In 1987, when his book, which serves as one of the first efforts in English to reassess and appraise the films and legacy of Roberto Rossellini (1987), was first released, Peter Brunette pointed to the dearth of sources in English on the Italian master. This explained why Rossellini went underappreciated, despite having contributed to world cinema at least as much as the likes of Sergei Eisenstein or Orson Welles. All the while, Brunette reminded his Anglo-American readers that this did not hold true in continental Europe, where a wealth of literature existed on the “father of neorealism”, in French and Italian.1 A lot of these articles have since been translated and documented, particularly those coming from Cahiers du Cinéma, not least through the efforts of Dudley Andrew. In a recent review of the book Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948-1953) – From ‘École Scherer’ to ‘Politique des Auteurs’ in Critical Inquiry – a volume which does more than its fair share of contributing to bringing knowledge of French criticism to English – Andrew salutes author Marco Grosoli as one of the “deepest thinkers in film studies of his generation.”2 This is high praise, and, I am prompt to add, entirely deserved. Grosoli must have literally read everything written in French, Italian AND English on his central subject – Eric Rohmer, whom he tackles here in the crucial pre-Cahiers du cinéma years. The result of this research is this book (and there will be more), about the intellectual constellation in which, Grosoli convinces me, Rohmer may be the most brilliant star. Looking at important writings by Rohmer up until the politique des auteurs moment (whose landmark remains François Truffaut’s ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ manifesto of 1954), and documenting Rohmer’s “conversion” from the sway of Sartrean existentialism to a form of Kantian ethics, articulating it around the transformative power of Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), Grosoli has accomplished something truly impressive, reorienting the historical narrative which has, hitherto, had a “certain tendency” to give the lion’s share of credit to Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and André Bazin.
Before Eric Rohmer (born Jean Marie Maurice Schérer), before the fabled “young Turks” and the politique des auteurs, there was the école Schérer. Grosoli’s book gives this genuine school of cinematic thought its just due, rightly replacing Schérer/Rohmer as the unsung forefather of the French New Wave and theorist of a ‘proto’ politique des auteurs. Early chapters in the book closely read Schérer/Rohmer’s critical writing, starting in 1948: the first articles, the Murnau Faust thesis, the monograph Film Theory, the seminal “Cinema, an Art of Space” piece (which gestures towards demonstrating the “novelistic” nature of cinema, despite its medium specificity), and the influence of Sartrean ontology in these early writings. Then comes a substantial chapter on another influence, that of Alexandre Astruc, best remembered for his caméra stylo theory. Grosoli dedicates an in-depth reading to Astruc’s “Dialectique du cinéma”, arguing that this less well-known article is central not only to Astruc’s but also to Rohmer’s theoretical formation. Indeed, its reference to Kant serves as the red thread running through most of Grosoli’s book, his interpretation of Rohmer’s influence and place in French cinema. The Kantian narrative gains traction through the subsequent chapters, wherein Grosoli expounds upon the transformative influence of Rossellini’s Stromboli on Rohmer (by way of Kant’s theory of consciousness and the sublime, among others). After seeing the film, which made a profound impression on him, Rohmer refined his idea of cinema as the art of movement, of narrative in nature, and potentially liberating in essence. Exceeding the historical boundaries delineated in his book’s title (to illustrate how the inseparability of ethics and aesthetics has been a key assumption of the politique des auteurs), Grosoli dedicates the following chapter to Rohmer’s view of cinematic ethics and aesthetics, including his reaction against Sartre’s mauvaise foi, the notion of solitude morale, Kant’s practical reason, and, finally, his conviction that cinema should draw inspiration from classical tragedy. The last section of the book serves to refine this legacy, not least through the Hitchcock book Rohmer co-authored with fellow New Wave director Claude Chabrol, focusing on the concept of transfer of guilt which serves to expand the boundaries of Kant’s philosophy and update it to Rohmer’s conception of cinema itself.
