Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010

It is with great sadness I report that the French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer has died at the age of 89. One of the greatest careers in the cinema has come to an end after 25 theatrical features and numerous short films, documentaries and TV productions. Rohmer's aesthetic, his reliance on subtle dialogue and restrained emotions, his seeming visual straightforwardness, has often led to him being misunderstood as a maker of boring talkfests. Even the BBC's obituary calls his work "completely devoid of action," as though he should have inserted more explosions or car chases into his patient, acutely observed films. As though Rohmer wasn't simply concerned with different kinds of action.

In fact, Rohmer was one of the most sensitive and intellectually probing of directors. He had an ear, not only for the way people talked, but for the ways in which their words related obliquely to their inner states. His films require careful attention and a willingness to read between the lines, to become attuned to the emotional and intellectual undercurrents of his scenarios. For Rohmer, as for many of his protagonists, life is something that should be considered and analyzed as well as simply experienced. Though he was not immune to sensual pleasures — the sand and water in Pauline at the Beach, the romantic interlude that opens A Winter's Tale, the lushly green park at the center of The Aviator's Wife — he was also always conscious of the multiplicity of thoughts and decisions that constitute human consciousness. His cinema was moral, but not moralistic; his parables are open-ended and ambiguous, suggesting that the decision, the judgment, belongs to the viewer alone.

In film after film, Rohmer returned to his favored topics, namely the formation, maintenance, and disintegration of love and relationships, ethics and spirituality, the natural world, the gap between thought and action, between imagination and reality. Many of his protagonists set out with an ideal in mind, seeking to make it real, and Rohmer both respects their determination and highlights their absurdity. Sometimes, these protagonists seek some seemingly unattainable romantic perfection, as in The Green Ray and countless other films, while in Perceval le gallois Rohmer's determined hero is a knight who clumsily integrates his ideals and theories with the real world. Rohmer's cinema, despite its unearned reputation for dreary chatter, could be funny, uplifting, deeply romantic, ironic, bittersweet, playful. He loved youth, and beauty. He loved love itself. He will be truly, sadly, missed.

I have not written as much as I would have liked about Rohmer here. He has long been one of my favorite directors, but as with other favorites I've watched and digested much of his work long before starting this site. I hope to write, in the coming weeks, about a few of his later films I haven't yet caught up with, as a way of saying goodbye to this cherished auteur. In the meantime, I direct you to my writeups of his Four Seasons cycle (A Tale Of Springtime, A Winter's Tale, A Summer's Tale, Autumn Tale), his uncharacteristic and delightful Perceval le Gallois, his historical spy thriller Triple Agent, and one of my favorites from his lengthy career, the charming The Aviator's Wife.

Also, for those who might see this as a reason to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with the work of this French master, might I suggest, in addition to some of the above, a few of his very finest films: Pauline at the Beach, My Night At Maud's, La collectionneuse, Claire's Knee and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. The best way to honor Rohmer, and to remember him, is to watch his films.


Kevin J. Olson said...

This is a great remembrance, Ed, of one of my favorite New Wave filmmakers. About a month ago I added a ton of his films to my Netflix queue so I could revisit his's a sad irony.

I like what you say about how Rohmer with this beautifully stated line:

In fact, Rohmer was one of the most sensitive and intellectually probing of directors. He had an ear, not only for the way people talked, but for the ways in which their words related obliquely to their inner states. His films require careful attention and a willingness to read between the lines, to become attuned to the emotional and intellectual undercurrents of his scenarios.

I think this is what maybe caused people to balk at his film. One can only hope his passing on will allow people to re-evaluate his films. I think what you say here gets at the heart of his minimalistic aesthetic, too, rarely using close ups or other camera trickery to try and pry into the characters psyche (this goes with what you say about having to read between the lines), and his lack of extra-diegetic music was one of the first things I noticed about his work when I began watching his films fresh out of high school.

Again...a great remembrance here, Ed. I'm going to start reading some of your reviews you linked to.

Drew McIntosh said...

