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Geoff Gardnerís personal reflections on French filmmaker Eric Rohmer pays tribute to a pioneer of modern cinema.

A couple of years ago I was attending a film festival where Jacques Rivetteís 12 hour television series Out One was being screened. For various reasons I only sampled one episode. In it the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was playing a man unable to speak who was conducting an interview with an expert on the novelist Honore de Balzac. The questions were being put by handwriting them on cards. Undeterred, the expert extemporised at great and sometimes droll length on Balzacís themes and style. Eric Rohmer did play cameos in his own and others films but this was a performance to treasure and, as far as I recall, the only time I saw Eric Rohmer in a meaty dramatic role on film.

"cerebral and sophisticated French cinema"

For many long time cinephiles the first experience of Rohmerís cinema came in his Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night at Maudís in 1969. Set in Clermont-Ferrand, the city closest to the exact centre of France, it told of a bachelor who commits himself to one beautiful girl, unbeknown to her, but is then tempted by the exotic free spirited Maud. After a long night of talk and tease and tantalising moments he drives away. For some it seemed the epitome of the kind of cerebral and sophisticated French cinema for which film festivals and art houses were invented.

Before embarking on his film-making career, Rohmer was editor of Cahiers du Cinema during the years when it lead the world towards new perspectives on the American cinema and, by virtue of the fact that its key critics Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol all went on to become and remain major figures in French film-making. Rohmer also established another name for himself as well, as the co-author with Claude Chabrol, of one of the first book length studies of a major film-maker. Their study of Hitchcock is still quoted today and was a key step in taking consideration of Hitchcockís work far beyond that of a mere master of suspense.

Before his breakthrough with My Night at Maudís, Rohmer had made two features and two dramatic shorts and an uncounted number of educational documentaries. On the latter he learned the craft of his film-making, absorbing the one shot/one meaning narrative methods of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, thus seeming to arrive in the late fifties as a fully formed film-maker.

After My Night at Maudís Rohmer completed his series of six ĎMoral TalesĒ with the similarly successful Claireís Knee (1970) and Love In The Afternoon (1972). Each of the tales, and in most of Rohmerís work, there is a focus on an array of women who are strong, smart, beautiful, ever-fascinating, eternally tempting and eternally wise. To play these characters Rohmer discovered a host of extraordinary actresses, all of them beautiful in ways beyond classical good looks, all expressive, aware, lively and capable of delivering conversation about moral matters with an exactitude and conviction that produced a seeming instant truth. For all his filmsí apparent simplicities, Rohmerís characters always rang true and his women were an eternal life force. The actresses Beatrice Romand, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere and Anne Tesseydre among many (David Thomson estimates thirty to forty) have assumed luminous places in the memory thanks to Rohmerís cinema.

"adaptations of classical literature"

In the mid-70s Rohmer embarked on a planned series of adaptations of classical literature, but after two films Die Marquise von O (1976) and Perceval Le Gallois (1978), both of which flopped, Rohmer returned to his metier with two series, the first being ĎComedies and ProverbesĒ made between 1980 and then what seems for some his finest work the four films which comprise the Tales of the Four Seasons. Much of the focus of all of them was on the misunderstandings of young people in love. The contradictions between the mind the heart were never so clearly, often painfully, revealed. By this time in his life, Rohmer felt little need to travel outside Paris and rarely attended festival screenings or even the openings of his films. He preferred to hang out at near home, taking pleasure in the company of the many young Parisians who idolised his work.

Early in his career Rohmer founded the production company Les Films du Losange with Barbet Schroder. The formidable Margaret Menghoz became his official producer over the course of the years but his last three films were produced by the indefatigable Francoise Etchegaray after Les Films du Losange baulked at committing itself to the production investment involved in The Lady and The Duke (2001). The money for that film was eventually raised from Pathe with much assistance from Pierre Rissient.

From the early 90s onward, for the production of The Winterís Tale Rohmer began working with the Hong Kong born film-maker Mary Stephen as his editor. Mary had been, since the production of The Aviatorís Wife (1980), the assistant editor to Cecile Decugis. For his last three films and for the shorts in between, Mary, Francoise and Rohmer formed powerful bonds and it was somehow poetic that Rohmer died on Maryís birthday thus, as she says, linking them forever. Rohmerís bonds with Mary extended beyond her editing. As a classically trained musician she was integral in incorporating the music in Rohmerís films and for a number of them she and Rohmer took a joint credit as composers of the score under the pseudonym of Sebastian Erms.

Rohmer took the best part of a decade to complete the Tales of the Four Seasons. During that time he didnít allow the grass to grow making any number of short films for his own Compagnie Eric Rohmer which allowed him, and his crew to experiment with new technologies and equipment. Many of the shorts were assembled into feature length films, most notably the delightful Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995). This experimentation bore its finest fruit in Rohmerís first digitally filmed feature The Lady and the Duke, a film set during the French Revolution in which all the backgounds were taken from paintings of the day and digitally edited to produce a picture of Paris of quite astounding exactitude.

In his last years Rohmer made two more films, the spy story Triple Agent (2005) and the cheeky classical romance The Story of Astrea and Celadon (2007). In Paris at the time when Triple Agent premiered its release was accompanied by an astonishing burst of activity Ė the cover stories of both Cahiers and Positif, lengthy interviews in both, a retrospective of almost superhuman completeness at the Cinematheque (it included most of his educational documentaries and several sessions devoted to discussion of his art and craft) and adulatory reviews everywhere. For some reason however, most of the major Australian film festivals werenít interested in screening either of his last features. His hour had apparently passed but itís never too late.

"a rich legacy"

Eric Rohmer is not merely a key figure in the cinema providing a rich legacy for review and contemplation. His work is also a testament to the uniqueness of French production which gives its auteurs the freedom to make their own way and seek out new and personal ways of telling tales. Many will follow in his footsteps.

Published January 21, 2010

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Eric Rohmer was born Maurice Scherer in 1920 and died aged 89 in Paris on January 11, 2010.

My Night At Maud's

Claire's Knee

Chloe in the Afternoon

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