Letter from François Truffaut to Eric Rohmer, 1956 (1)
The most delightful of Eric Rohmer’s early shorts is Véronique et son cancre (Véronique and Her Dunce, 1958), the story of a stylish young woman (Nicole Berger) giving grinds to – and effectively babysitting – an unruly pupil (Alain Delrieu). As with many apprentice works, the blueprint for Rohmer’s ‘mature’ cinema is easy to trace – the discord between female and male, expressed through the interaction of dialogue, body language, costume, décor and space. But it foregrounds one theme that will recur throughout his films, and serves to unite the disparate aspects of his biography and his work as a cinema theorist, as a television professional, and as creator of some of French cinema’s most beloved works: education.
Rohmer began his working life as a lycée teacher, later lecturing in the Sorbonne (2); and formulated his theories of cinematic realism in relation to Christian ontology under the aegis of another educator, his ‘teacher and friend’ André Bazin (3); these two strands (teaching and cinema) would unite in the 1970s when Rohmer completed a doctorate on F. W. Murnau (4), Even before this he would include films in his literature classes (5), and continue to teach film, whether in a university context (6), making himself available for advice (7), or even working on one protégé’s films (e.g. editing La cambrure (1999) for director Edwige Shaki).
When his filmmaking career stalled in the early 1960s – his downbeat first feature, Le signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959; released in 1962) failing to ride the ‘crest’ of the nouvelle vague (8), and his editorship of Cahiers du cinéma terminated in a ‘putsch’ (9) – Rohmer began to work in educational television, where, far from being reduced to hack work, he was free to choose his own subjects, and experiment with a variety of styles (10) – he said that this work was about ‘learning’ his craft (11). And, from the first film of his ‘Six contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’, 1962-1972) series, La boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1962) to his last series, ‘Contes des quatre saisons’ (‘Tales of the Four Seasons’, 1990-1998), students, schools and education recur as characters, settings, situations and themes in his work; he even used groups of his university students as extras in party scenes. This article will offer a brief survey of this motif.
Rohmer’s first major work as a ‘teacher’ in cinema was as critic and programmer (12), helping, with his famous colleagues Bazin, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, both to shape cinematic taste, and to encourage new thinking about the properties of cinema. Like all good criticism, Rohmer’s essays served to educate: to inform the reader what (and who) to look out for; to read between the lines; to question, and, if necessary oppose, or unlearn, received ideas (13). Most importantly, Rohmer wanted to re-educate the viewer – the ‘poorly trained eye’ (14) – from deciphering the image as a sign of something else, as symbol, to simply seeing what was there:
Film, just like museums, teaches us to see. There is no shame in taking lessons, even under such an unassuming master. (15)
Cinema’s mission is … to direct us toward the aspects of the world that we didn’t see. (16)
I have always preferred what we are shown to what we must decipher. (17)
The essays ring with calls to ‘learn’ (18); for ‘fresh eyes and minds’ (19) and an ‘active curiosity’ (20); for film to be made the ‘object of rigorous attention’ (21). The project of the Cahiers critics is often interpreted as an Oedipal one, as a new generation rejected the oppressive professional and aesthetic strictures of the previous, significantly dismissed as le cinéma de papa. But Rohmer, always the most avowedly conservative member of the group (22), was less concerned to reject than to inscribe himself within a tradition; his construction of an exemplary canon, or ‘school’ (23) – with Bazin as theorist, Henri Langlois as museum curator, and Murnau (24), Jean Renoir (25), Alfred Hitchcock (26), Howard Hawks (27) and Roberto Rossellini (28) as practitioners – was paid lip service to by his colleagues, but ignored when it didn’t suit. Rohmer kept faith to this canon throughout his career, enshrined visually in his educational program on Louis Lumière (1968), whose pioneering films, and the nature of cinema itself, are discussed by two authoritative cine-patriarchs, Renoir and Langlois.
Rohmer’s work for television – made for bodies such as l’Institut Pédagogique National and Radio-Télévision Scolaire – is still under-discussed in accounts of his work; Tom Milne called it a ‘retreat’ (29), though Rohmer himself considered some of these programs worthy of his ‘personal’ films (30). This may be simply due to availability – I have only seen a handful, scattered as DVD extras or uploaded on the likes of YouTube. As a result, the following comments can only speculate gingerly on a fragment of the whole.