What an elegant piece Ed. Rohmer was truly one of the greats. RIP

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

A fantastic piece Ed. I posted something similar at my blog...I've always felt Rohmer was a kindred spirit, and his Moral Tales helped me pull through a very difficult time. What I say below dovetails nicely with your piece, I think:

"Like his American descendent Whit Stillman, Rohmer overthinks sex while admitting to his audience in remarkably subtle gestures (an aridly lusty smile from La Collectionneuse, a rich rectangle of exposed flesh in Claire's Knee) the ubiquity of sheer animalism. And this, too, was Rohmer's novel, irresistible approach to cinema: Maintaining an eloquently controlled, meticulously calculated surface while clandestinely, and sublimely, relying on the instinctual. Has film art ever been so pensive and yet so confident? So cynical and yet so hopelessly romantic?"

Sam Juliano said...

I just got home from school, checked my e mails and lo and behold I received this terrible news from my dear friend Kaleem Hasan. Your testament here is exquisite; Rohmer himself would have been moved. I am well aware odf your own affinity for his work. I do love him too, as does my colleague Allan Fish and many others in the blogosphere, but you Mr. Howard have been his greatest internet champion, and this lovely, tear-inducing post is this giant's most appropriate artistic remembrance.

He's inspired you to write something of this magnitude, and I tip my cap to you, Sir.

My personal favorite Rohmer film is CLAIRE'S KNEE, but a number of others would com einto play in a big way.

Only Godard and Rivette now remain from the movement.

Allan Fish said...

A giant has passed. He will be much missed.

Lights in the Dusk said...

Very nicely put, Ed.

Steven Rybin said...

A lovely remembrance, Ed.

His films were beautiful. His *ideas* about film were, too - he was also an underappreciated critic and theorist of film. As a writer, he was the most faithful of the Cahiers critics to Andre Bazin's ideas about the ontology of the film image, doing a lot of great work in his writing on the relationship between what is spoken in films and what is shown. His films, of course, went on to put those ideas into practice. He could be a dense and difficult writer at times - he was more academic than either Truffaut or Godard - but he was always rewarding. In a sense, his writing - which I eagerly gobbled up after falling in love with "My Night at Maud's" and his other early films - was my first film school. (In addition to all the films being recommended here, then, I would also recommend "The Taste of Beauty," the only English-language anthology of Rohmer criticism currently available).

The first thing I did after learning of his death was open my dog-eared copy of "The Taste of Beauty" and looked for passages I had underlined the first time I had read it. I posted two of these on my own blog. His criticism affected me as much as his films when I was in my early 20s, and put me in a good position to understand Bazin better when I finally got around to reading him.

Oh, and "My Night at Maud's" remains my favorite film of all time.

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, Allan just posted his excellent review of MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S at WitD in remembrance of Rohmer.

DavidEhrenstein said...

His films were just beautiful and beautifully just.

My faves include Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert, Quatre adventures de Reinette et Mirabelle and Triple Agent

Greg said...

The best way to honor Rohmer, and to remember him, is to watch his films.

Beautifully said. A great and heartfelt tribute Ed.

Just Another Film Buff said...

This is beautiful, Ed. Thanks. R.I.P Mr. Rohmer

WelcometoLA said...

Nice thoughts, Ed.

Carson Lund said...

Unfortunately, I've only seen Claire's Knee, which I loved. I suppose I'll take this upsetting opportunity to acquaint myself with his oeuvre.

Vincent said...

I like the way you have honored the man and his movies. Some sadness ans a lot of admiratiuon. Thanks

Ed Howard said...

It's great to see this outpouring of respect and affection for this great director. Thanks, everyone.

Steven, I'm glad you commented about The Taste for Beauty. I wasn't aware of that book and it sounds like I definitely need to read it. I always enjoy the criticism of the Cahiers critics/filmmakers. And the snippets I've seen people quoting in these tribute pieces have confirmed that Rohmer was a very intellectual, perceptive man.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You definitely do need to read it. Rohmer was a very subtle and suggestive critic. Many insights on Rossellini in those eassays -- among toehrs.

I hope someone will get aroudn to translating Rohmer's masters thesis "The Organization of Space in Murnau's Faust." It was of crucial import to the commentary track Bill Krohn and I created for the "Masters of Cinma" DVD of that great film.