One hundred and twenty-seven pages into this substantial biography of Eric Rohmer, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, having described their subject’s quotidian routines, throw up their hands in seeming despair at the fact that Rohmer’s
life has almost no interest for the biographer! Without scandal or uncomfortable secrets, it was simple, tranquil, reassuring and no doubt dull; but certainly happy, like everything that has no story. (p. 127)
Such frustration begs the question; what is the purpose of a book of over 500 pages chronicling a life of so little event? A substantial and growing bibliography exists concerning Rohmer’s work. What does a biography add? This little outburst of authorial hair tugging opens the more complex issue of the link between the life of an artist and the work that life produced.
When one is interested in a body of work one can not help but be curious as to the person who created it. Before his death, there was something powerful and precious about the lack of information about Rohmer’s personal life. That mystery seemed interlaced with the sense of mystery that imbues much of his work. Yet, after reading this well written book, with much newly acquired knowledge, I feel no loss. Indeed, there is much to intrigue and delight in this new wealth of information. Learning about Rohmer’s much loved younger brother René, openly homosexual and a successful philosopher whose work around the relationship between adults and children is sometimes described as an apologia for paedophilia1 raised my eyebrows and warmed my heart. “I recognised my homosexuality quite early on,” René Schérer is quoted as saying, “whereas he could not even utter the word, so foreign did all that seem to him – he spoke of ‘esthetes’.” (p. 22) It was also impossible not to laugh aloud at the description of Rohmer’s horror on entering the studio for the first day of shooting on L’Anglaise et le Duc (The Lady and the Duke, 2001). Seeing, after years of working with smallest handful of crew possible, a hundred people waiting for him:
he jumped back and left again. “Francoise, come here immediately! I’m sure that at least half of these people are not needed!” I had to explain what each of the technicians present was supposed to do. He began by spending his time looking for those he could dismiss. (p. 497)
Even confirmation that Rohmer’s politics were far from my own was not unpleasant, coupled with the continued proof that they were the politics of a man whose everyday behaviour was always kind, courteous and curious. But such interesting revelations and sweet tales are essentially gossip. What is their relationship with the body of Rohmer’s work, which while it often contains both the interesting and the sweet, transcends them, becoming something great and revelatory? Such disconnect between the life and the work is underlined by the fact that Eric Rohmer: A Biography only really starts to take flight when it leaves the realm of biography completely and operates as a work of critical analysis.
What is the link then, between life and work? After their frustrated cri de cœur on page 127, de Baecque and Herpe follow with a slightly desperate attempt to suggest that it may be the very banality of Rohmer’s personal life that creates the possibility, in each small disruption, for the subject of a film. This argument is not only weak, it is a criminal reduction of the scope and depth of Rohmer’s work. That two such evidently smart writer feel compelled to make it is telling to how much they feel the need to give justification to the enormous amount of work that has gone into the making of this book. It seems to me that the relationship between life and work is necessarily separate. It is linked, as it must be linked, because the work was made by someone, who had a life. But the films are not the man. They are not peaceful, simple or regulated, like his life. The moments of pain in Rohmer’s work, though often caused by something banal (one thinks of Delphine weeping in Le Rayon Vert [The Green Ray, 1986]) are so pure and true that they punch through the banality of reason to become a representation of what pain is. Likewise, the moments of revelation, the green ray itself (“Oui!”) or the moments in the church and on the bus in Un Conte d’Hiver (A Tale of Winter, 1992) have a spiritual truth about them that a cynical agnostic like myself can take like a communion wafer on the tongue, from catholic, conservative Rohmer.
The films are not Rohmer, but they are off Rohmer. They are connected but independent, which seems the necessary relationship between all art and its makers. Of course; pain, revelation, Rohmer may have felt these things, just as passionately as they are invoked in the work. For all the patient and precise documentation of the days of the life in this book, only Rohmer, now dead, can know what was felt behind the gentle face, the beautiful eyes and the regulated days. Such are our secrets, secret because they are our deepest truths and the hardest to manifest. These interior intensities, his own unique secrets, Rohmer took with him to the grave. But they are also the secrets that he managed to blast open (in the very gentlest of ways) and make visible in his work. Essentially – by which I mean, on the essential level (which is by no means the only level) – this book tells me nothing that, having seen the films, I did not already know.
