This text originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 219, April, 1970. Translated and reprinted here with kind permission of Cahiers du cinéma.
Everything in this interview with Eric Rohmer opposes us to him. So what is the point of these ten pages? Our enterprise undoubtedly bore the risk of raising this question. And to reply that Rohmer’s films interest us against his declarations, or that it is always useful to trace out lines of demarcation, is not really saying a lot. Let’s say, instead, that we do not think that there can ever be pure and simple differences, and that it is the impurity and complexity of our differences that have retained our interest. For if it now appears strange (or maybe not strange at all, but then, once again, what would be the point of speaking about it?) that a filmmaker like Rohmer takes so much care both to think over his practice and to affirm his metaphysical outlook, then all this does is forget that it is precisely this practice whose role it is to do nothing other than inscribe this metaphysical outlook, in the denegation of that which closes it off. In effect, we will see that in this second interview (1), more bitter than the first, the mechanism of denegation, so frequently and essentially practiced by the characters, and especially the narrators, of the “Moral Tales”, is far from being absent in the discourse of their author. Let’s remember the principal which drives the narrator of “Maud”: “I lie (to myself); but knowing (and saying) that I lie (to myself), I say (and find) the truth.” We certainly haven’t finished orienting ourselves, and speaking the lie of this truth. And Rohmer, certainly, has not finished disorienting our orientation. Nor has he finished erasing his own traces: for it is the erasure which becomes writing, and such a writing has no end, by definition. It requires an attentiveness which itself is without end.
CAHIERS: Let’s begin with a point that could appear secondary to you: since our last interview (1965), your two films: La collectionneuse and Ma nuit chez Maud, have known a certain level of success, both critically and with the public. Has this success led you to rethink the principal of the “moral tale”, or your relationship to the public and to the cinema?
ROHMER: I told myself that success would come some time or another. Has it changed anything with regards to my intentions? No. I always knew that I would make the later moral tales with more significant means than the earlier ones because the subjects demanded it. They demanded older characters, and it is easier to find 20 year-old amateur actors than 30- or 40 year-old ones. Now, if neither La collectionneuse nor Ma nuit chez Maud had met with success, this would likely have sounded the death knell for the “Moral Tales”.
CAHIERS: You say that this success changes nothing about the general plan of the “Moral Tales”. So was this success also programmed by you? For it is a new objective factor which would interfere with your plan in an objective manner.
ROHMER: No, I didn’t programme it, I hoped it would happen, in as much as, financially, it permitted me to continue the “Moral Tales”. I believed in a snowball effect: that with the success of the first, I could make the second, then the third and so on. I gambled on winning.
CAHIERS: Every success depends on a reading [lecture]; do you think that, in your case, this reading was adequate to what the films represented for you?
ROHMER: Listen, I don’t know. When you don’t have success, you can glorify the fact, when you do have success, you can glorify it as well. Or, inversely, you can complain about having too much success, or none at all. Yes, my success frightens me a little: after having been on the outer with relation to the cinema, after having made films almost in conditions of banditry, outside the laws of filmmaking and the customs of film technicians, now I have been admitted, I have been welcomed. This could be dangerous, in as much as success is always heady. Fortunately this isn’t the case at the moment, as I had already thought out my “Moral Tales” and my manner of shooting them hasn’t changed. The proof is that my next film will be no more expensive than the earlier ones, although it could have been. When you have a bit of success, you tend to think that success isn’t such a bad thing, and when you don’t have any success, you tend to think that success doesn’t prove anything. Both perspectives are true, I think. An author is more or less attuned with the present times; there are some who are always with the times, with all that this implies in terms of imperfection, as you can’t always be with the times. It’s not normal for a creator to be with the times when people receive his work; he must be a bit ahead of the times. So, you’re a little bit ahead of people, but they end up catching up to you. And they’re very quick. We’re no longer in the days of Stendhal, who speculated on being received in a hundred years time.
CAHIERS: But do you think that the response of critics and that of the public correspond to what these films represent?
ROHMER: I think I’ve been better understood, better received, by the public rather than the critics. I have the impression that the public was touched in a more original way, while the response of critics seemed more banal to me.
CAHIERS: On what basis do you think the public has been able to respond to the film better than the critics?
ROHMER: Nothing. Except for the fact that if people went to see the film, there must have been good word of mouth about it. I don’t think the critical response was enough to guarantee this, as this year it has been hyperbolic about films that flopped. All the more so, because there were elements in Ma nuit chez Maud which were, on the face of it, objectionable: the Catholic element, the long conversations, the fact that it was in black and white. The advertising campaign didn’t really contribute, either. I told the UGC [a French cinema distributor] to do it very discreetly. So the film’s success was purely due to word of mouth. Now, what were people’s reactions? I don’t know anything. I didn’t receive any letters, except one or two.
CAHIERS: We weren’t speaking of success as a fact, but of its nature. There is, all the same, a continuity between the reception of the public and that of the critics: the emphasis on the “intelligence of the characters”, “the profundity of the themes treated”…
ROHMER: Of course, but I read all that just like you did and I am able to interpret it even less than you can.
CAHIERS: For example, the film yielded a commentary which can be summarised thus: “as opposed to all these ‘modern’ movies, here is a film which, far from showing us gibbering morons – like Godard does for example – presents us with intelligent characters, debating extremely elevated problems, and what’s more: in the provinces, and in a text which is very coherent, cultivated, logically articulated”. Which comes back to attributing the film with the intelligence of the characters’ discourses, to take the discourse proffered in the film for the discourse of the film itself. Now, it seems to us that there is a confusion here: the interest in the film is situated in the articulations between the different discourses expressed in the film, more than these discourses themselves.
