View Full Version : Eric Rohmer: an Appreciation by Chris Knipp (2010)

Chris Knipp
12-05-2016, 10:10 PM
Books (http://www.books.fr/rohmer-so-french/).]

Eric Rohmer: an Appreciation
by Chris Knipp


A.O. Scott's New York Times "appraisal" of the late Éric Rohmer (April 4, 1920–January 11, 2010) as "the classicist, calmly dissecting desire," is logical, but also limiting and ultimately beside the point. Rohmer certainly stayed free of trends. His early work doesn't reflect the times the way Godard's or Truffaut's does. His non-historical films, which are in the majority, are "classically" simple. They are filmed straightforwardly, without elaborate tricks; they don't even use music very much. Their concerns are timeless, not especially related to the decades in which they are made. He worked in a well established French tradition, a tradition that each artist must (in Nabokov's phrase) "transcend in his own way."

A Tale of Winter (1992)
And yet somehow this description ("classicist, dissecting desire"), while superficially accurate, doesn't seem to me to tell anyone who hasn't watched a Rohmer film what the experience of doing so might be like. Again let's except the historical flims, which are rather different. Scott goes to some length to show how they fit with his whole oeuvre, and that's fine and fits in with the "classicist" theme Scott's sounding. But he also rightly says: "The Moral Tales and the cycles that followed--the six Comedies and Proverbs in the 1980s and the Tales of the Four Seasons in the 1990s--are the essential Rohmer."
Pauline at the Beach
What gets lost in Scott's "appraisal" is how much fun Rohmer's films are, and how French they are, and how unpretentious, and how reliably satisfying--as long as you accept that the issues they bring up are eternally interesting, at any age; as long as you can tune in to the French point of view. There are big differences among the individual films, but they're all conversations. An artist friend of mine objected that French movies are just a lot of talk where nothing ever happens. Richard Corliss' piece on Rohmer for Time brings up this issue--that Rohmer is not to every taste:
Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)
"As light and pleasant as a Rohmer work often was — attractive people falling in love, at least with the idea of love--it was a taste not everyone cared to acquire. Quentin Tarantino, the great enthu-woozy-ast of world cinema, offered this very qualified recommendation of Rohmer's films: "You have to see one of them, and if you kind of like that one, then you should see his other ones. But you need to see one to see if you like it." He makes Rohmer's movies sound less like caviar, more like artichokes. Gene Hackman, in his role as a detective in Arthur Penn's 1975 Night Moves, is even more dismissive. "I saw a Rohmer film once," he says. "It was kind of like watching paint dry."

That line is famous. And if it's your reaction, you'll never want to watch a single Rohmer film. But if you like one, you'll like them all, because they're so consistent, some of them are hard to distinguish from each other. But he was not repeating himself. He was simply consistent in his concerns. The marvelous thing is that they stayed fresh for so long (with excursions, sometimes memorable, into the historical pieces).

"Attractive people falling in love, at least with the idea of love": that's right. The Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Seasons aren't about work, or about class; they're about attractions--but attractions rationally considered. Yet the love isn't so much acted out as talked about. These are conversations between men and women about love. Sometimes the characters actually have sex with each other; they certainly kiss; and being attractive, they're strongly attracted to each other. More often they never get around to it--not that the films are about abstention. You know the characters are desirable and available and it's going to happen. (Maybe this is why so many of them take place in the summer at the beach, when the hormones are most alive.) Chloe in the Afternoon is about adultery. We know the husband wants to sleep with the fascinating, independent "other woman," Chloe. Claire's Knee is about the flirtation of an older man with a nubile and perfect young girl. A Summer's Tale (1996) is about a young man at the beach in the summer who has to choose between three different women, and can't really decide. Luckily at the end something else comes up. The important thing is that the one he thinks least important and least desirable, perhaps because the most attainable, he thinks of just as a friend, someone to talk about his dilemma of choices with. In fact she is the one who really cares about him, the best one. He doesn't get it: isn't that just like a young man?

What I find quintessentially French (allowing for the danger of stereotyping inherent in such talk) is that Rohmner's films are rational talk--about that most irrational of subjects, love; relations between men and women (gay sex doesn't come in). In one of Rohmer's earliest, most important, and most serious treatments of these matters, My Night at Maud's (1969), the decisions take on explicit philosophical and religious as well as moral overtones. The events take place in a very Catholic provincial town; it's Christmastime, and attendance at midnight mass is involved. This film is in black and white. It's the cornerstone of Rohmer's work, and in a sense validates it. It shows that, after all, he is not superficial. But the light touch, the colorful backgrounds, often at the seashore in the summertime, are essential Rohmer too. His cinema is not solemn and angst-ridden. The Moral Tales are an antidote to Scenes from a Marriage, to Nordic depression. They are Mediterranean. Sometimes, even when the irrepressibly articulate Fabrice Luchini is involved (as in 1984's Nights of the Full Moon), they are witty and frivolous, like an eighteenth-century comedy of manners.

