1920 - 2010
Three Key Films: My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), Love in the Afternoon (1972)
Underrated: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007). Although he was 87 when it premiered, Rohmer’s final film is alive with the blossom of youth. A pastoral romance set in 5th century Gaul, it follows the star-crossed love of the achingly beautiful title characters through false deaths and masquerades in the dense forests of rural France. It’s delightfully old-fashioned, and distinctly Rohmer.
Unforgettable: Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), the protagonist of Claire’s Knee, leaning over and accidentally touching Claire’s knee. It’s a succinct summary of the desires and temptations that fill Rohmer’s Moral Tales, shot with gentle beauty and coy humor.
The Legend: A subtle, prolific artist with a handful of pet themes, Eric Rohmer was never as flashy or precocious as his French New Wave compatriots. He lacked Godard’s formal fireworks, Truffaut’s allusive energy, or the nonstop experimentation of the Left Bank. But his modest films, trifling as they may initially appear, are bursting with visual and thematic complexity. No one has aestheticized simple conversations quite as effectively as Rohmer, who made them seem naturally cinematic while perceptively reporting on affairs of the heart.
Like many of the other New Wave directors, Rohmer started out as a critic with Cahiers du cinéma, which he edited. He was nearly 40 when he directed his first feature film, 1959’s The Sign of Leo, but he didn’t receive international attention until La Collectionneuse (1967), the third of his Six Moral Tales. The Moral Tales are both the start and the centerpiece of Rohmer’s career; loosely inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), each one is about a man who has pledged himself to one woman but is tempted by another.
This outline sounds like a facile morality play, but the films themselves are multifaceted and expressive. They merge personal conundrums with discussions of philosophy and the arts, simultaneously developing Rohmer’s many interests. The best example of this is My Night at Maud’s, which is essentially one long conversation between the protagonist Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his friend Vidal, and the vivacious Maud. Shot in wintry black and white, the film interweaves Jean-Louis’s very Catholic moral dilemma with their neverending, digressive dialogue. It understandably remains Rohmer’s best-recognized masterpiece.
Although his characters are often selfish, solipsistic intellectuals, Rohmer reveals surprising tenderness in their stories. Even when his characters are at their most conflicted, the films retain a deep serenity, sometimes aided by the gorgeous cinematography of Nestor Almendros, who shot five of Rohmer’s films. Moving with ease between cute and melancholy, they are, above all, pleasant experiences; it’s our gain that Rohmer kept working diligently and inconspicuously for half a century, equally adept at lavish period pieces and contemporary, no-frills romances. Low-key but vital, his voice persists even now with poignant tales of love and lust. Andreas Stoehr