What is probably most interesting about these shorts to the Rohmerian is the link between their material and his fiction. A documentary on Perceval, ou Le conte du Graal (1965) will become Rohmer’s greatest experiment in narrativity, Perceval le Gallois in 1978; a discussion about mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal between a Catholic (Père Dominique Dubarle) and an agnostic (Brice Parain) will be restaged in (and thematically structure) Rohmer’s most popular film, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) (31). The format of Entretien sur Pascal (1965), which simply shows two men talking loftily under Rohmer’s unseen direction, seems to confirm the sceptic’s view of his cinema, although it should be noted that this way of teaching through philosophy, dialectic and, above all, conversation, is an essential part of the French curriculum (32).
Some of the shorts seem like primers for reading Rohmer; Langlois’ argument that Louis Lumière’s apparent realism was actually an attempt to capture the ‘intangibles’ of life, could equally apply to Rohmer’s fiction. An essay like L’ère industrielle: métamorphoses du paysage (1964) documents the urban and industrial redevelopment of Paris, confounds those who would dismiss Rohmer as a simple reactionary (33), and shows scenes that look forward to the suburbs and new towns that feature prominently in the ‘Comédies et proverbes’ (‘Comedies and Proverbs’, 1980-1987) series of films (34). Conversely, the natural surroundings of Victor Hugo: les contemplations, livre V-VI (1966) reminds us that behind the talk in Rohmer’s fictions, great care is taken with the photography of setting, the rolling of the sea, or the fall of sunlight, or the blowing of wind through trees of the kind that so excited another Rohmer mentor, D.W. Griffith (35). Rohmer himself called his television work ‘didactic’, as much an opportunity for him to learn about a subject as his intended audience, and as an experiment in ‘violat[ing] cinema’ (36).
It must not be forgotten, nevertheless, that these films were aimed at teenage audiences who may not have frequented Rohmer’s type of cinema, and shown in classrooms, not cinemas, so must be evaluated according to these criteria. How were these films used in class (37)? Were they vehicles for further discussions? Did teachers or pupils provide feedback to Rohmer or his sponsors? How much did Rohmer’s experience as a teacher shape the films’ content and approach? Were choices of subject linked to the existing curriculum? On the one hand, films like Victor Hugo and Stéphane Mallarmé (1968), with their reverent use of the poets’ words, documents, photographs, locations associated with them etc., lacked historical context (Mallarmé reconstructs an ‘interview’ with the Symbolist in his rooms), and betray a faith in (male) creative authority that was quickly going out of fashion in the period Rohmer was making them. However, it is a respect for text that Rohmer would take to extremes in his literally faithful but cinematically radical adaptations of Die Marquise von O… (La Marquise d’O, 1976) and Perceval le Gallois. Alternatively, a film like Métamorphoses brims with paradox and play, and in asking the student-viewer to contemplate a windmill, encourages a cleansing or maturing of vision:
Try to look at it for a moment through [farmers’] eyes and put aside all the poetic glamour of the invented tradition. Shed the pastoral, even fantastic aspect, of our childhood fables.
For all the charges made against Rohmer as a chauvinistic ideologue (38), his films have stronger female characters than those of his Cahiers colleagues (with the possible exception of Rivette); and an educational, almost sociological, short like Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (1966) actually equates female education with modernity and progress –
The primary role of women at one time was to conserve the values of the past. Today, they are increasingly involved in building the world of tomorrow.
– a link to be made again in L’ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 1987), where Léa (Sophie Renoir) is training to be a computer programmer. Rohmer notes the rise in (largely female) adult education or ‘life-long learning’ in Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990), where Jeanne’s (Anne Teyssèdre) thirty-something cousin is finishing an MA. Une étudiante even absorbs this modernity within the conventional family unit, although after claiming that ‘academic success is greater among married couples than among singles’, shots reflected in round mirrors – the wife-academic itching with her ring – scored to atonal music, suggest alienation and separateness (it is notable that Rohmer stops making educational films in 1969, when certain événements of the previous year may not have been to his ideological or professional taste). A trip to the Buttes-Chaumont park by the narrator of Nadja à Paris (1964; from a screenplay developed with the student herself) will inspire the stage-setting of the first film of Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’, La femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1980), in which a lycéenne invigorates a law student.