Helped by his peerless erudition and knowledge of the subject, Grosoli moves effortlessly between the post-war years up to the eve of the French New Wave, and shows how important Rohmer was in shaping his younger acolytes’ views on auteur theory, even before Bazin. The usual suspects are all there: to the names listed above, one should add pointed references to fellow Cahiers critic and filmmaker Jacques Rivette, and the other great auteur of American cinema, Nicholas Ray. And yet it is Kant, really, who serves as the spirirt animating the whole project. References to the German philosopher may be few and far between in Astruc. But Rohmer took them up, and Grosoli offers more than a mere intuition in dedicating such importance to the author of Critique of Pure Reason. His knowledge of the philosopher helps him to convincingly demonstrate how Kant served as a bridge between Schérer’s Sartrean period and Rohmer’s worldview and intellectual development. And this transformation is crystallised around the encounter with Rossellini’s Stromboli, following a revelation not unlike that of Ingrid Bergman’s character, trapped on the fishermen’s Sicilian island, struck down to her knees by the sublime spectacle of nature – and particularly the titular volcano, which symbolises what stands between her and her former life (namely, the unspeakable trauma of World War II). The 2019 reader will sense another shadow, another “offscreen presence” here, that of Gilles Deleuze, who intuited that neorealism (and particularly Rossellini’s trilogy, which comprises Stromboli, Europa 51 , and Voyage to Italy ), and the profound transformation of cinema it jumpstarted and contained, had sprung forth from the sublime (in the sense of overwhelming, terrible) experience of the war, of the Holocaust, of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, and of the collapse of earlier models of causality which had governed filmmaking hitherto. Grosoli avoids the Deleuzean trail for the most part – this is legitimate, warranted by his historic approach, dealing with a period which predates Deleuze’s “time image” theory by decades (even if Deleuze was only a few years younger than Rohmer). Still, there was no turning back for the world after the war, not any more than there was for Rohmer. But differently from his fellow New Wave directors en devenir (particularly Godard, the revolutionary, the most modern of the moderns), who aimed at breaking down old walls and redefining cinema, Rohmer decided to embrace Kant, the fundamental connection between ethics and aesthetics (“what is truly beautiful is necessarily good”) and, via these, an idea of classicism, which, Grosoli demonstrates, is not antonymous with modernity.3
Departing from Kant stricto sensu, Grosoli exfoliates Rohmer’s method and approach, showing how, for Rohmer (as opposed to Kant), there is no individual consciousness as such, but rather that it is located in “the battlefield where nature and freedom/morality as such face each other – a battlefield that is nowhere in particular, or, more precisely, that cannot be individuated in a definite consciousness.” (p. 135) Grosoli might have used the term history, but he positions it among other terms still: a zone “between nature and God (that is, morality), a battle that is simultaneously abstract and placeless, as well as totally concrete and situated.” In this, Rohmer reveals himself as not being exclusively “Kantian” (given that Kant held fast to a localised, not external, consciousness). But Kant’s age could not take the Holocaust into account, nor did it have cinema as the most important cultural manifestation of its century. Cinema creates yet another temporality, Grosoli argues, neither Kantian nor contingent (as in a Heideggerian/Sartrean conception), “thanks to the mechanical necessity and irreversibility of its unfolding outside of human consciousness, which makes it particularly suitable for accommodating a battle between the rule (Kantian nature: the totality of appearances qua submitted to the mechanical laws of cause-and-effect) and its exception (freedom/morality) whose seat is not inside man.” (p. 135) Rather, the latter’s consciousness can only get sucked in that battle from without, as it were, instead of hosting it. Grosoli illustrates this externality of consciousness in Rohmer’s theory, by way of Hitchcock – a metonym for cinema, and, in the closing pages of Deleuze’s Cinema 1, let us remember, the quintessence of “thought film” (cinéma pensée), where the camera most closely espouses the workings of the mind.
In the end, two key terms emerge from Grosoli’s book. The first one is manifest, accounting for Rohmer’s perennial quality as a thinker, critic, and filmmaker, what makes him the most timeless of the New Wave filmmakers, their elder and yet their evergreen: his classicism. To Grosoli, it is Rohmer’s attachment to classicism (in literature, but also in cinema) that accounts for both his modernity and his universality. The word “classic/al/ism” recurs well over a hundred times through the book, not least in an entire chapter dedicated to it in Rohmer, his thought, and his cinema-in-the-making. Through it, we better understand and can reconcile Rohmer’s Western-centric view of cinema, by following Grosoli’s reading along the lines of Kant’s universality of taste.
