Eric Rohmer, one of the greatest geniuses ever to work in film -- a medium (and a business) not quite hospitable to genius -- died yesterday at the age of 89. Born Maurice Schérer in Tulle, in the Dordogne, in 1920, he studied literature at the University of Nancy and became associated with the French New Wave of directors through his editorship of the influential periodical Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. Although he is usually lumped together with the great names of the Nouvelle Vague -- Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol -- he stands apart from them in a number of ways. For one, he got a much later start than any of his confreres, not producing a successful film until he was in his 40s and not embarking on the work for which he will be remembered until he was near 50. This part of his career commenced with My Night at Maude's (Ma Nuit Chez Maude) of 1969 -- the movie to which Gene Hackman was referring when he said in Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975) that watching a Rohmer film was like watching paint dry.
This bon mot must owe its reputation to those who have taken it as their excuse never to have seen a Rohmer film, for it is just exactly wrong. There is always something going on in his movies, and it requires considerable mental agility on the viewer's part to keep up with it all. Even some of those who profess to be his fans must not be up to the task, as I have seen them claim that plot was not so important to him when it is nearly always central. His films were always true to a dictum of Hitchcock -- about whom he co-wrote a book with Claude Chabrol -- that plot was the soul of the cinema. I can understand that people might be tempted to forget about the intricate plot of Maude through the sheer effort of attending to the heavy philosophical talk of the main characters about Pascal, as well as the human drama of sexual attraction both pursued and resisted. But Pascal is being considered as a theorist of probability, as well as a religious thinker, and the plot consists of a series of coincidences. Likewise, we are invited to see the sexual pairings of the film as crucially dependent on the order in which things happen -- as they nearly always are in Rohmer, as in life.
Ma Nuit Chez Maude was the third, though the fourth to be released, in Rohmer's series "Six Moral Tales," and his first undisputed masterpiece. The final two in the series, Claire's Knee (Le Genou de Claire) and Chloe in the Afternoon (the American title of L'amour l'après-midi) appeared in 1970 and 1972 respectively and are considered by many Rohmerians to be his greatest work, though I prefer his second series of six films, which he called "Comedies and Proverbs" and which came out in the 1980s, when he was in his 60s. Not the least astonishing thing about these six wonderful, miraculous films is the contrast between his age at the time and that of his characters in them, who are nearly all in their teens or 20s. They are full of the confidence, the awkwardness, the passions and the frustrated longings of youth on which Rohmer trains a calm, compassionate eye. Moreover, they are unlike the Moral Tales in being all told from the point of view of women, often difficult, willful, even foolish women, for whom their creator always seems to have infinite patience and affection.
The greatest of these six are, in my opinion, The Aviator's Wife (La femme de l'aviateur) of 1981 and Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la Plage) of 1983, both of which explore -- as, indeed, do the other films in the series -- the links between love and self-deception. That may make them sound "deep" and depressing but in fact the Rohmerian lightness of touch, affection for his characters with all their imperfections, and precise observation of manners and morals in a world often supposed to have little of either all work together to make them live up to their description as comedies -- though comedies with a serious side to them and ambiguous or even sad endings. In his 70s, Rohmer produced another series, this time of four films, called "Tales of the Four Seasons" which combined the moralism of the "Six Moral Tales" with the focus on young love -- though it is now shading into middle-aged love -- of the "Comedies and Proverbs." These are characterized by a wintry grandeur and hard-won wisdom.
One particularly interesting way into the Rohmer oeuvre would be to take one film from each of these three series all starring the same actress, Béatrice Romand, portraying three stages of a woman's life. In Claire's Knee she plays a young girl with a reputation as a flirt who is first said to have a crush on a much older man, the film's hero played by Jean-Claude Brialy, and then rejects him, as she rejects all those whom she is able to attract. In Le Beau Mariage of 1982 she plays a young woman who breaks off an affair with an older, married man, by announcing that she has decided to get married too, even though she has no idea to whom. She sets her cap at a young lawyer, full of the sense of her own powers of attraction just like the girl she had played twelve years earlier in Claire's Knee, but he proves to be just not that into her. Almost as painful to watch is her performance in A Tale of Autumn (1998), in which she is a middle-aged divorcée who doesn't want another relationship but who finds herself falling for a man with whom she has been set up by a married, match-making friend -- who really wants him for herself.
Once again, it all sounds very heavy but somehow comes off as being very light. Rohmer doesn't permit himself to be tragic because he knows his human materials won't bear so much weight. Like the very greatest artists, like Shakespeare or Mozart, he has the almost magical ability to see his characters, and to make us see them, as God must see them -- that is, with compassion but never with sentimentalism -- all the while keeping them in their mundane, bourgeois lives, so much like that of those for whom he made his films. That, of course, he was criticized for, but the left-wing political tendencies of the rest of the Nouvelle Vague never seem to have held any charms for him. Conservatives can admire him especially, perhaps, for insisting on preserving as his own artistic sphere a world, increasingly unavailable to the rest of us, where politics is not permitted to intrude. That, to me, is the very definition of a conservative artist, which Rohmer also was, in addition to being a great one.