What is lost when an auteur passes away? It is, more than anything, the singularity of a vision of the world that is theirs and theirs alone. Using an exquisite pun-cum-metaphor, Vladimir Nabokov once said that to read Nikolai Gogol was to have one’s eyes ‘gogolised’. Great artists, especially filmmakers, transform our way of seeing, providing us with a ‘lens’ through which to regard the world. The works endure, but the ‘lens’ that defines their vision is finally put to rest with them.
Eric Rohmer’s death in January 2010 brings to a close an oeuvre rich in distinctive features. We can hardly fail to recognise when we are in the presence of a Rohmer film – characters, dialogue, locales would be tangible evidence enough of that Rohmerian world, however, it is in the manner of how he makes us perceive things, what he asks of our gaze (and our intelligence), that gives his films their singularity.
Yet, a director’s vision is never so straightforward a matter. In the Cahiers du cinéma interview with Rohmer from 1970, reprinted in this issue, Cahiers takes him to task precisely on this question of ‘vision’: “Starting from the moment where ‘vision’ in the cinema is inseparable from ‘knowledge’, where knowledge orients and commands vision, can one still speak of the world, of nature? Isn’t the object observed ‘treated’ as much as it is observed by the means of observation…” He is effectively being asked to defend the tenets of his idealist view of ‘reality’ and his belief that cinema is a “means of better admiring the world.” Daniel Fairfax admirably takes up the vexed question of vision in his analysis of Perceval to demonstrate how Rohmer was in fact a perceptive thinker on issues of spatial perspective and vision.
Like the man, Rohmer’s cinema has its secrets. In an interview published in Issue 46, 2008 of Senses (link here), fellow Cahiers du cinéma critic Charles Bitsch had this to say about the habits of Rohmer amongst the group of Cahiers critics in the ‘50s: “Rohmer, on the other hand, was more distant. He had a lot of activities that we were never very aware of. We were all the time stuck in a cinema. We were a group of three or four who often went to the movies together. Rohmer, though, never joined us; he went to the movies on his own.” It’s a refrain heard in Rohmer’s own words as quoted by Bruce Perkins in “Secrets and Lies: On Three Documentaries on Rohmer”: “My characters don’t say everything; they have their secrets.” Which attests to the inscrutability of motivates that so many of Rohmer’s characters share, especially the heroes of the ‘Six Moral Tales’, but no less so with the characters of the ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ and ‘The Tales of Four Seasons’ series. Can we ever fully know what investment, and why, Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) has in touching Claire’s knee, or why in La collectionneuse Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) flees from Haydée (Haydée Politoff), or equally so, why Frédéric (Bernard Verley) turns his back on Chloe (Zouzou)? Call it delusion or catholic guilt or apprehension, but that does not explain all.
Rohmer seems to ask the question: Where do you peg your desire? And what kind of desire or love can hang on the promise of a knee or a ray of green light. That it does hang, and sometime holds, on such opaque, flimsy objects is precisely the tantalisingly sublime pleasure of Rohmer’s cinema. Which is why Rohmer’s cinema is a fetishist’s delight: how often one hears people extract from his films fragments that they hold dear – a gesture, a posture, a turn of the head at just the right moment or angle, the colour of a sweater, the glow of a tan on summer skin… the list is infinite. Rohmer’s seductions are sensual rather than straightforwardly carnal. And they stem, as fragments always do, from the exactness of his framing and compositions.
For the most part, the many eulogies to Rohmer that flowed after his death refrained from the grand pronouncements that generally accompany the death of filmmakers with significant historical gravitas. The deaths of Ingmar Berman and Michelangelo Antonioni, within days of one another in 2007 was not only the occasion for mourning these individuals, but also the symbolic death of the kind of late ‘50 and ‘60s European modernist cinema they embodied (even if, in practice, that cinematic form had passed away long before). More than their actual deaths, what critics mourned was their historical relevance to cinema. On the other hand, Rohmer’s death was not seen as an end-of-an-era moment.
Though he had referred to his films as modernist, more often he called himself a classicist. There are no Personas (1966) or Blow Ups (1966) to be found in his oeuvre. Reality may be ambiguous, but the ambiguity lies elsewhere than it does for the modernists Antonioni and Bergman. And, as the interview with Cahiers makes clear, he had no tract with the political modernism of the kind practiced by Jean-Luc Godard or the Straubs, for example. When critics refer to Rohmer as modernist, one has the sense that they mean little more than he more often than not turned his gaze on the contemporary world. If Rohmer’s films are indeed modernist, it remains an open question as to exactly how so.
As well as paying tribute to Rohmer, we hope that the articles assembled here will provide avenues for addressing such questions.
Not that we wish to rob Rohmer of his secrets, for they are what keeps his cinema alive. In other words, Rohmer’s death did not carry any symbolic supplement, what was mourned was the singular individual and his films.