PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

Goodbye Monsieur Rohmer

11 January 2010
Published in Attualità, Culture, Opinioni, Opinions
by Giovanni Biglino

rohmer-conte-dete1Monsieur Eric Rohmer (1920-2010), rx a master of Lightness, indefatigable, one of the most celebrated French movie directors. A theorist of the art of Cinema, a sensitive director, a free player who found his own language and remained faithful to it for half a century with delicacy and talent, avoiding contradictions and U-turns, without loosing his unmistakable touch. Maybe he slipped once or twice (his Perceval), but that is only human in an admirable career that began fifty years ago with Le signe du leon (1959), a hymn to Paris.

Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, his debut is that of a writer, when in 1946 he published Elisabeth, a novel – characterised by subtle prose – that let us forsee the style of the scripts of his future movies. The book came out with the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier. A pseudonym is often associated with shame and resentment (see Stendhal), and in this regard Monsieur Rohmer, with his double nom de plume, probably had something to reveal.

Following the first feature films, the artist begins to see his path. His adventure in the world of art-house cinema has begun. Director on the one hand and, on the other, theorist. In fact, Rohmer was Editor of the Cahiers du cinéma for some years. Those were the years of Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Eustache, Truffaut. Years of unforgettable movies (the legend of À bout de souffle, the poetic story of Jules et Jim) when Rohmer chose his position (on the sidelines) to play an independent game. He conceives an ambitious project: cycles of movies (stories at different stages, on multiple levels) in which he intends to recount the endless facets of the human soul, the worthlessness and the complexity, the splendour and the fragility, with all the comic aspects (or tragicomic).

The first cycle is that of the Moral Tales. Six astonishing movies, of great depth, each profoundly different from the other and yet all linked in a closed circle. La boulangère de Monceau (1962), La carriére de Suzanne (1963), La collectionneuse (1967), Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), Le genou de Claire (1970)  and L’amour l’aprés-midi (1972). Each of these stories involves a moral choice, a dilemma that puzzles the protagonist, a fork in the road. It’s the serried dialogues between Jean-Louis Trintignat and Françoise Fabian (unforgettable Maud), it’s the obsession focused on the knee of the young attractive (and arrogant) Claire, it’s the thoughts of the three characters of La collectionneuse (a sort of Jules et Jim with colours borrowed from Matisse and Bonnard).

rohmer-collectionneuse1This meditation in six acts is followed by an historical pause, during which Rohmer directs La marquise von (1976, inspired by a novella by Heinrich von Kleist, a beautiful period movie characterised by masterful lighting) and Perceval le Gallois (1978, a heavy adaptation from Chretiens de Troys). These are historical and literary digressions, recaptured by Rohmer toward the end of his career in L’anglaise et le duc (2001).

Once again absorbed in everyday life, Rohmer initiates a second cycle, that of Comedies and Proverbs. If the objective is always the same (a man, a woman, their psychology), the tactic has changed: a folkloristic adage is quoted and presented in the context of a beach in Brittany or in 1980s Paris. The films in this cycle are: La femme de l’aviateur (1981), Le beau mariage (1982), Pauline à la plage (1982), Les nuits de plein de lune (1984), Le rayon vert (1986),  Reinette et Mirabelle (1987) and L’ami de mon amie (1987). All these movies enjoyed the success of critic and public, all were characterised by the Rohmer-trademark: the dialogues chasing each other and interweaving, the simple settings (often beaches, equally often the countryside, an unexpected Paris), the accomplished actors (cleverly directed but also free to improvise in order to convey more spontaneity to the memorable fast-paced dialogues).

Another cycle follows, that of the Four Seasons: Conte de printemps (1989), Conte d’hiver (1991), Conte d’été (1996) and Conte d’automne (1998). The seasons are identified with their colours – the light-blue of the skies of Normandy for Summer, the red green and brown of the vineyards for Autumn. The sensitivity is, by now, familiar: the meditations of a young man caught in his dreams and in his incertitude, two friends in their middle age enjoying themselves in a comedy of misunderstandings (serious, but with a smile). Juggling and balancing.

rohmer-ma-nuit-chez-maud1There are also films outside the cycles. Those Rendez-vous à Paris, in which the structure is still typical of Rohmer. The recent L’anglaise et le duc (2001) from the memoires of Lady Grace Dalrymple Elliot, lover of the Duke of Orléans interpreted by the excellent Lucy Russell. And here Monsieur Rohmer finds one of his strengths: the unequalled taste in choosing the actors. Actors who give an astonishing performance and then disappear (from the screen, not in the memory of the public), such as Haydée Politoff, protagonist of La collectionneuse. But also legends of French cinema: Françoise Fabian (the seductive Maud) and Jean-Louis Trintignat. André Dussolier and Barbet Schroeder, Arielle Dombasle and Pascal Greggory. Some of the actors and actresses are a fetish, especially Béatrice Romand (young in Le genou de Claire, then in Le beau mariage, for which she was awarded the Coppa Volpi in Venice) and Marie Riviére (seen in La femme de l’aviateur and Le rayon vert) both united in the Autumn Tale in a memorable double interpretation. Or young promising actors, such as Melvil Poupaud in the Summer Tale.

Overall the strength of Rohmer’s cinema lays in its delicacy. The ability of recounting the fragility of a relationship, the intensity of an impulse, the complexity of a doubt. Often intertwined with the movements of the body (very observant the director, very refined the actors), the feelings are the real protagonists of the moral debates, of the comedies and the proverbs, of the seasons of life (a passionate summer, a melancholic autumn ending with a smile). A film by Rohmer can be ironic, humoristic, subtly sad, patently intimate – always, however, profoundly human.

The repetition of the themes (lastly disguised in the classical setting of the Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé) was a demonstration of clarity. Awarded in numerous editions of the most prestigious festivals (the lifetime achievement Leone d’Oro dating to 2001), Rohmer never lost his freshness, sometimes joyfully baroque sometimes astoundingly simple.

One day, in an unexpected place, we will find ourselves engaged in a discussion or sharing doubts with archetypal symbolic characters (Frivolous, Gullible, Strong, Ambiguous, Constant) and we will recognise ourselves as characters in one of his movies.

Comments are closed.