ROHMER: Your point of view – and this is normal – is more refined and more profound than that of most spectators. But every text, it seems to me, allows for two readings: an immediate reading and a reading between the lines, resulting from a deepened reflection, with reference to aesthetic theories. But I don’t think that this simplistic interpretation is worth less than the second. I always thought, even when I was a critic, that the brutal and simplistic reaction of the spectator is a good thing. I know that back then in Cahiers, we praised very commercial films in trying to defend them from a point of view that was not that of the man on the street. But this point of view doesn’t bother me. If people want to take things literally in the film, things that I myself may not take literally, I don’t say that this goes against its meaning, I say that it’s a more unsophisticated way of receiving the film, that’s all. I absolutely take on board every interpretation. That doesn’t mean I have to accept them, but once I finish a film, it escapes me, it closes itself off from me, and I can’t enter it any more. It’s up to the public to penetrate through whichever door they wish. I am not speaking about critics, who claim to have found the key, the right key, the only one which opens the big entrance gate. But that’s not my problem any more, thank God. I am not looking for the keys to Hitchcock any more, like I used to.
CAHIERS: Ma nuit chez Maud has certain things in common with Hitchcock: the spectator’s point of view is not put into question, but with this point of view, we can take into account how these films really function.
ROHMER: No, it’s a little different. This attitude which consists in looking for the meaning of the film beyond what is most evidently there (although Douchet has succeeded in coming to grips with what is most evident about Hitchcock: suspense), I think it was more valid for the American cinema, for films with a mass audience, but that it’s no longer justifiable nowadays. I would like there to be the shortest distance between the public’s interpretation (is it that naive? I doubt it) and that of the critics. I write films which should be, above all, tasted, felt, not so as to give rise to an intellectual reflection, but so that they touch people. A Chaplin film, even if you can make a highly developed reflection as to its subject matter, has to make people laugh, otherwise it’s a failure.
CAHIERS: With Chaplin or Hitchcock, what’s more immediate is their pleasurable aspect. Reflection can be secondary. But as for Ma nuit chez Maud, the reflections that the characters make produce and legitimise the spectator’s pleasure, delighted to see characters think in their stead.
ROHMER: Let’s say that at this point in the history of the cinema and the public, only a film which incites a certain reflection can be touching. There are subjects which could be touching in earlier times, such as melodramatic subjects, which don’t touch anyone anymore, so you need to delve into the characters more. But I have trouble seeing what the public could have misinterpreted.
CAHIERS: It seems that for Ma nuit chez Maud there wasn’t a gap between the point of view of the public and that of the critics to the same extent that there was for the films of Hitchcock, for example. Because, what is the entertainment value of a film like Ma nuit chez Maud, the equivalent of spectacle in a Hitchcock film, or of laughter in a Chaplin film? It’s reflection: it’s a film whose entertainment value is of a reflective type.
ROHMER: Certainly. But I think that there is also reflection in a detective novel, in the form of logical, even mathematical, considerations, explicit or not. And even in the comic film, there is a subjacent logical exposition.
CAHIERS: In Ma nuit chez Maud, the reflexive part, based on elements of intelligence, of discourse, was more important than is ordinarily the case, in as much as pleasure and pleasure of reflection are more directly linked than in a comic film, for example.
ROHMER: Certainly. But it’s a difference of degree and not a difference of nature: in all pleasure there is an element of reflection and we must hope that in all reflection there is an element of pleasure. I think that a work of art is made for the purpose of pleasure, and also for the purpose of reflection. I have always refused the distinction between art as entertainment and art as reflection. After all, we can reflect on Johnny Halliday and find an immediate pleasure in Beethoven. For me, this distinction is a flawed way of thinking…
What retains your interest in this film is the fact that my characters have a discourse to give, while in the majority of films, this is absent. Note that in general, I have always had misgivings about discursive films. But you are often attracted by things which seem the most unattractive and the most perilous to you. My idea was precisely to integrate a discourse into the film and to avoid the film being at the service of the discourse, at the service of the thesis. But throughout history, starting with the Greeks, discourse has been very important in the theatre. The Greek theatre was composed of maxims, of moral reflection, which didn’t prevent it from being real theatre.
CAHIERS: In Ma nuit chez Maud, what permitted people to take pleasure from the film was, more than a real or new reflection, “the idea of reflection”, reflection in quotation marks. That is to say, the role that maxims played in the Greek theatre in terms of cultural discourse, already well-known, labelled as being propitious to reflection. In Ma nuit chez Maud, a subject matter squarely designated as being intellectual serves to procure pleasure. Whence the risk of miscomprehension we spoke about at the beginning, miscomprehension coming from the fact that the spectator had a tendency to consider you, as the author of the film, as being on the same level as the discourses proffered in the film, when, it seems to us, the film is somewhere else, between these discourses, it plays with these discourses, plays on these discourses.
ROHMER: What you’re doing now is criticism, and I find it very interesting, by the way. I even subscribe to it in a certain fashion: of all the things that one could say about the film, it’s one of the most perspicacious. But then what’s the point of me being here. My position with relation to the film has no importance. Probably because you know that I was a critic, you’re trying to make me be a critic for my own film, something I absolutely refuse and of which I am, in any case, incapable.
CAHIERS: Let’s say that there is an ambiguity which is attached to the notion of the “moral tale”, the title functioning like a signal: “attention, serious thought!”.
ROHMER: If there is an ambiguity, it is in the moral tale. There are subjects, “sentimental” subjects, which can only be interpreted in a certain manner, while in my subject, there is a fundamental ambiguity in as much as one doesn’t know who is right and who is wrong, if it’s happy or if it’s sad. This comes from the fact that the cinema has evolved and that it is less unsophisticated, less naive than before.
CAHIERS: We’re not trying to say that the public has committed a misinterpretation. But this reading we spoke about can constitute a limitation of the meaning and above all, prevent seeing how this meaning is produced, and that other meanings are masked.