Rohmer's work is largely light, but the seriousness is in the intelligence of the conversation, its French clarity. Corliss concludes that the best films are "essences all worth bottling," and this is a good thought. They're like wines of different vintages, but (as Scott rightly observes) they will not get old. Part of the freshness and the clarity may be due to early dedication to the written word. Rohmer began as a writer, and published a novel long before he made a film. Like his Nouvelle Vague colleagues, he wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and for six years was its editor. A collection of his essays was, notably, entitled Le Goût de la beauté (A Taste for Beauty; éd. Cahiers du cinéma, 1994). Rohmer never lost that taste. The love of youth, of beauty, and of love itself, was always fresh and vivid in his work. Holding himself apart from others, he preserved the wine. "Classicist" has a cold sound, suggesting some musty distillation. His work was always alive, and will remain so.

Clair's Knee
Summer (1986)
A Summer's Tale (1996)
My Night at Maud's (1969)
©2010 Chris Knipp

oscar jubis
12-08-2016, 09:58 PM
I remember very clearly watching two Rohmer films in the late 80s/early 90s that I liked more than the more famous films of his from the late 60s and 70s than I admired (My Night at Maud's, Claire's Knee).
I am referring toBoyfriends and Girlfriends, the last (sixth) of the Comedies and Proverbs, and A Tale of Winter.
The other memory I have of Rohmer is finally somewhere in the early 2000s watching Perceval Le Gallois for the second time and finally understanding why Jonathan Rosenbaum would say that perhaps Rohmer's most atypical film is his best.
Thanks for the appreciation Chris. I'm glad to see you mention his book of criticism.

Chris Knipp
12-09-2016, 12:00 AM
This piece of mine was originally published on CineScene (http://www.cinescene.com/knipp/rohmer.htm) shortly after Rohmer's death. Fabrice Lucchini in his theatrical show "Le Point sur Robert" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNqBYibtvIQ) talks at length about getting his first role in Perceval le Gallois, and all about the background of its making. Everybody likes different Rohmer. I think the ones you are calling "famous" are those more publicized in the US. I personally don't like Clair's Knee at all. I think Boyfriends and Girlfriends/L'ami de mon ami (1987) is very highly esteemed in France, also Autumn Tale/ Conte d'autonne,* which some think his most mature work (and it's about more mature people). I like Conte d'été/A Summer's Tale, which I think the French think beautiful and very witty, and if you like watching Melvil Poupaud at that age as I do, it's the best. (Also it was finally theatrically released in the US just recently so people are aware of it here.) I just watched Autumn Tale on YouTube - it popped up (now it's gone). It is different. A French Canadian friend just sent me an essay by Michel André from Books - L'actualité a' la lumière des livres, "Rohmer, so French?" (http://www.books.fr/rohmer-so-french/) where he quotes my appreciation where I say Rohmer is eternally interesting " as long as you can tune in to the French point of view." He totally questions that American assumption that Rohmer is "quintessentially French," says it might fit Renoir, or Truffaut, better.

You may be able to watch it here (https://vimeo.com/119729968).

oscar jubis
12-21-2016, 07:38 PM
He totally questions that American assumption that Rohmer is "quintessentially French," says it might fit Renoir, or Truffaut, better.

Brings to mind my conversation with Chantal Ackerman in which she equated prototypical, contemporary American cinema with Michael Bay or others of his ilk.
And dueling concepts of what it means to be American divide our country. So who's to say? The term Hollywood is a stand-in for the American film industry but practically all its founders were born in Eastern Europe and half of the great directors were also born abroad. When I think "quintessentially French", I think Magnol, Gabin, and Tati (who come to think about it, owes a lot to Chaplin)Then again, Chaplin described himself as a disciple of Max Linder. Nationhood is an imaginary construct,to some extent.

Chris Knipp
12-21-2016, 10:47 PM
Certainly "quintessentially French" can be applied not to one, but many, and for different characteristics. But all I can say is I meant it as a compliment. I like things French, many of them, anyway!

I like Paris cinemas where nobody brings in food or drink to watch a film, everyone is quiet, no cell phones are flashing, and people wait through the credits before getting up to leave, just as at a film festival screening. It's a better environment in which to watch a movie, one that honors the art and the audience.

oscar jubis
12-22-2016, 07:13 PM
The Cosford Cinema where I work is just like the Paris places you describe. But our academic sponsorship means we don't HAVE to sell food to stay open like every other cinema I know. The other art cinemas around here do sell food and drink, and they do well because of it.

Chris Knipp
12-22-2016, 07:27 PM
The Cosford Cinema looks very nice, and bigger than I would have imagined. It appears to be part of a University, so not at all like the UGC and MK2 cinemas in Paris, which are part of chains. Around Odeon & the Latin Quarter there are also small "cinemas d'auteurs," art houses, though from what I'm told there used to be many, many more.

The Paris cinemas behavior is not mainly due to local restriction but custom. Food is sold to some extent, and even pop corn, not fresh popped though; I've never see anybody eat snacks, lately, and there are no drink holders on the arms of the seats.