• February 4, 2023

Looking Behind Éric Rohmer’s Cinematic Style

Éric Rohmer is one of the few filmmakers whose name, no less than those of Hitchcock or Chaplin, has become an adjective. A Rohmerian film is one in which people talk, and talk at length, whether they’re walking or at home, at work or in transit, on the job or on vacation. What they talk about, mostly, is love. Even when they’re talking about other things, as they often do—about art, philosophy, other relationships, personal preferences of various sorts—they’re still talking, by proxy, about matters of the heart. The easily recognizable style of Rohmer’s films, however, has often got in the way of a clear recognition of the underlying subjects around which his entire œuvre gravitates: the avoidance of false or illusory love in the quest for the real thing, and the recognition of true love as the very essence of culture over all. Those are the themes that animate “Tales of the Four Seasons,” a tetralogy of films that Rohmer made in the nineteen-nineties, which will be streaming on Film Forum’s virtual cinema, starting this Friday.

Film Forum is releasing the four movies in chronological order, a week apart. In the first, “A Tale of Springtime,” from 1990, Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) is a thirtyish high-school philosophy teacher who lives in Paris but has no place to stay. She has an apartment of her own but has lent it to a cousin; she often lives with her boyfriend at his place, but he’s out of town and his apartment is such a mess that she can’t bear to be there alone. Jeanne takes refuge at a party, where she is befriended by an eighteen-year-old conservatory student named Natacha (Florence Darel), who invites Jeanne to stay with her at her father’s large and comfortable apartment. But Natacha has an ulterior motive: she wants to set Jeanne up with her father, Igor (Hugues Quester). Igor, an arts administrator and critic, is a young forty, intellectual and fastidious. He and Jeanne turn out to get along very well; theirs is a meeting of the minds, and, in her boyfriend’s absence, Jeanne finds herself tempted. Rohmer, who was seventy when he made the film, was interested in intergenerational dynamics and their psychological implications—including symbolic (and solely symbolic) evocations of incest. Natacha is dating a man who’s nearly her father’s age, and Igor’s girlfriend (whom Natacha detests) is about the same age as Natacha. Jeanne is aware that she’s being recruited as Natacha’s stepmother, and she finds herself dragged into their crisscrossing power struggles, including in a strange subplot involving a missing family heirloom. The breezily hyper-rational Jeanne, who adorns her conversation with disquisitions on Plato and Kant and organizes her life on logical principles, discovers the perversity of reason when it comes to matters of the heart.

The first “Tales” film, “A Tale of Springtime,” from 1990, shows how Rohmer’s characters are seized by desire and driven to distraction by it.

This perversity is as central to Rohmer’s movies as the cultivated dialogue or poised behavior. His characters are seized by desire and driven to distraction by it—and that distraction is, in his cinematic world view, a primal danger. For some, the cheaters and adulterers who weave webs of deceit, gratification of desire comes at the mere expense of their word or leads to comedic threats to their dignity; for others, it obliterates a fundamental sense of morality. Rohmer considered fierce lust the human condition and the repression or sublimation of it (including through the very dialectical pirouettes and curlicues that adorn his movies) the definition of society, culture, religion, and humanity at large. In the 1976 film “The Marquise of O,” with a clear-eyed sense of horror, he dramatized rape as the pathological yet logical end point of the inability to control desire.

Rohmer’s movies are, for the most part, intimate and small-scale. Made on low budgets, they’re rooted in sharp-eyed, documentary-like attention to landscape and architecture and to the finest points of his actors’ behaviors—which Rohmer often developed on the basis of their personal lives and characteristics. But the films’ outward modesty is yet another ruse. The intellectual scope of Rohmer’s vision is philosophically and conceptually vast. He was a polymath who was a talented artist in his adolescence, and he also produced, directed, and starred in local theatrical productions. (His given name was Maurice Schérer; Éric Rohmer was his movie-world pseudonym.) He conceived his first novel at nineteen and wrote it at twenty-four, while completing a degree that allowed him to teach high-school Greek and Latin. (The book, “Élisabeth,” for which he adopted the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier, was released, in 1946, by France’s most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard.) He became a quiet pillar of the postwar cultural whirlwind of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris. With virtually no prior experience with movies, he became friends with the journalist, critic, and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc and began watching films with a keen creative fervor.

