Potemkine films have rendered all Eric Rohmer admirers a great service. Their “Eric Rohmer, L’intégrale” is a remarkable attempt to assemble as complete a review of his work as is reasonably possible. Thirty DVDs plus 22 Blu-ray versions offer not only the familiar roster of his major films from Le signe du Lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959) to Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2006), but some extreme rarities such as two early surviving shorts, Bérénice (1954) and Sonate à Kreutzer (1956). Both his educational films for television from the 1960s and ‘70s and three series of late shorts, which he helped his (mostly female) collaborators to complete, at last find access to public gaze.
Adding to this cornucopia, Potemkine offer us hours of television programs, interviews with his actors, technical crews and other aides who helped him create his own distinctive world, Barbet Schroeder and Françoise Etchegaray prominent amongst them.
The editorial responsibility for this project was in the safe hands of Noël Herpe, the distinguished film historian, who, in collaboration with Antoine de Baecque, has been working on a major biography of Rohmer, based on the extensive documents he bequeathed to posterity. It is due for publication in January 2014. Rohmer was a hoarder of material, he retained all his notebooks and rough drafts that were the source material for later films. So the 100-page booklet accompanying the set contains notes by Herpe that, however brief, throw new and intriguing light on Rohmer’s work. It is generously filled with photographs that combine both familiar stills from the films with off-set shots from personal collections and film companies’ archives. It is just a pity that these latter are not captioned: some of the faces shown are not well known to a twenty-first century public.
A first view the two early shorts comes as quite a shock to an eye accustomed to the technical brilliance of a L’anglaise et le duc (The Lady and the Duke), Rohmer’s digital triumph of 2001. The film is grainy, the scenes barely lit, the only sounds emanate from a commentary – in each case by Rohmer himself – and accompanying music. Even the camera-work, in the hands of none other than Jacques Rivette, is fallible. The subject matter, deriving from tales by Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy, shows a taste for extremes of human behaviour. Catalepsy and crime passionnel are not themes we readily associate with Rohmer. Another surprise is that he takes the male lead in both films. There he stands, the tall central figure on screen, endeavouring to portray a man on the edge of reason without the help of dialogue. So much for his famed secrecy and avoidance of the public eye! In the 1950s he was happy to indulge in this sort of deliberate personal exposure.
At this early stage of his filmmaking career his choice of subject matter already shuns the perceived requirements of the mass-market. We are still some years before the New Wave takes wing in the late Fifties. Rohmer, Rivette and their colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Francios Truffaut, started as cinephiles and critics before turning their hands to practical side of the business. So these two offerings, long buried in the family vaults, must be viewed as part of their learning process in this complex process. Unlike those celebrated contemporaries, Rohmer’s career was a long time taking off, While Le beau Serge (1958), Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) were bringing their creators world-wide fame, Rohmer’s first feature film, Le signe du lion (1959) was a financial flop. He had to wait nearly a decade before La collectionneuse (1967) was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival. Only with Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969) did he achieve a renown to match the darlings of the Nouvelle Vague.
So the roster of films that followed, not merely the three cycles, but the two films à sketchs and his histories among them, is a remarkable example of a late-flowering genius. His final film, Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, was not completed until he was 86 and physically fragile. But his intellectual grasp shines through unhindered.
Three documentaries on Rohmer have at last found a commercial outlet: first, Marie Binet’s Les contes secrets ou les Rohmériens (2005), which I reported on in issue 54 of Senses of Cinema, offers us the reminisces of sixteen of his actors; second, Marie Riviere’s En compagnie d’Eric Rohmer (2010) is a charmingly intimate portrait of Rohmer in his last years, surrounded by his friends and admirers who come to his office to share the pleasure they derived from working with him; third, L’anglaise et le duc, un film révolutionnaire (2002), produced by Françoise Etchegaray, takes us backstage to the making of L’anglaise et le duc, his remarkable recreation of the French Revolution in Paris with the pioneering use of CGI. Designers, costumiers and actors reveal the complexities involved in such a courageous undertaking.
These three documentaries take their place beside two more familiar enterprises, one from Etchegaray, her record of the making of La fabrique du conte d’été (2006), and the earlier Cinéma, de notre temps: Eric Rohmer, preuves à l’appui (1994) by André S. Labarthe and Jean Douchet. Together, this quintet offers a rounded portrait of Rohmer the creator, though the private man remains obstinately hidden from view.
The DVDs are presented in chronological order, the date of release clearly marked on the spine. Beyond the final film Potemkine offer us three more collections on two discs: L’atelier Eric Rohmer (Rohmer’s Workshop) includes Le modèle, (six shorts 1998-2009) and L’anniversaire (five shorts 1993-7) made by young protégées of his, only one of which, La Cambrure, has been available hitherto. His contribution is almost certainly far greater than he was willing to admit in the credits; then we at last have the chance to enjoy the five shorts that Rosette, a favourite actress of his, wrote, produced and acted in during the early 1980s.
Anyone owning this present collection has the privilege of choosing which order to view them in, the chronological or the haphazard. The rarities will attract those who already know their Rohmer well; the features will entrance audiences new to the Rohmerian style. A central question is whether the expense of this 3-kilo offering is worthwhile, especially if the would-be purchaser already owns some of the better-known films. The answer must be a resounding ‘yes’: there are so many hours of enjoyment to be had from the ancillary films, the charming drawings by Nine Antico, the interviews and the accompanying booklet, even before we return to the central corpus of his oeuvre. We barely need the charmingly appropriate bonnes bouches that are added in an extra sleeve. The features are each accompanied by one or more bonuses organized as aptly as possible. So, for example, Les nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1986) which opens in the half-finished new town of Marne-la Vallée, carries with it the four TV programs Rohmer produced on new towns
There are minor drawbacks: there is an art to clipping the second DVD of a pair back into its rightful place in the sleeve which neither your correspondent nor the staff at Potemkine managed to solve. The collection is not complete, despite its title: some of the television documentaries for schools are unavailable. Binet’s valuable documentary is omitted from the Contents of the booklet. A warning: only the features offer subtitles in English; a few of the extras, for example Binet’s documentary, follow suit.
Potemkine gave their collection a memorable send-off by inviting actors, technicians and assistants to join enthusiasts at their headquarters in Paris. It was a joyous occasion as seven actors, Amanda Langlet, Andy Gillet, Rosette, Lisa Hérédia, Sophie Renoir, Charlotte Véry and Eric Viellard, gave readings of some of the most celebrated scenes, taking on roles that had not been their own in the original. The laughter and good humour they engendered are a mark of Rohmer’s artistry as a dialoguist. They gave a vivid impression of the countless readings that took place in his office as he made his lengthy preparations for a new film. But here, nervous young debutants were replaced by seasoned actors who could relax and savour the wit and power of this master of films that talk.
Noël Herpe led a discussion with a cross-section of the technical team, Diane Baratier (camera), Pascal Ribier and Gérard Lecas (sound), Mary Stephen (editor) and Marie Binet, his assistant on three of the Comédies et proverbes. Their comments ranged widely, stressing the contrast between the strict classicism and the pioneering modernity of Rohmer’s methods.