ROHMER: There is necessarily a limitation of the meaning. It is impossible to fully take account of any kind of work, even the most facile ones: there are always different meanings according to the different temperaments of those who receive the work. This seems normal to me and is not particular to my film.
CAHIERS: For a very long time, the idea was nurtured that the work offered itself to as many readings as there are spectators. For too long the myth was accredited according to which each spectator received a film in a unique and singular manner. In fact, when we speak of a film, with its spectators, we see very well that for each film there is a very limited number of possible readings, with gaps between them, and that these readings are all determined, and not only by the film.
ROHMER: There are a limited number of readings – at any given time. But let’s take films which endure, look at the different ways in which we could speak about Griffith or Renoir, you’ll notice that it’s very varied… As for the “Moral Tales”, I told you that they were films which could be composed by a computer….
CAHIERS: But the computer itself is programmed…
ROHMER: But the programme is extremely simple. Starting with two single words: “moral”, “tale”, you can draw out a lot of things. But I still don’t see what I could say to you that would be interesting, apart from banalities, or to recount the film in a different way. Ask me some more precise questions.
CAHIERS: Isn’t it the case that what underlies all your “Moral Tales” could be boiled down to four words which we give here in no particular order: space, time, chance, predestination (with all the Christian connotations that this entails: grace, etc.)?
ROHMER: They are indeed words which are in the computer program. They are there of necessity, because in every fiction, in every work of cinema, there is on the one hand the idea of destiny (as a way of seeing an event) and predestination (the magical side of this destiny), and on the other hand there is space and time. So they’re in my program… as a minimum program for every fiction.
CAHIERS: You said just then that you had wagered on having success in the 1970s. So did you think that your two last films coincided more particularly with this moment…
ROHMER: You want to make a prophet out of me, which I’m not in the slightest. It was just a hope. When I undertook my “Tales” – Comolli remembers this very well – I declared, “Long live 16mm!”, out of provocation and necessity more than out of deep conviction. It was evident that 16mm presented great inconveniences on a technical level. This was back in 1962: things have slightly improved since then. All the same, I had intended to shot La collectionneuse in 16mm for a while, but Nestor [Almendros, camera operator for the film] advised me against it and convinced me that Eastmancolor was far superior to 16mm and not that much more expensive. So I shot it in 35mm. The same with Ma nuit chez Maud: I tried to see if we could do it with amateurs but I renounced the idea of finding people capable of filling the roles. With the next film, I’m going to shoot it “professionally”. But with the sixth “Moral Tale”, it is very possible that, all of a sudden, I could find it more interesting to do it in 16mm with amateurs. I don’t feel constrained by success, and, after the “Moral Tales” I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t even consider myself to be a filmmaker by trade.
Ma nuit chez Maud is a subject that I carried around inside me since 1945. Since then, it has undergone enormous modifications. A character locked up with a woman by an exterior circumstance was the primary dramatic idea. But back then it was about the curfew, during the war, and not snow.
CAHIERS: Did the fact that he got caught by the snow rather than a curfew during the war lead to other modifications?
ROHMER: For me, the snow represented the passage from “tale” to mise en scène. Snow is very cinematographically important for me. In the cinema, it makes the situation stronger, more universal than the external, historical circumstance of the occupation.
CAHIERS: Do you think that in relation to the general structure of the “Moral Tale”, snow has a fictional role equivalent to that of the occupation?
ROHMER: Given the subject, yes. Because the subject, such as I had thought of it, had no deep relationship with the occupation; that is, the conflict between the French and the Germans. You remember the Eluard poem: “It was late / Night had fallen / We fell in love with each other” and so on. Maybe this was what gave me the idea?
CAHIERS: Isn’t the real problem in the very notion of the “moral tale”, between a certain eternal aspect of an abstract schema and its obligatory and precise articulation with and insertion into History?
ROHMER: It’s not in “History”, it’s just in the current world, in the world to be filmed, and so there’s no issue. Up till now, and this is linked to the realism of my project, I always liked to film in the present day. If I film in Saint-Tropez, it’s not the same thing as filming in the fogs of the Baltic. If I shoot in 1970, the period will affirm itself in a certain manner, without the need for me to seek it out, by the way: I can take it because it’s there. At the same time, I avoid showing things which go out of fashion too much. Indeed, in La collectionneuse, there is a rather pronounced “fashionable” aspect, but I made it in such a way as to not be a slave to it, but to dominate it. This goes with my general, almost documentary conception of the cinema, in as much as I take real characters, who exist outside of the film, I accept them entirely, I don’t want to rob them of their particularities, even if these disappear with the passage of time. In Ma nuit chez Maud, the discourse is less specific to our time: let’s say that it is very “mid-century”. The insertion of my tales into the temporality of the character has never posed any problems for me: it happens by itself.
CAHIERS: On the one hand you film the present, on the other hand the general schema of the “Moral Tales” is ahistorical: yet, in Ma nuit chez Maud, there is, moreover, a precise discourse concerning history and the various bets one can place on the course of history: a very coherent Catholic discourse and a Marxist discourse that is less coherent, which is to say, very coherent from a Catholic point of view.
ROHMER: Obviously! The cinema shows real things. If I show a house, it’s a real, coherent house, not something made out of cardboard. When I show traffic on the road, it’s real traffic in a certain city, at a certain moment. It’s the same for the discourses in the film, I’m not looking for schematisation. I’m showing a Marxist, a Catholic, not the Marxist, the Catholic.
CAHIERS: In a sequence in Ma nuit chez Maud, the meeting between Vitez and Trintignant in the café, Vitez speaks to Trintignant about the prospects for the advent of socialism. This discourse is symmetrical to Trintignant’s discourse on chance and probabilities. Yet, as a communist, Vitez is supposed to base his ideas on a science, historical materialism, which envisages the advent of socialism without any wager, without fideism.