In 1948, Rohmer published an article titled “Cinema, an Art of Space,” which Jean-Luc Godard and others have called the opening salvo of the French New Wave. In many other ways, Rohmer was the movement’s godfather. He started making films in the nonprofessional 16-mm. format, and became, in 1948, the public ringleader of the so-called Ciné-Club of the Latin Quarter, which attracted the young Godard and also François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. Rohmer founded a magazine, La Gazette du Cinéma, in which he published his young friends’ writings and his own (along with those of Sartre and other luminaries). When Cahiers du Cinéma was founded, in 1951, Rohmer was one of its writers and wise counsellors, and he brought his passionate acolytes over with him.

Rohmer was also a rightist—a practicing Catholic and monarchist who preached the superiority of European culture and upheld the cinema as its greatest modern exemplar. Indeed, there was something inherently conservative about Rohmer’s principled resistance to desire and his belief in its built-in tendency to lead to monstrosity. His artistic enshrinement of the notion of one true love transformed the monogamous ideal from a rule of religious faith to a secular and aestheticized substitute for it. Yet there was also a veiled element of confession in his cinema of elaborate sublimation. Only a few of Rohmer’s movies deal directly with religion, but nearly all contain the elements of a theodicy: there is a sense, in his cinematic universe, of the divine finger tilting the world’s scales just enough to keep society running, and of that higher authority’s subtly decisive presence in the lives of his characters. He dramatizes the crucial mechanism of that fate, the scale on which the divine finger is poised, as chance—and faith as the irrational confidence in yielding to it. Most of his movies (including the “Tales of the Four Seasons”) are built around characters who experience chance as destiny; it’s an idea that he theorized long before filming it.

“A Tale of Winter,” from 1992, which stars Charlotte Véry, is filled with discussions about religious and spiritual matters.

Those ideas come together most explicitly in the second film in the “Seasons” set, “A Tale of Winter,” from 1992. It starts with a hairdresser named Félicie (Charlotte Véry) meeting a man named Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) while on vacation. They have a passionate affair just before he’s to embark on a long trip abroad. She gives him her address so that he can write, but, in a slip of the tongue, she tells him the wrong Paris suburb and never hears from him again. After the affair, Félicie discovers that she is pregnant by Charles. Five years later, she is raising the child alone, and is romantically involved with two other men in Paris: Loïc (Hervé Furic), a librarian, and Maxence (Michel Voletti), the owner of the salon where she works. But she is obsessed with the possibility of running into Charles again. She decides to leave Paris with Maxence, who’s opening a salon in the provincial town of Nevers, in the hope of purging herself of that obsession, but once there she still can’t get Charles—or, for that matter, Loïc—entirely out of her mind. The movie is filled with discussions about religious and spiritual matters, Catholic practice and the concept of reincarnation, Plato’s concept of the immortality of the soul and the dramatic reanimation in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” It takes place in December, at Christmastime, and it pivots on an apt stroke of chance that resembles a miracle.

