The Sign of Rohmer
August 18-September 3 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center
In that mythic year of 1959, lost among the watershed debuts of the Nouvelle Vague was a far less celebrated work by a far more reserved director a generation older than his peers: The Sign of Leo, by Eric Rohmer (ne Jean-Marie Maurice Scharer), author, professor, and Cahiers du cinema editor whose tender irony and warm yet inconspicuous style initially failed to generate the same excitement as did his revolutionary, impassioned brethren. Leo is distinguished by qualities its maker would largely come to avoid: Following the downward spiral of a brash young man who loses an inheritance, the film compassionately charts his gradual path to homelessness along the lonely streets of Paris in long, aching passages of laconic despair. Words thereafter never failed Rohmer.
Still, it took nearly a decade for the world to even discover Rohmer possessed a subtle aesthetic entirely his own. The first film to attract attention from his half-dozen "Moral Tales" (1963-1972) was La Collectionneuse (1967), a wry comedy of passive-aggressive power games among a seaside menage a trois that couldn't be more removed from the invigorating wistfulness of Truffaut's Jules et Jim or the experimental pop of Godard's Une femme est une femme. Literary, naturalistic, and endlessly preoccupied with the fickleness and folly of young middle-class intellectuals, Rohmer's films play dense variations on the simplest of themes. The self-deceptive rationales and circumlocutions of men who return to their first loves after being captivated by other women comprise the interiorized subject of the "Moral Tales'"; throughout the "Comedies and Proverbs" series (1981-1987), aphorisms are demonstrated by the persistent, well-intentioned obstinacy of less articulate but fully realized—that is to say, accurately flawed—lovers; the late-period "Tales of the Four Seasons" (1990-1998) capture in typically even-tempered gentility the difficulty of finalizing choices, of moving beyond the past, of committing to love, immersing its characters in the immediate confusion and indecisiveness of life. Though Rohmer is known for his films' mesmerizing garrulousness, their visual delight never ceases to startle: the play of color, light, and open-air wonder in soul-searching The Green Ray (1986) is but one example of the underappreciated mastery of an artist who knew every aspect of his medium without ever making a big thing of it.
While infrequent trips to other periods and milieus at moments exceed the steady brilliance of his contemporary studies (the historical realism of The Marquise of O... (1976) and bold theatricality of Perceval le Gallois (1978) are among his most extraordinary achievements), Rohmer can be confidently placed among a select group of directors (Ozu, the Dardenne Brothers) whose oeuvre is maddeningly consistent. The quotidian scale and sheer singlemindedness of his vision would be open to charges of stuffy insularity if it weren't for his assured emotional complexity and his inimitable ear for the strange rhythmic sparring contained in everyday interactions and conversations: has any director—even Cassavetes—better conveyed the exasperating stubbornness of a lover's quarrel or the tense insecurity of a hesitant flirtation? Such careful renderings of romantic life make Rohmer's work about much more than relationships, encompassing the very way we act in the world, and the very way we allow it to act on us.