Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer: 1920-2010

Most of the obituaries for Eric Rohmer that I've glanced at thus far cite the artistic verdict delivered by fictional private eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) in Arthur Penn's superb neo-noir Night Moves (1975): "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." In the film the line is meant to tell us more about Moseby, a burnt-out relic, than it is about Rohmer (filmmaker Dan Sallitt pointed out that in the novel Moseby says the same line about Claude Chabrol), but it is worth noting that if someone who hasn't seen Night Moves can quote one of its lines, it's that one. Rohmer was a filmmaker who, if you aren't tuned in to his wavelength, may as well be making films about paint. Quentin Tarantino opined "You have to see one of [his movies], 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."

I liked Rohmer very, very much. He was my default - and entirely sincere - answer whenever pressed to name my favourite living filmmaker (Moseby would be appalled to learn that Chabrol would be my only other candidate). I've seen 39 of the 51 films attributed to him on the IMDb. In a way, his sensibility informed mine from a very early age (12) - the first film book I ever read cover to cover was his study (co-written with... ta-da! Chabrol) of Hitchcock, and it took me years to start to accept Hitchcockian theory that didn't originate with, or contradicted, that book.

In so many ways Rohmer's work appears the polar opposite of Hitchcock's - Rohmer rarely used the close-ups or non-diegetic music that are so integral to Hitch's work. Hitchcock's films are so aggressively visual that I was held rapt by my first viewing of Psycho even though it was in a language I didn't much understand; Rohmer's films were aggressively dialogue-laden (I would never research such a thing, but it wouldn't surprise me if the most common word in casual reviews of Rohmer's work was "talky").

Rohmer's characters' words are so constantly at war with their actions that it's clear how much he absorbed the lessons of Hitchcock, the master's obsession with motivations thoroughly informing Rohmer's concerns. Right up to his final film, 2007's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, no one better captured the inevitable disparity between ideals and actual behaviour, between idealism and reality. The Rohmer canon is loaded with vivid characters. His men constantly in the process of discovering how their idea of themselves is constantly being compromised. His best women are varied and nuanced (Aurora Cornu in Claire`s Knee, Francoise Fabian in My Night at Maud`s, Beatrice Romand in all of her films); also common are the unknowable, mystery women - the objects of desire, the plot-crisis motivators like Laurence de Monaghan, Marie-Christine Barrault, Arielle Dombasle.

One of the core members of the Cahiers du cinema clique who went on to become the director-founders of the French New Wave, Rohmer was in many ways the one whose directorial personality was most unchanging and consistent. Indeed, one can imagine someone who had not seen a Rohmer since the early 70s watching a later film like Autumn Tale and immediately identifying it as a Rohmer. One could dismiss this career as one of artistic ossification, but only if one considers the matters of the human heart something exploring only a few times and then never again. Rohmer was always Rohmer and it`s disconcerting to think that, after 50 years as an active voice in world cinema, we won`t have any new examples of his wise thoughts on life, love, and his chosen medium.

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