Many of the crucial concepts behind Rohmer’s filmmaking were foreshadowed in his early film criticism. In 1948, for instance, he wrote a piece for Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes titled “For a Talking Cinema,” in which he argued for the creation of a new, dialogue-centered style of film that would necessarily mark the cinema’s “avant-garde.” Several years later, in 1955, he wrote a quintet of pieces in Cahiers du Cinéma called “Celluloid and Marble,” which weren’t reissued in any of the collections of Rohmer’s criticism that were published during his lifetime. (He died in 2010, at the age of eighty-nine, and the essays were published as a book later the same year.) As early as 1963, Rohmer wrote that he wouldn’t reissue them because he could no longer stand by some of the “reactionary” views that he expressed there. He didn’t specify which opinions in particular (nor did he offer an apology), but the pieces evince, in one section, a fervent and prideful Eurocentrism (indeed, a metropolitan Western-Eurocentrism), along with scorn toward non-European cultures and societies. At the same time, his five essays furnish some of the most exciting, far-reaching, philosophically insightful reflections on the art of movies that I’ve ever read.

Rohmer’s fundamental idea in “Celluloid and Marble” was to consider the cinema in light of other arts—painting, literature, music, and architecture. He wanted to show what was distinctive about movies, and why, at the time of his writing, movies were aesthetically ahead of the pack. At Cahiers, Rohmer was one of the principal proponents of the politique des auteurs, the concept that has often been mistranslated, and misconceived, as “auteur theory.” His five essays put into action the auteur idea (which, pace Andrew Sarris, is not a theory but a practice): Rohmer was watching movies not like a spectator but like an artist.

In the first and second essays, he develops his idea of the cinema in terms of “classicism.” Modern art is the destruction of a tradition, he argues, and the movies—by substituting the representation of reality for figures of style—have the power to reclaim and reaffirm that tradition, but in a form “rejuvenated, washed of the patina that justified our former disaffection.” The third essay, “On Metaphor,” which centered on the relation between cinema and literature, is where Rohmer’s ideas take full flight. His goal is to reclaim rhetorical figures of style for movies—and to recognize them in the medium’s representations of reality. His argument is sinuous, speculative, and seemingly academic, but it contains a passionately insightful view of other directors’ movies and a visionary anticipation of the ones that he himself would make. Rohmer contrasts the “decadence” of modern poetry with the enduring poetic originality of Balzac’s novels and other major works of nineteenth-century fiction (such as Poe’s). These narratives, he says, are filled with great metaphors, which draw their power from their expression of a vast, consistent, unifying philosophy—one that they share, an “idea of universal magnetism” derived from the eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Rohmer contends that modern poetry and literature have lost such an “abstract framework of a quasi-mathematical rigor,” but that the cinema has it—and that the directors whose films best display it are F. W. Murnau, Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, and Roberto Rossellini. In their movies, he says, realistic images are transformed into metaphors by evoking “the presence of the great laws of the Universe”—a sense of fate or destiny.

In Rohmer’s fourth essay, he stands these ideas of mystical unities and teleologies on their heads. Here he likens the cinema to music, arguing that the forms share a relationship to time. He contends that this similarity to music balances the “determinism” of the cinema’s literary heritage with “freedom”—the freedom of characters—and affirms the supreme artistic value of the minutiae of ordinary people’s daily lives. By “music,” however, Rohmer has something specific in mind: classical music from German-speaking countries made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And he contends that the cinema is inextricably connected to this sense of place and culture: “Occidental . . . by its origins, so the cinema remains, to this day, in its spirit.” He deigns to acknowledge “the right of India or Japan to make films,” but, absurdly, adds, “I believe that the traditions to which these peoples still remain attached are less fecund than ours. . . . The cinema isn’t only the product of our technical genius but of a long odyssey of our art. . . . We are the most apt for the cinema because the screen rejects artifice and because we Europeans have a more acute sense of the natural.” He shamelessly goes on in this vein for three long paragraphs, in which he also demeans European folk dances, ethnological study, tango, jazz, and yoga. These passages are as ridiculous as they are offensive, as racist as they are ignorant (including of Asian cinema itself). At the same time, they suggest a peculiar category error, one that reflects Rohmer’s own conflicting fields of activity. Not content to elucidate his own viewing (and listening) pleasures and his own artistic intentions, he tries to dignify criticism with his academic robes and to render his judgments of the arts universal and absolute.

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