It is impossible to live, though, on the essential level alone. Rohmer knew this better than anyone, his films full of the mundane, banal and precise. Here lies this book’s value. Rohmer’s life was not as simple as it may seem by an examination of its events. It was an actual life, and none come without contradiction and mystery. A notoriously private man, a user of numerous pseudonyms, there were all sorts of rumours about Rohmer during his life, the most notorious being that his mother was not aware that he was anything other than a school teacher. It is hard not to be intrigued by such stories. This biography clarifies the situation. As the child of bourgeois, traditional parents, the profession of a filmmaker would have scandalised and distressed Rohmer’s mother. Her devoted and proper son was loath to do this, particularly, one imagines, given what his younger brother, considered in the family to be the “better” of the two boys, was getting up to, and proudly under his own name as well. Thus the man who was Maurice Schérer at home with his wife and sons was Eric Rohmer in his office and behind his camera.
Such a radical splitting of one’s self, the one truly remarkable fact in the life of Rohmer, can not be completely understood by this very reasonable explanation, and this book does try to properly comprehend what it might mean. It begins with a brief, well documented and well-argued examination of Rohmer’s passion for secrecy, which the authors describe as “the true passion of his life.” (p. 2) An early chapter is called “From Schérer to Rohmer” and the authors take great care in choosing which name they use for their subject in any given situation.2 At the close of the book they return to this primal dichotomy, describing the two tribes who kept vigil at the filmmaker’s deathbed and who mourned him once he died: the Schérers and the Rohmers. And yet one leaves the book without any sense of real understanding of the split in Rohmer’s life, both banal and mysterious. This is fitting.
Who are we? In Rohmer’s films, the search for identity is embodied in the endless discussion of oneself, the need to make oneself real by unceasingly narrating one’s every inner moment, each contradiction, each journey, documented with the same rigour that the authors bring to this book. It is as though the characters feel they can build themselves up out of words and create a sense of existence more solid that the one they hold in their moments of silence, moments Rohmer documents as obsessively as he follows their conversations (Francois, endlessly falling asleep in cafes in La Femme de l’aviateur (The Aviator’s Wife, 1981), Jeanne alone in her boyfriend’s empty apartment in Conte de printemps (A Tale of Springtime, 1990). And so the authors seem to try and create Rohmer here, as though all the words and details of these 500 pages can fill, like individual drops of water might fill a vase, the cypher that is this man with the blameless simple life who made these incandescent films. But isn’t it that very thing, the mystery inherent in the cypher nature of the body, that makes the work? If we could understand Rohmer he would not have needed to make his films. What sits at the centre is mystery.
I would have loved to hear more on this mystery, would have loved to see it connected to the work that Rohmer made, because when exploring the work as work rather than events in a life, the book becomes vibrant and stimulating. You can almost sense the relief in the text itself when it is released from the plod of Rohmer’s days – it seems to soar, the way the films soar, and there is an almost intoxicating sense of equality (at last) between the text itself and the work it describes. One feels that the authors are no longer jogging behind Rohmer, gathering the crumbs of his life, but are running alongside him. This is particularly true in the chapter discussing the series Comédies et proverbes. Take this passage, about The Aviator’s Wife, quoted in full to show the development of the argument:
Paradoxically, if The Aviator’s Wife attracted so few spectators, it was perhaps for the reason we have suggested: they are the subject of the film. In it, Rohmer developed an idea sketched out in Chloe in the Afternoon and theorized in Perceval: the idea of showing only the pure functioning of the imagination. Then the anecdote, reduced to the strict minimum, and the Hitchcockian pretext (is the unknown women in the Buttes-Chaumont the aviator’s wife or isn’t she?), which is immediately forgotten in the shortcuts taken by the narrative, are of little importance. What is the interest of these hopelessly ordinary boys and girls bogged down in their sentimental misunderstandings and their communication problems, as people called them in the early 1980s? To justify his spinelessness Francois no longer has even the rhetorical brio that the narrator of My Night with Maud deployed. To implement her strategies, Lucie does not have the Mephistophelian status that the woman novelist in Claire’s Knee attributed to herself. No, these are simply people, like you and me, clinging to poor dreams in miniature (a snowball, an aquarium for goldfish), and we “watch them watching”. Especially the young man, who misses an opportunity for love to lose himself in the labyrinth of his fantasies. At times we think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (made more than fifteen years earlier than The Aviator’s Wife), but here the photograph plays only a derisory role, that of an improbable trace or a failed machination. Once again it is the power of cinema that Rohmer is representing on the screen, exactly where his disillusioned novelistic writing failed, and where the chatter of his characters failed to turn: the effort to open a breach in the density of the real, to bring out the wonderful within everyday life. (pp. 334-335)