ROHMER: Attention. Marxism does not place a wager, but you can wager on Marxism. In as much as historical materialism is not a science…
CAHIERS: Historical materialism is a science.
ROHMER: No. It’s a philosophy. You can’t tell me that Marxism is a science. That the sum of the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, nobody will deny. Whereas with dialectical materialism…
CAHIERS: We said “historical materialism”.
ROHMER: All right, historical materialism, one can deny its very fundamentals. For example, I personally don’t attribute any value to it. Except as a philosophical system, among others. But it is not a science.
CAHIERS: The problem is not at all in our divergence with relation to historical materialism. It is in the discourse held by Vitez as a communist activist in the film. If, indeed, his adherence is a wager on a science, it would have been necessary for the film to present him as a “hesitant Marxist”. Yet, it’s Marxism itself which is presented as being hesitant.
ROHMER: I don’t know about that. I can’t make a judgement about it as a Marxist, not being one. But, in the same way that my Catholic says things which can shock certain Catholics, my Marxist does not have to be a model Marxist. It’s a character who calls himself a Marxist, much as Trintignant calls himself a Catholic. Is he Marxist from the point of view of Marxist orthodoxy? Is Trintignant Catholic from the point of view of Catholic orthodoxy? I don’t know, but this is what shapes my project, for that’s what interests me: showing men who are not absolutely certain of the validity of their adherence to a doctrine, and who interrogate themselves about it and place a wager on it.
CAHIERS: One can say of Trintignant that he’s a hesitant Catholic, not a model, a vacillating Catholic but a Catholic nonetheless; but as for Vitez, what he says in the film makes him non-Marxist.
ROHMER: This text is by Vitez. What gave me the idea about his character was an article by Lucien Goldmann on Pascal. I had written in my script some phrases inspired by this reading, but it needed re-working. Now, Vitez, when I proposed the role to him, immediately told me that he loved Pascal and that he had a lot of things to say about him. We therefore decided to proceed in the same manner as La collectionneuse: we sat before a tape recorder, we spoke about Pascal and that’s how I wrote up the scene in the café. I took Vitez’s words as those of a Marxist – whether a good or a bad one doesn’t really matter. So if you yourselves don’t see him as a Marxist, that’s up to you. The only thing I can is that for me, the most important thing is the issue of fidelity. Fidelity to a woman, but also to an idea, to a dogma. All the characters are present as hesitant dogmatists; on the one hand the Catholic, on the other hand the Marxist, but also Maud who is holding onto her free-thinking, radical-socialist education. Fidelity is one of the major themes of my “Moral Tales”, with betrayal as a counter-subject.
CAHIERS: There is indeed a certain number of moral values in your film, in as much as you play on the ambiguity between the adjective “moral” (appended to “tale”) and the noun “moral”. But these values are always counteracted by a certain number of elements, of which it doesn’t seem that the public and the critics were conscious, elements which partake of repressed desire, villainy, cowardice, contempt, elements which are always occluded in the reading people make of your films. In these films there is indeed a kind of dialectics of fidelity and betrayal, which can sometimes express itself on an “elevated” level (Ma nuit chez Maud), but also on a perfectly trivial level (La carrière de Suzanne).
ROHMER: La carrière de Suzanne is indeed a less accessible film. I have always been reproached for the superficiality of my characters. This reproach doesn’t get to me. But after all, if I made Ma nuit chez Maud, it’s because I also liked the idea of dealing with elevation.
CAHIERS: Let’s speak of your global conception of the cinematic medium, which, in our opinion, as with any aesthetic medium, does not float above history and ideology, but is completely inscribed into them.
ROHMER: I’ve never really managed to come to grips with the word “ideology”…. Could you not pose the question in a more precise manner?
CAHIERS: You say that you do not want to make films “with a message”. But isn’t it necessarily at the level of the message or the “thesis” that the ideological determination takes place: the general conception of the cinematic medium is itself completely determined.
ROHMER: That’s your historical materialist point of view. We are all determined, yes: but then can we be conscious of this determination? Can the author himself give a response about it? Isn’t this the role of the critic, even if it is a truly interesting question?
CAHIERS: This brings us back to our last interview where you opposed the notion of the cinema as a goal, as an end in and of itself, to the notion of cinema as a means. The cinema, according to you, should faithfully, “realistically” record and fix pre-existing situations: this is a conception of the cinema as pure reflection, transparence. We would like to speak about this again.
ROHMER: Of course, I have ideas on the cinema, but in this aspect they haven’t changed.
There are two distinct stages in the conception of the “Moral Tales”: coming up with the story and its cinematic adaptation. Certain tales were written, others were barely sketched out, but in the end, they all possessed a pre-cinematic existence. Their mise en scène appeared to me, above all, as an act of transmission – even if it is also an act of creation: it’s not up to me to be the judge of this.
CAHIERS: You told us: what’s interesting is what is shown: the cinema is a means. But what you didn’t say is: it’s a means for what? And it seems that in your films there are two answers: on the one hand the pedagogical films, on the other hand the “Moral Tales”. In the pedagogical films, you had to teach a specific thing to children. In the “Moral Tales” it’s much more complicated. Well may we continue to think of the cinema as transparent, and yet the fact of putting a camera in front of an object, all the work put into the mise en scène evidently leads to the opposite conclusion. Even if “things speak for themselves”, the fact of looking at them for a given amount of time means that they finish up saying increasingly different things. We find ourselves before the “concrete matter of the film” and not the “concrete matter of the world”. This is what happens in Les Métamorphoses du Paysage Industriel (2) with the crane scene: the negation of this transparency. The cinema is a means of production. But a film is a product, and this product is the film, not the world.
