[I may have failed to publish this here. It appeared on CineScene at the time of Rohmer's death. It's cited in Michel André's 2014 article, "Rohmer, so French?" in Books.]

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