A film like Nadja is a kind of cine-prospectus for the Sorbonne, as it displays modern accommodation units, and the joys of sports and leisure. The students in these ‘official’ films are shown as ‘ideal’ in a way the self-serving creeps in The Bakery Girl of Monceau or La carrière de Suzanne (Suzanne’s Career, 1963) are certainly not; it is perhaps no accident that the former are female, and the latter male. In these early fiction films, women are definitely objects (Suzanne [Catherine Sée] is slapped and frequently humiliated) whereas Nadja is a subject, narrator and screenwriter of her own film (39), a flâneuse wandering a more socially diverse Paris than the usual Rohmer character, and who is not afraid to assert her intellectual independence when wearied by male, bohemian ‘experts’.
Rohmer’s first, aborted feature was an adaptation of the ‘morally uplifting’ children’s book by the Comtesse de Ségur, Les petites filles modèles (40). Rohmer’s entire fiction can be said to broadly concern learning (41), featuring characters who hold prejudices, misread information, or make life choices based on partial interpretations of people or events. In the course of the films, characters (and audience) must learn to recognise gaps in knowledge and stories, to allow for alternative points of view, and to interpret the given evidence empirically and in context. This is perhaps one reason why Rohmer is interested in those ‘informal’ sites of study – cafes, parks, trains – where educational institution and ‘real life’ intersect.
Though there are many examples of informal teaching in Rohmer’s fiction – e.g. the elderly husband explaining the phenomenon of the ‘green ray’ in Le rayon vert (1986, The Green Ray, UK; Summer, USA) to a group of readers (and the audience) – Véronique is possibly the only film to dramatise actual pedagogy, discussing at once methods of teaching and their ultimate outcome (although it should be noted that Jeanne the philosophy teacher discusses her teaching ethos in A Tale of Springtime, while L’anglaise et le duc [The Lady and the Duke, 2001] opens with Grace Elliott [Lucy Russell] tutoring the child of a destitute neighbour, though this is primarily an indication of Grace Elliott’s moral worth in the midst of revolution). In Véronique, the child has a number of teachers; the film begins with his mother (Stella Dassas) telling him what to do; his absent father instructs him in letter-writing. Much of the film’s humour comes from his imitation of ‘adult’ behaviour; whereas the teacher, herself just finished training, is naïve and ‘taught’ by her pupil. In the parlour, religious iconography can be seen, hinting at the kind of Christian ‘teaching’ rather over-emphasised by Rohmer’s explicators (42). Two subjects are taught to the child in the film – maths and composition. The first might seem more rigid, with formulae to be learned by rote, but they actually reveal paradox, uncertainty and the limits of knowledge; whereas the elaborations of composition need structure and concision.
In early films like The Bakery Girl of Monceau or Suzanne’s Career, the subjects being studied by the protagonists – law and pharmacy – are less important than the opportunity they give for portraying a particular milieu and age group, modes of speech (43), clothes, parties, and mores of student life (it is interesting to compare attitudes to female students’ sexual activity between the cynicism and disgust of Suzanne’s Career and the more matter-of-fact treatment in the ‘Comedies and Proverbs’). Rohmer is sometimes interested in the economics of studying – where students can afford to lodge and eat; their dependence on families (Suzanne’s Career) or the need to work (The Aviator’s Wife; Le beau mariage /A Good Marriage, 1982). Often education is used as common ground between strangers (Conte d’été /A Summer’s Tale, 1996), or used to boast (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) or do others down (Suzanne’s Career; Tale of Springtime).
The plots or plot points of particular films are often generated by school timetables: the narrator (Barbet Schroeder) meets the boulangère (Claudine Soubrier) because he is skipping meals in order to juggle exam revision with hunting his ‘soul mate’; Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury) in The Aviator’s Wife is travelling to the Buttes-Chaumont because her teachers are on strike; Lucie, like Laure (Béatrice Romand) in Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and Pauline (Amanda Langlet) in Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983), who are officially on vacation, is on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood (44) – education in these films is more of the sentimental type (parents are usually absent). Pauline at the Beach is a very dark variant on this theme, with adults conspiring to manipulate, exploit, lie to and even pimp the title character in the apparent name of ‘education’. Alternatively Léa in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) and Margot (Langlet) in A Summer’s Tale are in that period of limbo between college and work where they balk at making seemingly unalterable life decisions. The crux of the crisis in Les nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1986) is that recent graduate Louise (Pascale Ogier) needs to continue living the life of a student while Remi (Tchéky Karyo) wants to settle down in a grown-up (i.e. controlled by him) relationship.