The other term, which, contrary to “classicism”, appears only once in the whole book, and runs as an undercurrent phantom (and is arguably also very Western-centric), is Catholicism. Rohmer was born and raised a Catholic, and his cultural environment and religion informed his views and determined his attachment to a certain notion of authorship, and, therefore, of the auteur. His admiration for Rossellini (who may have been an atheist, but nonetheless grew up in a densely Catholic cultural substrate) and Bresson (who considered himself a Jansenist) may have something to do with their common Judeo-Christian background. From the humility and modesty that these men may not have harbored toward their fellow men, but certainly felt toward a higher entity (the God of Roman Catholicism), they derived discreet, almost self-effacing styles, leading Rohmer to write that the best way to be a film auteur consisted in “vanishing behind the characters” (in this, Rohmer’s understanding of style was not far removed from, again, Deleuze, whose admiration of Kafka’s style came precisely from the way in which it was never conspicuous). In other words, Rohmer resisted the modern and post-Christian conception of authorship as individual self-expression, toward a more sublated approach, celebrating a community (i.e., a religious community, or a community connected by religion). Grosoli, an Italian and a Catholic by culture, announces that this fundamental aspect will be at the heart of his forthcoming book – but, like Lucien Goldmann’s Hidden God, it is already very much present in this rich, learned and insightful study of Rohmer’s reconciling of aesthetics and ethics, of classicism and modernity, of thought and praxis.
Some books are frustrating because the reader can sense the author closing in on a great idea or demonstration, yet veering away from it in the end, for lack of acumen or discernment, only to delve in banality or nonsense. Marco Grosoli’s stunning achievement most definitely does not belong in this category. Informed and learned like few volumes in film studies released today, the experiencing of reading the book can however be frustrating at times, for reasons that are entirely external to Grosoli’s research. Preventing a smooth and fully satisfactory reading are flaws pertaining to a sub-par work of editing (Grosoli’s command of English is strong, but it does not always read as fluidly as it should, even leading at times to unnecessary confusion4) and copy-editing on the part of the publisher (Shadow of a Doubt is dated 1948 (!!!), Cocteau is rechristened ‘Jacques’, The Gold Rush becomes The Golden Rush, etc., etc.). While there is no excusing the small copy-editing glitches, they remain peccadillos. The style of Grosoli, his Latinate charm combined with a form of rigidity and at times painstaking will to delve overly into details (the flip side of his unquestionably encyclopedic knowledge), his “certain tendency” to repetition, is also consubstantial to his method. It is fascinating to witness how, in Grosoli, repetition is part of an ebb-and-flow method (instructive and directive, but never merely didactic): with clarity of purpose and robustness of thought, but also in a circuitous (Italian?) manner, the central theses take shape, acquiring, in the end, the mighty and perhaps slightly disquieting dimensions of a volcano, from which knowledge and passion for the subject spew out like burning embers. In this sense, Grosoli’s work is akin, all proportions guarded, to that of Rossellini (often critiqued for its technical flaws and disregard of basic continuity rules).5 While one would have probably preferred smooth sailing on the quiet Mediterranean, perhaps there is a far more gratifying feeling, in the end, for having climbed the rugged slope – and feeling humbled.
Marco Grosoli’s book should be read by anyone seriously interested in one of the most vibrant moments in the history of cinema. Thanks to Grosoli’s work, Eric Rohmer is no longer one of the unsung heroes of this moment, but emerges as both a fundamental actor and progenitor in it.
Marco Grosoli, Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948-1953) – From ‘École Scherer’ to ‘Politique des Auteurs’ (University of Amsterdam Press, 2018)
- Peter Brunette, Roberto Rossellini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). ↩
- Dudley Andrew, “Review of Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948-1953) – From ‘École Scherer’ to ‘Politique des Auteurs’”, Critical Inquiry, July 10, 2019, https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/dudley_andrew_reviews_eric_rohmers_film_theory/) ↩
- In an early film, Le celluloid et le marbre, as Grosoli points out, Rohmer already overcame the distinction or opposition between the politique des auteurs, which he helped shape and influenced deeply ahead of André Bazin – as the book argues at length – and the modernism of the nouveau roman. ↩
- A case in point is the sentence, opening chapter 3: “In 1983, having watched Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1949) for the first time, Eric Rohmer declared that he had decided to abandon, once and for all, the Sartrean influence that had hitherto been so important for him.” Evidently, Rohmer did not watch Stromboli for the first time in 1983. The sentence ought to have read: “In a 1983 interview with Jean Narboni, Rohmer declared that, after watching Stromboli for the first time, he had decided to abandon, once and for all…” ↩
- In his definitive appraisal of Grosoli’s book, Dudley Andrew likens the elegant symmetry of the chapter structure to Rohmer’s own films, their novelistic chapitrage – and perhaps verbosity. ↩