ROHMER: I don’t know how I can respond to you. I didn’t say that the film, the work, was a means, but the cinema as a technique, as “language”. In the same way as with poetry, where certain people say that the goal of poetry is language and other people say that language is a poetic medium, which does not signify that we should have contempt for this language and that this poetic medium is at the service of a value that is different to its poetic value. For example, to take an extreme case, let’s say that with the Lettrists language is an end because the pure act of articulating is not at the service of any signification. In Baudelaire, it is less an end than it is in certain “Illuminations” or in Mallarmé, etc. I critiqued the type of cinema which complied with certain procedures called “cinematic language” for blowing this factor up out of all proportion while disregarding film’s plasticity, its dramatic content, etc.
CAHIERS: Do you subscribe, grosso modo, to a definition of the type: the cinema is a technique whose purpose it is to allow us to see better, to better see what is in front of our eyes?
ROHMER: I will say what [Alexandre]Astruc made Orson Welles say at the Objectif 49 film-club. He interviewed Welles and translated one of his answers in a pretty free manner, using a formula that I find very beautiful: “the cinema is poetry”. Given that the cinema is poetry in the domain of forms (and sounds), it provokes an enlargening of perception: it allows us to see (and hear). This is an idea that I have brooded over for a long time in my articles, and I hope you will excuse me for bringing it up again: a film never allows us to admire a translation of the world, but to admire, through this translation, the world itself. The cinema is an instrument of discovery, even in fictional films. Because it is poetry, it is revelatory and, from the fact that it is revelatory, it is poetry.
CAHIERS: This comes back to a very Bazinian conception. To wit: the cinema, as a window, the best equipped window possible, open to the world, the frame [cadre] as a mask [cache]. All of us are totally against this conception. If your films interest us, it’s that, on the contrary, they represent a distinct “opacification”: a work which allows the film to be seen, and not the real, or the film itself as the only real.
ROHMER: I still think that Bazin was right. But “window” makes me think less of “transparency” than of “opening”. “Transparency” is too static. And I take “opening” in its active sense: the act of opening and not only the fact of being open. The art of cinema takes us back to the world, if it is true that the other arts have distanced us from it. It has forced us, throughout the course of its history, and forces us still, to take the world into consideration. This is what Bazin thought, I suppose. In any case, this is what I think. This is what you can’t not think. The merit of Bazin is to have operated an overturning of aesthetic values, certain of which were moral in nature, by the way. Imitation was not in advance of invention, submission to the world was not in advance of independence from it – at least at the start. Respect succeeded the contemporary artist’s contempt for the world. For it is above all in its respect for the world that genius of the cinema bursts out. Whether you like it or not, this is the nature of taking photographs. Bazin, therefore, put the finger on what was unique about the art of cinema in relation to all the other forms of art.
CAHIERS: You spoke of the cinema as a “means of better admiring the world”. This implies first and foremost an essential conception of the world as Beauty, as Order, wherein the “concrete real”, the “appearances”, would be its visible manifestations. As a consequence, isn’t the objectivity that you search for precisely situated in history, which is ideologically determined, not absolute, not eternal? 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 (the cinema itself appeared at a very precise moment of history, to respond to a social command) and the individual who handles these means (the filmmaker)? Doesn’t joining the objective world entail rediscovering your idea of the world, your idea of the objectivity of the world?
ROHMER: It is certain that as a work of art, a film corresponds to your description: film is a reconstruction, an interpretation of the world. But out of all the arts, the cinema – and this is its paradoxical character – is the one in which the reality of the thing filmed has the most importance, in which the “interpretation” aspect seems sometimes to entirely disappear. In other words, it’s the miracle of the first Lumière films. The impression that these films give us is to make us see the world with different eyes and to admire, as Pascal said, things whose originals we don’t admire. People walking by on the street, children playing, the arrival of trains: it was all very banal. For me what is most important, is this original state of wonder. In as much as my films are themselves very elaborated, very constructed, this impression disappears, but it does not remain any less linked to the fact, common to all films, of deriving a value from, for example, the physical presence of the actor. If you take La carrière de Suzanne, the fact that I derived value from a real girl, who exists, and even the fact that I was almost embarrassed to speak about her in as much as any judgement on Suzanne will also be a judgement on the girl playing her, this is what is properly cinematic…
CAHIERS: Let’s go back to the Pascal quote: in La carrière de Suzanne it’s not Suzanne before and after the film that we will see better thanks to the film, but Suzanne, as a filmed being, between the beginning and the end of the film. In other words, Suzanne-outside-of-the-film is neither the subject, nor the matter of the film: the reading of the spectator can only be brought to bear on Suzanne-in-the-film, as a “filmic being”.
ROHMER: Yes, in a sense. Bazin’s attitude was certainly polemical in part: in the 1950s, it was necessary to insist on this character, to proceed to a revision of cinematic values, to recognise that Lumière was, in the end, more important than all the avant-garde films, whether already filmed or to be filmed in the future. This was a reaction against all the theorists, [Rudolf] Arnheim, [Béla] Balázs, who had defended the theory of interpretation. This done, I find it totally normal that you now return to building a “linguistic” theory of the cinema – as you make an appeal to the vocabulary and the spirit of linguistic research – because the process of criticism has always been dialectical. But the Bazinian theory of cinematic objectivity still maintains all its force and truth.
CAHIERS: For us it’s not a matter of returning to “cinema-language”. If we have recourse to linguistic methods for the cinema, it is not to fall back into a reassuring codification, nor is it for the object itself of these linguistic methods to become a language: nowadays linguistics is being applied to molecular genetics without molecules being treated as a language.
ROHMER: Of course, But all the same, we’re talking about a study of significations which kind of makes an abstraction of our more direct approach in Bazin’s time: the cinema as an instrument of discovery. Now, what we contributed to critical production in the 1950s was a profound connection with Nature, the discovery of natural objects whose beauty was revealed by the cinema. This is no longer your point of view…
CAHIERS: Your will to refer constantly to the “outside” of the film – the “world”, existing before and after it – as a concrete reality, isn’t this, at the end of the day, something entirely different to a search for what’s “natural”, but rather the quest for a guarantee? Does the fundamental realism of the cinematic image (according to Bazin’s expression) guarantee the “presence” of the world? Or isn’t it more the case that the real world itself guarantees “cinematic realism”?
