Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Éric Rohmer (1920-2010)

French filmmaker Éric Rohmer (Jean-Marie Maurice Schérer) died earlier this month. Here's the Wiki and imdb entries, and the Washington Post piece. The New York Times obituary is good, and also links an excellent profile from 2001 by A.O. Scott and a slideshow. He was one of the last remaining old masters who came to prominence in the 50s and 60s.

Rohmer's films are not for all tastes. Several obituaries have quoted a line from Gene Hackman's character in the film Night Moves: "I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." However, as with Ozu, if you like one of Rohmer's films, you're liable to like them all, and enjoy them very much. Most of his films had only the slightest of plots, so much so that they could be hard to describe – they're more about human interactions, personal realizations and self-deception, all told with wry humor and affection by Rohmer. He was very wise about human relationships. In a review of Ingmar Bergman's film Saraband, I wrote about how both filmmakers captured intimacy so well:

Eric Rohmer, another great master, comes closest to Bergman in terms of capturing the complexities and subtleties of real life on film, but Rohmer is French and far happier than the brooding Bergman. Rohmer is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov without the extreme tragedy, while Bergman is pure Dostoevsky.

Like Bergman and several other directors, Rohmer drew from something of a company of actors. In Rohmer's case, most were non-professional, and he elicited very naturalistic performances from them. He used many of the same people over the course of decades, so that a young woman's teenaged friend in one film might later pop up later in middle age as the center of another film. It's a neat dynamic. Natural light master Néstor Almendros was the cinematographer for several of his films, and they were a good fit.

(Claire's Knee, shot by Almendros.)

Many of Rohmer's films belonged to one of three loose series: the Six Moral Tales, the Comedies and Proverbs (another six films), and the Tales of the Four Seasons. One summer, the National Gallery in DC ran all of them (apart from one yet to be filmed), and I was lucky enough to catch most of them. The audiences really enjoyed the films. Rohmer's works often have funny moments, but I think the real delight comes from how he views human foibles and frailties with such forgiveness and affection. The diplomat's quest to touch Claire's knee in Claire's Knee could easily be creepy in another film, but instead he comes off as mostly harmless and deluding himself above all, and his first ploy is suspenseful and hilarious. The female lead in The Winter's Tale is on the one hand blithely careless about her own life and those of the lovers she juggles, but there's also little artifice or malice there. We're waiting to see how her life will turn out as much as she is, and as surprised and delighted by the twists that occur. The Green Ray (normally known as Summer over here) climaxes with a sunset and a natural phenomenon that drew appreciative gasps from the crowd. I need to see it again, but it may be one of the most Zen endings in cinema. Rohmer films don't always end neatly, but in most, we're left with the sense that we peeked in on these characters' lives briefly and that life goes on. At least for fans, the feeling leaving the theater is one of warmth and thoughtfulness, not dissatisfaction.

(The Winter's Tale, although the film itself is in color.)

If anything, Rohmer's artistry is more impressive because it's generally so unobtrusive. In Chloe in the Afternoon, he moves the pieces into place early to set up a key moment late in the film. Better than virtually anyone, he manages to make a simple object and everyday action suddenly takes on great significance. We experience an epiphany simultaneous with the main character. (This moment also drew audible gasps from the crowd when I saw it.) I was going to explain this further - and consider this an art house flick poetic moment spoiler alert - but then I discovered A.O. Scott's 2001 portrait of Rohmer (linked earlier), which does it beautifully near the end:

From ''La Collectioneuse'' (1967), in which he was able to move from black-and-white to color, to ''Autumn Tale'' in 1998, Mr. Rohmer's films have refused to date. Yes, the haircuts and fashions alter somewhat, and the technological environment changes perceptibly, but the basic shape of civilization -- in particular its sexual mores and idioms of feeling -- seems remarkably constant, and seems, moreover, to be observed with almost documentary naturalism. Mr. Rohmer's casting of nonprofessional actors and his disdain for showy camera techniques and background music disguise the crystalline artifice of his plots, which becomes apparent only in retrospect.

Just as the world they depict is, for all its hectic quotidian rhythms, governed by invisible norms and patterns of behavior, so are the films, for all the breezy haphazardness with which they unfold, governed by a fierce formal intelligence and a classical sense of symmetry. In the late 60's and early 70's, directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and François Truffaut (in ''Day for Night'') argued that cinema should self-consciously reflect on its own techniques and procedures. Mr. Rohmer preferred to transfer this self-reflexiveness to his characters, and to maintain an illusion of transparency and detachment.

But this illusion is sustained by a remarkable sense of spatial composition and narrative symmetry -- the invisible source of the perfection that is Mr. Rohmer's critical legacy. ''Chloe in the Afternoon'' (1971), for example, unfolds out of the daydreams and random encounters of Frédéric, a prosperous young businessman who is devoted to his wife, Hélène, and their children, but nonetheless tempted by the wild vulnerability of Chloe, the ex-lover of an old friend, who turns up unexpectedly in Frédéric's office. The middle sections of the film follow their friendship as it develops, in the course of lunches and shopping excursions, into something riskier.

What appear at first to be the trivial occurrences of ordinary life turn out to be subtle motifs. In both the film's opening and its climax, a woman -- first Hélène, then Chloe -- emerges naked from her shower into Frédéric's embrace. The offhand words the characters exchange -- Hélène warns Frédéric against getting wet; Chloe assures him that water won't stain his clothes -- turn out to be loaded with psychological subtext, and the movie's moment of moral crisis is the result of Frédéric's fondness for turtleneck sweaters. Midway through the movie, he pulls his turtleneck up around his ears to make funny faces at his infant son. Later, in the midst of undressing, about to make love with Chloe, he catches sight of himself in the mirror with his shirt in the same position, and flees without a word.

There is a comical absurdity to this scene, as there is to the perfect, color-coordinated pairing off that concludes ''Boyfriends and Girlfriends'' (''L'Ami de mon Amie,'' 1987), in which the woman in the green dress ends up with the man in the blue shirt and the woman in the blue blouse goes off with the man in green -- but also a surprising emotional charge. Frédéric and Hélène shed real tears at the end of ''Chloe in the Afternoon'' -- tears of relief, compassion and estrangement. For all his light-hearted sense of comedy and complication, such estrangement, the sense that modern relationships are at bottom the persistence of failed connections, is at the heart of Mr. Rohmer's perfect vision of an imperfect world.

Stills from Chloe in the Afternoon:

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