Later, in a discussion on Le Beau Marriage (A Good Marriage, 1983) this idea of the integration in Rohmer’s work of the everyday and the wonderful is elaborated:
We have seen how much Rohmer enjoyed the company of amateurs, beginners and dilettantes. In A Good Marriage he represented them in the character of Clarisse (Arielle Dombasle), who makes delicate paintings of suns on lampshades. He makes Sabine an apprentice artist who is interested in beautiful objects and pretty paintings, and who, while awaiting her turn to create, awkwardly tries to stage the real, to give form to her romantic dream. No longer just a spectator, but not yet a creator, she reminds us of that intermediate state in which the characters in ‘La Demande en mariage’ floated: that of a desire for fiction that seeks to embody itself in one way or another. While superficially resembling boulevard theatre, this film is perhaps still more troubling than ‘The Aviator’s Wife’. In it Rohmer widened the gap between the aspiration to the ideal and everyday life as conceived by Flaubert. He restricted the deployment of the imaginary by choosing some actors who were not very professional and who were sometimes made uncomfortable by the play they were supposed to perform. Through all these invisible strategies, he managed to establish cinema as a horizon of expectation capable of transfiguring the most banal reality. (p. 343)
Such clearly expressed insights are present in much of discussion in this book on Rohmer’s work.
Occasionally the biography topples clumsily into its own seriousness. The discussions about Rohmer’s foray into pop video making, for his friends and collaborators Rosette and Arielle Dombasle, were hard to swallow having viewed them.3 The academic analysis of these pieces of (occasionally ridiculous) fluff, the attempt to place them within Rohmer’s oeuvre are unconvincing. Dismissing Rohmer’s own dismissal of these videos as “the intermittent desire to cover his tracks” (p. 473) makes de Baecque and Herpe look like over eager students, desperate for a coup of insight. This may be fitting. Rohmer’s characters have a habit of taking themselves desperately seriously, overanalysing everything that happens to and within them. But my guess would be that it is with Rohmer himself, rather than his characters, that the authors would rather be compared. This is a quibble of course, and that it is quibbles rather than criticism that this book evokes in me speaks to its essential quality.4 Yet for all its strength, it still seems strangely redundant.
The cover of Eric Rohmer: A Biography has a picture of its subject seated behind a table, a hand supporting his cheek as he looks to the lens. Across my desk the cover of another book of interviews shows him holding tight to his chest the clapper-board for A Tale of Winter, just the word “HIVER” written on camera tape, again looking directly into the camera. He is looking right at me, and I’m looking back. I know more about him than he knows about me because I have seen his films and read his words, and now I have read this book – but still, what I know is nothing. I can’t get past those beautiful eyes to have any knowledge, any at all, of the man inside. I can’t even be sure if the reason I find those eyes so beautiful is because of the films of his that I’ve seen with my own eyes. I find myself returning to the passage quoted at the beginning of this review, describing Rohmer’s life as “dull but certainly happy, like everything that has no story.”
Rohmer’s films regularly have very little story but they are not necessarily happy and they are never dull. Eric Rohmer: A Biography is not dull either, possibly because for all its carefully researched history, Rohmer was no less of a stranger to me when I finished the book. The more facts, incidents, dates and documentations that are poured in to fill that space behind the eyes the less I feel I know and the hungrier I become.
Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe, Éric Rohmer: A Biography, trans. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)
- https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Sch%C3%A9rer ↩
- In the passage quoted on p. 127 the name used is Schérer. ↩
- See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbcTmTdW7H0, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfTwYkEK_D0 ↩
- I cannot stand, for instance, the term “Rohmeriennes” to describe the (occasionally) young women that Rohmer likes to surround himself with, and hope so hard that it was never a term he used himself. ↩