ROHMER: Seeing as you are pushing me there, I will go further. Not only is there beauty and order in the world, but beauty and order are only in the world. For how could art, a human product, be the equal of nature, a divine work? At best, it is only the revelation, in the universe, of the hand of the Creator. I’ll admit: there is no position more teleological, more theological, than my own. This is the position of the spectator. If he hadn’t already found beauty in the world, how could he pursue it in images of the world? How could he admire the imitation of life, if he didn’t admire life itself. This is the position of the filmmaker. If I film a thing, it’s because I find it beautiful; therefore, it’s because it exists in the nature of beautiful things. This is the position of every artist, of every appreciator of art. If I didn’t find nature beautiful – light, air, the sky, space – I would not find any painter beautiful, neither Leonardo, nor Turner, nor Hartung. But enough with generalities. Could you not pose me some more precise questions?
CAHIERS: When you say that the cinema has a relationship with the beauty of the world, even after a detour, we agree when it comes to Lumière. At least with Lumière you have the very strong impression of things being filmed for the first time. But 50 years later, when you want to re-discover the same effect, you have to make an enormous detour, because nothing is self-sufficient any more, because the relationship anybody has with a film, with a shot, is no longer the same: the pure wonder of recognition is increasingly less present. To obtain this wonder, an expenditure of energy, subtleness and intelligence is now required, but the existence of this expenditure is absolutely denied. Why not consider your cause to be an increasingly lost one, as this process is fatally amplifying itself?
ROHMER: No. I think that, fundamentally, wonder will remain, but to procure it, it’s a bit like the history of the Lumières’ train pulling into the station: today, it no longer has any effect on us. The beauty of the Lumières’ films appears to us, to our generation now, much more than it did to their contemporaries, who were, above all, affected by the impact of the films. But it seems difficult to me to discuss this because there are two fundamentally different attitudes towards the cinema, and both are justified. I think that back in our time, our attitude was justified, I hope that today your attitude is.
CAHIERS: Maybe we need to interrogate the famous cinematic “transparency” of the classical cinema, its will to efface the work put into it, and the analyses that it provoked, that it had a tendency to provoke. We absolutely agree with you that we shouldn’t take into account the “external signs” of this work, the vain manifestations which most often serve to cover up a simulacrum of work. But, as opposed to that, to smooth over this work, doesn’t that respond to a very precise ideological project, a theological project? Films tend to present themselves as products cut off from their own production, so don’t they seek to be read (and this is indeed how they are read) as epiphanies, as miraculous events?
ROHMER: Yes. But why not, seeing as everything is a miracle. Everything is a miracle: “the birth of Pascal, two friends bumping into each other on the street after not having seen each other since high school” (Alain, “Propos de littérature”)… Before the advent of television, we could make the natural into an absolute value. This was the case in Bazin’s time, but it is less so nowadays. Personally, I have always been on the side of the natural, of TV, etc: but not completely so, by the way. Could you pose a precise question regarding this?
CAHIERS: For example, from La carrière de Suzanne to Ma nuit chez Maud, it seems that you are making your way towards a technique closer and closer to the direct cinema…
ROHMER: You know, post-synchronisation does not imply a lesser degree of naturalism. On the contrary: in La carrière de Suzanne people didn’t know their lines, I whispered it to them, and so they weren’t acting any more… The fact that there is a work process, organisation, etc. involved, does not prevent the work of cinema from being legitimately claimed by its author, even those aspects which are out of his control. On the other hand the cinema can not live without a constant reference to “photographic realism”. I hope that you will easily agree to this: the trace of the artist’s work, in the cinema, is something shocking. Much more shocking than in other realms of art. The filmmakers I admire are those who dissemble their means, beginning with Lumière of course, or Renoir. The greatest danger for the cinema is precisely this pride of the filmmaker who says: I have a style and I want to make it evident.
CAHIERS: It’s not a matter of “style”, but more a matter of the fact that you work on a certain material and that you are aware of this fact. You think that one should dissemble one’s labour…
ROHMER: In fact, you should dissemble yourself. That’s why we loved the American cinema so much: this neutrality, this transparency, this apparent absence of a search for style.
CAHIERS: But this is not really valid for Hitchcock, for instance, nor for the films of Renoir, who you cited as an example of total transparency.
ROHMER: Not so much transparency as humility with regards to the model. I’m speaking of this attitude so often proclaimed by Renoir: “I don’t really know what I want to do that well, I just let people do what they want”, and so on.
CAHIERS: But isn’t that just a bit of coquetry? Is there really that much interest in giving credit to such a mystifying conception of the artist? Don’t you think that there is, for example, a great pride involved in effacing the work that one does, more than in letting it be visible? Isn’t the natural, the effect of the natural, the height of ostentation?
ROHMER: Whether it is visible or not doesn’t really matter. It’s not my work that I allow to be visible but things, whether through my work or without my work. My initial project is always to show a thing such as it is with the least alteration possible. In Le signe du lion, for example, I wanted to show people the Seine, the quais, an impression of the sun in the water, etc. This will, this desire, this need was my departure point: the need to show rather than fabricate. It’s the truth of things which interests me, not the work that I do to attain this truth. Whether I manage to get there or not, that is not the question. I make no claims as to this. My attitude is born not from any claims to anything at all, but from a respect for the things themselves and from the legitimate desire to embrace them, because I love them. For the “Moral Tales”, it was the same thing.
