Tales Well Told: Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010

01/12/2010 11:38 AM |

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When Eric Rohmer entered a space with his camera, whether it was a Parisian apartment or a beach or a forest, he somehow managed to enlarge that space into an environment that shimmered and tingled with a kind of spiritual, almost supernatural presence (his only antecedent in this spooky regard was Murnau). He must have had his technical tricks and preferences, but I don’t think it comes down to what lenses he used, or whatever stratagems he devised to capture natural light, or even the people he picked to be in his films, almost all of whom had a natural grace. Rohmer had an ineffable way of looking at his educated men and women as they talked and talked themselves in circles, making plans and describing their own feelings and sensations after the fact until we forget what action they were planning to take and lose ourselves in a kind of heightened inertia. All the while, Rohmer watched over them like a forgiving but sometimes judgmental God.

His debut feature, The Sign of Leo (1959), is an uncommonly grim tale of bad luck and financial woes that follows its rather unlikable male lead character as he slowly descends into begging on the street; in its dark, plodding reversals, it feels more like a Claude Chabrol than a Rohmer film. Rohmer found his mature style with his Six Moral Tales, the most famous of which are My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970) and Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). Once seen, it’s hard to forget the winter mood of Maud’s, or the bets-hedging look on Jean-Louis Trintignant’s face as he weighs what woman he should make his life with (I myself think he makes the wrong choice, but I don’t think Rohmer would have seen it this way). And who can forget Chloé (Zouzou) tempting Frédéric (Bernard Verley) in her afternoon, and how can we not admire the fortitude that could resist such a ripe plum in favor of Rohmer’s beloved monogamy? Elaine May once cracked that she preferred moral problems to real problems, but who can deny the glory of Rohmer’s devotion to the highest standards of emotional and intellectual purity?

Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series from the eighties have their own rules, delights and frissons. Is there a more disturbing moment in cinema than the ending of Pauline at the Beach (1983), where Marion (Arielle Dombasle) smilingly insists on preserving a small point of self-deception with her scrupulously honest cousin (Amanda Langlet)? In so many ways, Rohmer was a heartfelt miniaturist, lulling us with seemingly benign landscape photography and university chatter until something unsayable happens, some bit of talk changes everything; the film ends, and we are left with a sea change inside of ourselves, which might have the force of an earthquake if we take the time to let it in. In The Green Ray (1986), Marie Rivière risks alienating us at every turn: she whines, she keeps bursting into unappealing tears, she says she’s unhappy but doesn’t seem to have the guts to do anything about it. Then, in the gob-smacking ending, Rivière lets Rohmer’s limpid cinematography give her one of the few movie epiphanies that an audience can actually fully share with a film character. This joyous epiphany has no clear reason; it is akin to the miracle at the end of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1954), a film that Rohmer revered.

There are glories in his series on the seasons in the nineties, especially the endorsement of movie endings in A Winter’s Tale (1992), and the way Rivière dances under the closing credits of Autumn Tale (1998), which are certainly the most cherishable closing credits I’ve ever seen. We watched as his actors and actresses grew up and older over time in his films, so that we shared their youthful hopes and tangy autumn melancholy equally. Rohmer’s period films are in the style of Rossellini’s late television work, and they are all worthwhile, especially his last film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007). That movie got mostly bad reviews when it was barely released here, and it’s a real shame that its beauty hasn’t been appreciated by more people; it’s as fresh as a first film and as wise as any last movie. As a tribute to Rohmer, it’s a good start to look at the available films on DVD. But a keener tribute to this major filmmaker would involve stopping what you are doing, taking a close look around you, emptying yourself out of all spite and worldly irritation, and then filling yourself up with the enlightenment that comes over Rivière at the end of The Green Ray, when she lets the sunset drain all her useless alienation away until her face is purified with the selfless love of her creator.