, and many of his articles were written about films he had seen only once.
- Rohmer, “Film and the three levels of discourse”
- Rohmer returned to a similar technique with L’Anglaise et le Duc, matting digitally 18th century backgrounds behind his actors, following the thought that is it better (and more realistic) to be fake but honest than it is to be real but false.
- Later in his life Rohmer argued this point less forcefully, probably because as film was now accepted as an art form it no longer needed a defender, thus clearing his mind to concentrate on other areas of criticism. However, this change of heart also illustrates the way in which Rohmer is constantly considering and reconsidering his position, something that becomes an important element when looking at his work.
- Of course, it is not elements of high drama that create good films. His peers respect Rohmer’s work. Godard both produced and acted in Rohmer’s early short films while Truffaut is reported to have said “We always knew he was the greatest of us all.”
- Rohmer and Chabrol, Hitchcock
- Critics in France who condemned L’Anglaise et le Duc for being right wing were making the easy mistake of confusing the beliefs of the characters for the beliefs of the filmmaker. We cannot, any of us, assume we know whether Rohmer agrees or disagrees with Grace Elliot’s political comments.
- Rohmer, “Letter to a critic”
- Rohmer and Chabrol, Hitchcock
- Interestingly, though the scene of the two women talking about Leopardo as he drives is in the book, no mention is made by Kleist of Leopardo hearing them. This comment is purely Rohmer’s.
- Interview with Jean Narboni, 1983
- Interview with Jean Narboni, 1983
- Nestor Almendros
- Almendros also notes that during the filming of La Collectioneuse, Rohmer enjoyed the challenge of not having quite enough film stock.
- Most filmographies list 38 films and works for television, however, Mary Stephen comments that he has an ongoing series of shorts, which leads me to believe that the real number is even larger.