CAHIERS: Let’s take for example the night scene at Maud’s house. There is a place, the location where you filmed: this place pre-existed. And yet what is striking when we watch the film is that the further the scene progresses, through the means of the shot construction, the exchange of looks, the articulation of the shots, a filmic place is created which no longer has anything to do with the pre-existing place, and this filmic place is much more interesting, it’s the fruit of a real labour.
ROHMER: For the first time in my life, I didn’t film in an apartment, but on a set. Why? Because the subject demanded a very precise determination of the positions of the actors, of their movements as a function of the geometry of the place. But once the set was constructed, following my instructions, it was given the same quality of autonomous, real existence as a “natural place” would have. And that’s what I wanted to show, as something that I discovered, not that I invented. If I had filmed in a real apartment, I would have had to be deceptive, to move furniture around, etc. This fabricated set existed much more objectively than a natural setting. What did you mean then when you said that this set ends up becoming “different”?
CAHIERS: At the end of the film, we can, of course, reconstitute Maud’s apartment and redraw it: that’s not where the film resides…
ROHMER: But this has much more interest for my mise en scène because if I had been obliged to be deceptive, I wouldn’t have been sure of the movement of my characters. They were guided by the real paths that they had to follow.
CAHIERS: We come back to the idea of the pre-existing real is guarantor, not as object. We agree with you on the fact that this “filmic place” could not have existed if there hadn’t been this place that was filmed. But this doesn’t prevent the fact that the filmic place created by the unfurling of the scene totally substitutes itself for the filmed place.
ROHMER: I have difficulty following you there. On the contrary, I felt the presence of the filmed place (artificial in this case, natural in other cases) very strongly, to the extent that its topography was the only thing dictating where I placed my camera.
CAHIERS: What we mean is that the temporal factor is very important: this set that you constructed is increasingly invested by the drama. It therefore becomes charged with a meaning which is no longer that of its topography. Its filmic functionality is not equivalent to the functionality of the filming.
ROHMER: As architecture is a functional art, every set is functional, this much is evident. And it’s no less evident that I constructed it due to dramatic necessities. But once again, this set, once created, existed for me as a real being, to the same degree as my actors. My mise en scène is born from the contact between the actors and this set. You should know that this is, in fact, how things happened.
CAHIERS: But is there not a confusion between what is essential for you in every film (the necessity of a pre-existing place) and what, in fact, we find (or should find) at the end of the film?
ROHMER: Listen, I’m not looking for explanations, I’m giving you a fact. Maybe some of my colleagues don’t find it important to work on pre-existing things. But I belong to the group of those who need to work on living material and not within abstraction. That’s all that I can say on the matter.
CAHIERS: It’s not a matter of “abstraction” but of an “imaginary real”. In the beginning, there is a real and concrete set which, bit by bit, through the process of the film being made, of the relationships between these characters and this set, becomes a fictional set, purely dramatic, a set of the imaginary. So, we can no longer say that the film is a document on this set, it’s the opposite: the set informs the film. Let’s take your film La Place de l’Étoile: if it was absolutely necessary for the Place de l’Étoile to exist in order for this film to be made, we can say that once the film is made, and while it is being watched, there is no other Place de l’Étoile than that of the one in the film.
ROHMER: Of course. What interests me in this set is when it enters into a relationship with the characters, but at the same its a priori existence must be established. In the case of La Place de l’Étoile, if there wasn’t, in the mind of the spectator, a representation of what is in space the Place de l’Étoile, the film would have lost a lot of its force. But there are films in which you can’t orient yourself very well, where the director is even intentionally trying to disorient you.
CAHIERS: At the end of La Place de l’Étoile, the route followed is almost imaginary, even if this route was materially possible.
ROHMER: That’s very difficult for me to judge. I don’t really know what to make of the film. My idea was to show a real route: this said, in the cinema, continuity is the most difficult thing to suggest. We know that time in the cinema is not the same thing as time in real life. Those films which wanted to show in an hour and a half an action supposed to last an hour and a half, whether it’s Rope or Cléo de 5 à 7, seem to last a lot longer. In La Place de l’Étoile, it’s the same thing: the continuity of space and time really did escape me. I still think, however, that I was right to have a will to be realistic, even if, at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, I move towards the fantastic or abstraction. But what would be bad would be to start from a will to be unrealistic. This is what is frightening about Eisenstein.
CAHIERS: You speak of the necessary gap between filmic time and filmed time, filmic space and filmed space and you say that you didn’t really succeed in mastering it in La Place de l’Étoile, as if it was the cinema’s eternal vocation to overcome this gap. But don’t you think that the real task of the filmmaker consists in playing on and inscribing himself in this gap? Doesn’t the fatal fact that there is, when it comes down to it, an infidelity, put back into question the absolute belief in the cinema as “mimesis”?
ROHMER: No, I think it’s the opposite. I think that the goal of the cinema is to come as close as possible to reality and that one can perfectly well envisage a history of the cinema where one showed that the cinema has not stopped discovering nature and going towards the natural. It hasn’t entirely got there, there are plenty of things that still can’t be shown by the cinema, but we will get there. Very simple things like two people who bump into each other on the street. It can’t be denied that the manner in which actors act in films nowadays is much closer to real life. If you had a hidden camera, the manner in which people would behave in front of it increasingly resembles what you see in fiction films, whereas the more you go back in the history of the cinema, the greater this distance gets. I have no fear of being close to real life. I seek to eliminate whatever still distances me from it, even if I know that I will never get there entirely. I know that there will always be an outer limit. I don’t seek to work at this outer limit, to make it evident, although I think it’s possible that in wanting to go further, I will arrive at what you call abstraction. In my “Moral Tales”, what I want is to go further and further towards the concrete. To believe that the cinema has gone far enough in terms of realism and that it should turn its back on it seems to me to be very sterile, even dangerous. What interests me are the investigative powers that the cinema can have. Let’s take photography. Is a contemporary magazine photo more real than a “daguerréotype”? Yes and no. Let’s say that they both reveal different aspects of nature. The second is more in conformity to a painterly vision, the first is the fruit of powers of which the painter was unaware: for example the ability to capture a moment in time. With the development of technology, the photograph progresses in the direction of a greater investigatory power. We can say that a blurred image, a defective image or a halo-effect are more realist than a trompe-l’œil painting if they allow us to accede to a better knowledge of things. But for no other reason than that. Using these blurred images, defects or halo effects is more like being a painter than a photographer (most frequently a poor painter). It’s painting with a camera, in the way others do with a paintbrush or a flame-thrower.
