Filmmaker, critic, co-founder of the French New Wave... Eric Rohmer put in a vigorous eighty-nine years on this planet. And while "vigorous" isn't an adjective many would use to describe his visual style (Google "Rohmer" and "Gene Hackman"), the ideas batted around in his films - from 1959's THE SIGN OF LEO right up to 2007's THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON - were never less than stimulating. It's hard to think of a director who had a more acute understanding of the way men and women regard each other than Rohmer - and impossible to name one who delivered a masterpiece in four different decades (i.e. MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S, CLAIRE'S KNEE, THE AVIATOR'S WIFE and, perhaps charitably, A WINTER'S TALE).
Rather than bang out a brief career overview pointing out the usual highlights, I've decided to reprint my review of The Criterion Collection's SIX MORAL TALES (written for Collider in 2006). If you're at all curious about Rohmer's work (and you damn well should be), this cycle of films is a sublime introduction.
No filmmaker has done more to betray the male gender than Eric Rohmer. Consider this an indirect admission that, yes, we really are as silly, obsessed, weak-willed and, if granted enough independence, self-destructive as the protagonists in all of the director’s pictures, but, specifically, the fools and cads in his first cinematic cycle, Six Moral Tales. Nothing is good enough, the women we most desire are never the ones we’re with, and our timing is generally awful. The only thing that separates the dimmest from the brightest among us is our degree of honesty – with our lovers and ourselves – and the quality of our inner monologue; so, while Rohmer has scandalously exposed his fellow man as a hopeless, helpless hypocrite, at least he’s had the common courtesy to make us all sound sparklingly literate!
Like most of his French New Wave compatriots, Rohmer transitioned from Cahiers du cinema bomb thrower to upstart filmmaker in the late 1950s, though his first feature, Le signe du lion, got lost amid the more astringent debuts from Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows). Perhaps this owed to his maturity; Rohmer had, respectively, ten and twelve years on Godard and Truffaut, and his criticism, while revolutionary in theory, revealed a far more even temperament than found in the confrontational writing of his younger colleagues. Rohmer didn’t want to explode the modern French cinema; he just sought to introduce a more loquacious style of movie that freed the medium from the shackles of its silent past without playing like filmed theater – thus, his affinity for Lubitsch, Sturges and Hawks. In his massively influential essay, “For a Talking Cinema”, Rohmer lucidly explained that lengthy passages of dialogue need not be stultifying so long as the screenwriter possesses “a perfect knowledge of the visual language”. Godard demonstrated this repeatedly with the protracted arguments that still frustrate audiences not paying attention to his visual fluency in Breathless and Contempt, but these sequences were mere dalliances. The idea that conversation could sustain a full-length feature film had yet to be proven.
After the mild failure of Le signe du lion, Rohmer retreated to short films as a cost-effective means of refining his technique. That said, he was also embarking on an ambitious, six-part series of pictures that would eventually establish him as an art house darling. The first two entries – The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career – rely heavily on narration, and are more significant for the casual misogyny of their male characters. In the twenty-three minute Monceau, Rohmer follows a young law student (Barbet Schroeder, ever the willing misogynist) whose affection for a beautiful blonde he occasionally encounters on the Paris sidewalks compels him to frequent a small bakery where, once the blonde abruptly disappears, he gradually falls for a cute brunette cashier. The student aggressively pursues the brunette, but thoughtlessly discards her once the blonde resurfaces, though the tentativeness of the courtship leaves open the possibility that the cashier was only humoring the student.
All of the Moral Tales are tinged with this brand of ambiguity that implies potential duplicity in the not-completely-knowable actions of its females. But even if these women are behaving immorally, Rohmer has no interest in letting his men off the hook. In Suzanne’s Career, he introduces one of his favorite dramatic devices: the-timid-third-wheel-as-protagonist who considers himself morally superior to his predatory male counterpart and the rake’s numerous conquests. But in light of his skewed reasoning and his refusal to assert himself, the protagonist turns into a heel of equally loathsome magnitude, abusing Suzanne’s generosity (despite her poor finances) and ultimately abandoning her for a far more attractive mate.
Rohmer would perfect this formula in My Night at Maud’s, which remains the finest film of his career. Though the third chapter in the series (the entertaining, but minor La Collectionneuse is part four), Maud’s was the fourth to go before cameras due to star Jean-Louis Trintignant’s unavailability (that’ll happen when you’re in the habit of toplining five to six movies a year), and it is important to watch it in sequence if only because of Rohmer’s switch to color with the last three installments. The expressive black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of the great Néstor Almendros, enhances Rohmer’s visual austerity, and proves a perfect counterpoint to the ideological richness of the Blaise Pascal-driven narrative. Initially, the film feels as if it’s on a different course, as Trintignant’s unnamed, bored, but quite serious, Catholic protagonist hops in his car and pursues a cute blonde – sense a trend yet? – as she bicycles away from mass. The length of the sequence suggests homage to Vertigo, but Rohmer quickly settles into a lively conversational rhythm when Trintignant runs across an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), with whom he argues the intellectual merits of Pascal’s Wager. Vidal, picking up on his friend’s loneliness (he’s commuting from the provinces to a dreary job with Michelin), decides to introduce Trintignant to his friend Maud (François Fabian), though his motives are hardly selfless (Vidal’s hoping Trintignant’s presence will preclude any possibility of his sleeping with Maud). Trintignant reluctantly tags along and, lo and behold, finds his rigorous Catholicism challenged by Maud, whom he also very clearly wants to fuck (because she’s quick-witted, seductive and downright smokin’). Vidal, in a passive-aggressive pique of jealousy, decides to abandon Trintignant with Maud at the end of the evening, thus leading to a terribly erotic, conversational thrust-and-parry that ends with Trintignant in Maud’s bed, yet sans carnal knowledge.
