ROHMER, ERIC - OBITUARY
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
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
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
Chloe in the Afternoon