CAHIERS: Instead of conceiving of the cinema as a “window opened on the world”, we could conceive of it as a “mirror turned back towards the spectators”. The living spectator inserts himself in place of the camera, he fills the “absent field”, he is the fourth wall. This is particularly apparent in Ma nuit chez Maud, due to the systematic shot construction.
ROHMER: The fourth wall is the fourth wall of the room. It really bothers me when the fourth wall is not shown. For me, when Trintignant speaks, he is looking at Françoise Fabian and the spectator feels that this look is directed towards the woman who is in the bed and not in the cinema or something else.
CAHIERS: The spectator is not at all unaware that Trintignant is talking to F. Fabian, but at the same time, he invests the absent field, he takes the place of F. Fabian, without, however, identifying with her. And the same thing happens when there is a reverse shot: he takes the place of Trintignant, etc.
ROHMER: What’s essential, what I’m looking to do, is to make people forget the camera. And we can add the fact – very important for me – that this is a film in the first person, as Trintignant is the narrator. Did you get this feeling?
CAHIERS: It’s complex. We know that the narrator of the tale is Trintignant, but as the narrative progresses he becomes the subject of the énoncé and not just the subject of énonciation. His “I” also becomes part of the film’s discourse.
ROHMER: For a film to be received as a narration in the first person, it is necessary to show the narrator. It’s a necessary condition. Is it sufficient? In my next film, there won’t be any narration, no commentary, but a character present in every scene. Will he be taken for the “narrator”? My “Moral Tales” are all written from the point of view of a character. But when I film him, I show him from the outside. In any case I don’t postulate his identification with the spectator. In Le signe du lion, on the other hand, where there wasn’t any narration, I’m sure that the spectator’s identification with the main character was greater. And, in La collectionneuse, the presence of the commentary interfered with this identification.
CAHIERS: We find this very important because there is a very strong specular investment on a character when there is no commentary: when there is an I, far from aiding identification, it is made even more difficult. The narrator, although he is the bearer of a discourse, is contained within this discourse.
ROHMER: It’s a procedure which has often been used. In American cop films, for example, there is often a narrator in the first person, like in The Lady from Shanghai…
CAHIERS: When he sees a character in a fiction film, the spectator’s tendency is more often to become the Cause of this character, the Deus ex machina outside of the film. If the character already in the film says “I” and claims to be the master of the narrative, this becomes almost impossible.
ROHMER: Certainly. In any case, one of the reasons for which I did not develop Trintignant’s commentary is precisely because of this: the character would become more distant, more unlikeable.
CAHIERS: All the more so considering that here there is a game [jeu] between several I’s [je], as the characters in the “Moral Tales” can only define themselves, can only direct themselves in their capacity as an “I”. So we return to the beginning of our interview: with the incessant shifts where we think the interest of the film resides. Because the spectator simultaneously watches three characters, three “I’s”, and is incapable of relying on any one of them, he ends up thinking about these fictional characters in the same way he would think about their models in real life.
ROHMER: Yes, but at the same time, you’re talking about the most banal thing in the world. Put four people together in a room and they will all speak in the first person.
CAHIERS: In real life, but not in the cinema. The fact that the characters don’t stop talking about themselves in Ma nuit chez Maud is explicable, but doesn’t lessen the opacity of the film.
ROHMER: This is doubtless due to the fact that Le signe du lion is closer to standard cinematic narrative, while the origins of the “Moral Tales” are not marked by any cinematic influence whatsoever. My initial idea was that they were only translatable in the cinema with the aid of a commentary and that traditional techniques such as dialogue, etc., would have been insufficient, artificial. They’re about a character who carries a judgement about himself, his conduct. It’s not enough just to show his behaviour, we must also show the reflection that his conscience about his behaviour arouses in him. That was the guiding idea. For example, if La boulangère du Monceau were reduced to the plot alone, without the dreaminess of the narrator, it would have an entirely different meaning. In Ma nuit chez Maud, the fact that the character doesn’t stop speaking of himself makes the commentary superfluous. All the same, I kept two sentences. I don’t know if I was right but I found it necessary for people to know that my character really had the intention to marry Françoise, that it wasn’t just a game. And I also find it important that he didn’t guess who Françoise’s lover was right away: it was necessary to say it, to make him say it.
CAHIERS: We said at the beginning of this interview that, since the previous one, a lot of things had happened: for example May 68. What did May mean to you? What is your conception of the filmmaker’s role in society and in the precise society that we are subjected to at this moment? As a filmmaker, the problem of the interpolation of the cinema – of your films – in contemporary French society necessarily concerns you…
ROHMER: You speak of the events of May 68. My “Moral Tales” don’t seek their inspiration in the “event” but I don’t claim that you can’t take inspiration from the event, nor even that I won’t take inspiration from it one day. The role of the filmmaker can be political. For example: Cousteau is leading the struggle against ocean pollution. The issue of pollution is, will be, the major issue of the end of this century. And a political issue, because its resolution is a matter for governments, or, if you prefer, a matter for a collective decision of human society.
CAHIERS: One final question. What do you make of this declaration by Eisenstein, basing his cinematic practice outside of all formalist intention: “Absolute realism is in no way the correct form of perception. It is merely the function of a certain form of social structure”?
ROHMER: Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s completely outside of my preoccupations.