This is the way of Rohmer’s world. His men play at being honorable, delude themselves to the core of their being that they truly are honorable, while, in practice, they’re timid, tumescent little boys lacking the resolve to make the first move. The funniest moment of My Night at Maud’s finds Trintignant, after spending the entire evening at Maud’s side above the sheets, worming his way beneath them and intentionally jarring her awake for an instinctual morning snog. When Maud realizes what he’s up to, she indignantly pulls away and retreats to her child’s room, chiding Trintignant for his cowardice. All of the Six Moral Tales have this moment (though they vary in severity), but none of them crystallize thematically quite like this. Trintignant could’ve had Maud. She beckoned to him, naked, from her bed, and yet he failed to leap to action. Why? The blonde girl, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), from church, of course; the ideal who remains an ideal until he makes a concerted effort to cross paths and take shelter at her house when the weather turns helpfully inclement one wintry evening.
Trintignant eventually marries Francoise, meaning that his ardor for Maud grows. The punch line arrives in the film’s denouement, when Trintignant and family (they now have a child) run into Maud at the beach. Visually, the contrast is cruel: Francoise is meek and maternal while Maud is an absolute vision of wanton sensuality. Francoise registers this, shoots her husband a scowl and guides their child down to the sea, leaving Trintignant and Maud to have their moment. When he rejoins them, they laugh off the encounter and run toward the sea, their child dangling between them. The film may be over, but we know this idyll is temporary.
Rohmer gets around to demonstrating the enervating effect marriage has on the male psyche – as well as its amplification of the libido – in the final chapter of the Moral Tales, Love in the Afternoon, and it’s his only misstep in the entire series; though the film is sharply written and expertly staged, its central dilemma is too unambiguous. Frederic (Bernard Verley), the married protagonist, has two very clear options: cheat or don’t cheat. As he praises the mystery and allure of every lovely woman that isn’t his wife, the film begins to play like Eric Rohmer’s Mind of the Married Man, which, granted, is decidedly more thoughtful than anything Mike Binder could squeeze out of his pea-sized brain, but still too similar to many other movies and television shows we’ve seen before. It’s ninety-eight minutes of rationalizing and slowly surrendering to temptation – embodied here by Chloe (notorious 1960s party girl, Zouzou) – and it goes, if not exactly where you expect it, then in a direction that isn’t entirely unpredictable.
There is, however, one other masterpiece in the Six Moral Tales, and that is Claire’s Knee, which stars Jean-Claude Brialy as Jerome, a vacationing, soon-to-be-married diplomat who allows himself to become enmeshed in sexual intrigue with two young women at the mischievous urging of his novelist friend, Aurora (Aurora Cornu), who’s admittedly just trolling for material for her next book. Aurora discovers that her host’s youngest daughter, Laura (Beatrice Romand), is smitten with Jerome, and dares him to flirt with her. Jerome resists for maybe half an afternoon before succumbing to the inevitable; soon, he’s hiking in the mountains surrounding Lake Annecy and doing his damnedest to steal kisses from the very cute, but exceedingly clever Laura, who confesses, “I send all the boys away.” Jerome persists despite Laura’s recalcitrance, so she shrewdly exacerbates his frustration by inviting a young male admirer, Vincent (Fabrice Luchini), up to the house to lavish attention upon her. Suddenly, Jerome is toppled from his perch of superiority; due to his advanced age (thirty-five), and Laura’s extreme youth (she’s only sixteen), he is now reduced to looking like an utter fool.
And yet Jerome is undeterred, turning his affections toward Laura’s gorgeous older sister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), even though she’s rarely without her hunky boyfriend, Gilles (Gérard Falconetti). What’s more, she’s largely dismissive of Jerome, who’s still hanging around their house pathetically attempting to undermine Laura’s friendship with Vincent. Jerome soon insinuates himself into Claire’s affairs, and becomes rather comically obsessed with touching her knee whilst watching her balanced on a ladder picking fruit from a tree. (Not for nothing, he only focuses on her knee after getting an eyeful of we-can-only-surmise-what from directly below her skirt. Does the knee, then, represent some kind of sublimation? A compromise for something he knows he’ll never touch?) That Jerome goes well out of his way to stage this moment erases the last vestiges of respect the viewer might’ve still harbored for him.
And yet there isn’t a man alive incapable of falling victim to these strange, pitiable fixations. Trintignant, Jerome, Frederic and so on – these poor saps are no strangers. This is what makes Rohmer’s cinema so wholly compelling and, for one-half of the audience, wincingly realistic. That Rohmer stages these minor tragedies of desire with seemingly intelligent men only elevates the squirm factor; the transgressions and general foolishness grow more despicable the more they’re rationalized. This is what we do every day, and it’s only societal mores and religious beliefs that keep us from acting on instinct at any given moment. Rohmer’s triumph is that he has his men deal with the ubiquitous nearness of sin without allowing them to commit the deed, because, contrary to what Hollywood might tell you, that’s how it plays out most of the time.
Women, if you’re looking for comfort, that’s going to have to suffice. Welcome to our mind, and, please, watch your step.