By the time of the ‘Comedies and Proverbs’, the subject being pursued by the student informs every aspect of a film. A Good Marriage is probably the key example, where it shapes the nature and direction of the plot, the décor and the settings, the milieu depicted, etc. Sabine (Béatrice Romand) is doing a Masters in art history. Her decision to secure a good marriage is tied to her attempt to finish her thesis. She works in an antique shop; her first ploy in netting Edmond (André Dussollier) is to locate for him a piece of Jersey porcelain. Her best friend Clarisse (Arielle Dombasle) designs and manufactures lampshades, and it is a mark of Sabine’s moral ‘progress’ in the narrative that she leaves a dependent, mercenary position as sales assistant in antiques to a partnership in the lampshade business, where she gets to practice the creativity she claims for herself. It is one of the clues to Edmond’s moral unworthiness that he rejects Sabine’s gift of her childhood painting, ignoring an earlier monologue about how important creativity was to her. Her search for a marriage partner is in response to her failed affair with a painter (Féodor Atkine) – she experiences coitus interruptus in his studio crammed with his canvasses. Paintings and other art objects decorate the film and are often drawn attention to – the Man Ray poster she buys; the Millet reproductions in her room. Painters are alluded to in the film’s lighting and composition (e.g. Renoir, Caillebotte). One of Rohmer’s most magical epiphanies is the shared point-of-view pan over the stained-glass windows in Le Mans Cathedral, to which Sabine is directed by Claude (Vincent Gauthier), her first lover, a teacher she dumped for not being ambitious enough. He married another teacher, and in their messy, but warmly ‘lived-in’ flat, she attacks their lifestyle, the profession of teaching others’ kids while overlooking domestic hazards such as a broken lamp switch that could harm their own children (45). Both Sabine and her sister Lise (Sophie Renoir) are introduced in their ‘role’ as students; Edmond claims his greater tolerance is due to his training as a lawyer; while the film begins and ends on a train with the marginal possibility of an affair between Sabine and another passenger (Patrick Lambert), who observe each other studying.
This article has only looked at some aspects of the theme of education in the work of Eric Rohmer, and focused on its modern representations. But the most important treatment in his oeuvre is the medieval Perceval le Gallois (1978), in particular the sequence where the naïf (Fabrice Luchini) is instructed in chivalry – martial, social, ethical – by Gornemant de Goort (Raoul Billerey). Perceval takes his teaching so literally that, when confronted with Christian revelation signalled by the Fisher King (Michel Etcheverry) and the Holy Grail, he sees but fails to probe, and, therefore, to understand. It is a distinction Rohmer has taught readers and viewers since his very first writings on the cinema, and which make his films, in the ideal sense, ‘didactic’.
This essay is dedicated to Dr Brigitte le Juez, who taught me to look at Rohmer more closely.
- François Truffaut. Correspondence, 1945-1984. Gilles Jacob & Claude de Givray (ed). New York: Noonday, 1990. p. 92.
- Derek Schilling. Eric Rohmer. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. pp. 11, 24. One explanation offered for Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer adopting the pseudonym Eric Rohmer is that he wanted to hide his worldly cinephilia from his ‘intensely religious’ mother, and told her he was a teacher in a mediocre lycée. C.G. Crisp. Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.p. 16.
- Eric Rohmer. ‘André Bazin’s “summa”’. The Taste for Beauty. Jean Narboni (ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. p. 93 [translation of Cahiers, no. 91, January 1959]. Eric Rohmer audio interview, extra on Full Moon in Paris DVD, Arrow, 2004.
- Letter from Truffaut to Jean-Louis Bory, 11 December 1974, in Correspondence, p. 428.
- Rohmer audio interview.
- ‘Eric Rohmer parle de ses films: Conte de printemps, 1990 – entretien avec Serge Daney’. Microfilm, France Culture, May 1990. Extra on A Tale of Springtime DVD, Artificial Eye, 2005.
- Truffaut to Bory, in Correspondence, p. 428.
- Schilling, p. 15.
- Emilie Bickerton. A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma. London: Verso, 2009. p. 40. It should be noted, in the light of this article’s concerns, that one of the criticisms levelled against Rohmer was his promotion of a ‘museum-like perspective’ at the expense of young directors and new cinema. Rohmer, ‘The Taste for Beauty’, The Taste for Beauty, p. 71 [translation of Cahiers, no. 121, July 1961]; Bickerton, p. 37.
- James Monaco. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. p. 291.
- Rohmer audio interview.
- Jean Narboni. ‘The Critical Years: Interview with Eric Rohmer’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 1.
- Rohmer. ‘Of Taste and Colours’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 69 [translation of Arts, no. 59, March 1956].
- Maurice Schérer. ‘The American Renoir’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 177 [translation of Cahiers, no. 8, January 1952].
- ‘Of Taste and Colours’, p. 70.
- Rohmer. ‘A Twentieth-century Tale: Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 140 [translation of ‘Une fable du XXème siècle’, Cahiers, no. 61, July 1956].
- Rohmer. ‘The Art of Caricature: Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ The Taste for Beauty, p. 151 [translation of ‘L’art de la caricature’, Cahiers, no. 76, November 1957].
- Schérer. ‘The Classical Age of Cinema’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 42 [translation of Combat, 15 June 1949]; Rohmer, ‘Of Taste and Colours’, p. 69.
- Schérer. ‘Of Three Films and a Certain School’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 67 [translation of Cahiers, no. 26, August-September 1953].
- Rohmer. ‘Explanation of a Vote: South Pacific by Joshua Logan’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 115 [translation of Cahiers, no. 92, February 1959].
- Schérer. ‘Cinema, the Art of Space’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 19, [translation of La revue du cinema, no. 14, June 1948].
- Jean-Claude Biette et al. ‘The Old and the New: Rohmer in Interview’, Cahiers du cinéma. Vol. 2. 1960-1968: New Wave, new cinema, re-evaluating Hollywood. Jim Hillier (ed). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, p. 92 [translation of ‘L’ancien et le nouveau : entretien avec Eric Rohmer’, Cahiers, no. 172, November 1965].
- Schérer. ‘Of Three Films and a Certain School’, pp. 58-67.
- Schérer. ‘Such Vanity is Painting’. The Taste for Beauty, p. 49 [translation of Cahiers, no. 3, June 1951].
- See, for example, the four articles in the section ‘Jean Renoir’ of The Taste for Beauty, pp. 173-199.
- Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol. Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films. Oxford: Roundhouse, 1992 [translation of Hitchcock, 1957].
- Schérer, ‘Howard Hawks: The Big Sky’. The Taste for Beauty, pp. 128-131 [translation of ‘Les maîtres de l’aventure’, Cahiers, no. 29, December 1953].
- Schérer, ‘Roberto Rossellini: Stromboli’. The Taste for Beauty, pp. 124-127 [translation of Gazette du cinema, no. 5, November 1950].
- Tom Milne. ‘Commentary’. Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (ed.). London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, p. 249.
- Rui Nogueira. ‘Eric Rohmer: choice and chance’. Sight and Sound (40: 3, summer 1971) p. 119.
- For French grosses of Rohmer’s films, see Schilling, p. 195.
- Raymond Durgnat. ‘Eric Rohmer: The Enlightenment’s Last Gleaming’, Monthly Film Bulletin (57: 678, July 1990) p. 187.
- Narboni, p. 8.
- A later television series Ville nouvelle (1975) anticipates these films even more directly. Schilling, p. 25.
- Siegfried Kracauer. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. p. 60
- Carlos Clarens. ‘Eric Rohmer: l’amour sage’. Sight and Sound (39: 1, winter 1969-1970) p. 7.
- According to Rohmer, there were very few televisions in schools at the time. Graham Petrie. ‘Eric Rohmer: An Interview’. Film Quarterly (24: 4, summer 1971) p. 39.
- For example, Joan Mellon, ‘The Moral Psychology of Rohmer’s Tales’. Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. London: Davis-Poynter, 1974. pp. 147-178.
- Schilling, p. 19.
- Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Les petites filles modèles’. Godard on Godard, pp. 31-32 [translation of Les amis du cinéma, no. 1, October 1952]; Milne, Godard on Godard, p. 249.
- Crisp, p. 30.
- Derek Schilling notes that ‘Schérer’ is an Alsation Jewish surname. Schilling, p. 10.
- Robert Hammond & Jean-Pierre Pagliano. ‘Eric Rohmer on Film Scripts and Film Plans’. Literature/Film Quarterly (10: 4, October 1982) p. 221.
- Crisp, p. 90.
- Other teachers or lecturers in Rohmer include Vidal (Antoine Vitez) in My Night at Maud’s, Hélène (Françoise Verley) in L’amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972), Octave (Fabrice Luchini) in Full Moon in Paris, who gave up the profession to play the dandy writer, and Jeanne in A Tale of Springtime.